Mr. Speaker, tomorrow I will have been elected 10 years. I was first elected to the provincial legislature in Manitoba on April 22, 1988 and spent five years there before being elected here in 1993.
I can recall on more than one occasion standing in the loges in the house talking to other members and collectively wondering what we were doing much of the time. We found ourselves involved in a series of activities, routines and rituals that grew out of the traditions of the house that left a lot of us feeling that they were simply a diversion from the work that brought us here in the first place. They were an impediment to doing what we thought we were elected to do.
Tactically it became important if we wanted to change the course of a bill to put pressure on the government by delaying the passage of bill through the house. We had a rule that allowed us to speak for 40 minutes. We had members getting up making speech after speech for 40 minutes at a time on subjects that they had no passion about, no feeling about, but simply because it was necessary to occupy that portion of time.
We would organize hundreds of witnesses to come before the house committees on bills simply to delay, not to add to the debate, not to add to the quality of the work that was being done, but to play the tactical games that dominated the activities of the house. However, there were some things in the provincial house that I rather liked when I contrast them with what I am doing here. I want to focus a bit on that. First I want to compare some of my experiences in the provincial house with the ones I had when I came here.
I find this place, strangely enough, even though it is almost six times the size of the provincial legislature, a more accessible place when I wish to speak. The work I do is no different from the work that everybody in the House does. I represent a number of Canadians. I spend as much time as I can in my home community working with people, meeting with them, hearing what concerns they have, asking them questions about things the House is seized with, taking their opinions and bringing them back into this place. It comes back in a number of ways.
Compared to the provincial legislature I was in, I find there is more accessibility to the floor of the House through S. O. 31s, through the question and answer period after speeches in most debates and through the late show. There are opportunities for me to rise in the House on a regular basis and put on public record the opinions, the feelings and the attitudes of the people I represent. For me it is a significant improvement.
I also note some changes that have taken place in the House over the last few years since I have come here relative to the work of committees that I think represent a first important step in what could be, not is, a substantial improvement in the functioning of committees.
The ability of committees to set their own agendas is an important power that committees could exercise more efficiently than perhaps they do at the present time.
Another is the lining up of committees with departments so that members of a committee are dealing not with just the legislation or just the estimates but with the whole picture of the department, the planning documents, the estimates, order in council appointments, all the legislation and the annual reports.
We begin to move in a cycle that allows a committee to really have input into the operations of a department throughout the course of a year. I think that is an extremely important structure and one that has come about in the last few years since I have come into this place in 1993.
However, it is a flawed process in two important ways. If we look at what happens in September with the consultations done by the finance committee there is a focusing of attention in the House on that process. A statement is made by the finance minister and the committee goes off to solicit opinion from Canadians that then gets reported back to the House and is reflected or not reflected, depending on the issue, in the budget that comes down a few months later. It is a process that receives a strong mandate from the House and a lot of attention from the House and produces a result that I think has grown in quality each year.
That process works because the finance minister takes it seriously. He pays attention to it. He works with it. He utilizes it as the tool it really is supposed to be. It is supposed to be all of us going off into our ridings, talking to people about the issues before the government at that point in time, and the finance minister works with the committee to frame those issues. We collect the opinion, we discuss it, we debate it in communities all over the country, then we bring it back on to the floor of the House and it plays a part in the final document presented in February. That is a big part of what we are here to do.
There are two ways that process falls apart. I have chaired a committee. I am on my third minister and I have a terrific working relationship with the minister which is very solid and I feel we are able to do some good work, but that is not always the case.
As the member from our side who preceded me pointed out, if the minister does not choose to work with the committee, the process falls apart and is invalidated. It is a flaw in way the standing orders are structured to hold ministers and departments accountable to the committees structured for that purpose.
Committees first came into existence as part of the accountability structure. Members representing constituencies from all over the country sat on budget committees and reviewed the expenditures of departments because only the House of Commons could grant spending authority. We went through the expenditures line by line very carefully. We questioned them and held the departments and ministers to account.
That still goes on in provincial houses. Ministers sit before those committees hour after hour after hour, day after day, until answers are arrived at. Here, as was pointed out, ministers come to the committees, make their hour or hour and a half presentations, and that is the end of it. As a result committees largely spend no time on the estimates because they are a waste of time.
One thing that frustrates me enormously is the attitude of the House toward new technologies. They are being taken up all over the world. We see all sorts of computers in all offices now. All sorts of technology are being used as productivity enhancements. They are used to automate routine tasks so people can focus their time and energies on those tasks where their expertise is most valuable. Yet in the House we refuse to adopt those same technologies.
How many times have members walked out of the House after spending three hours voting and asked “what was that for”? In five minutes I could register my opinion on bills my constituents are interested in, so why am I wasting my time on activities that could be better done in a more efficient way, which would leave me free to do the things I theoretically have the skills to do? I could meet with my constituents, coalesce opinion, bring that opinion here, debate with members from the other side of the House and debate theoretically and hopefully toward some sort of improved conclusion on a solution to some issue that confronts the country. That is what we are theoretically here to do.
If we could get away from the attitude that somehow technology is an evil that should not be brought into the House and embrace it, we may find that it frees us to spend more of our time doing the things that we would all prefer to do.