Mr. Speaker, there are three topics I would like to deal with today, and I will make recommendations to the House on all three.
First is the issue of the motions introduced on opposition days. The hon. leader of the government touched on this earlier in his speech, saying that the opposition had found a way around the Standing Orders by amending an opposition motion on an opposition day by introducing an amendment from the outset to split interventions into two 10-minute interventions.
The leader of the government said that, in a way, this changes the direction of debate, and uses the Standing Orders to prevent something from happening.
I would like to remind the leader of the government that I sent him a letter on this subject, requesting that no amendment whatsoever of opposition motions be allowed, except by the member who moved the motion in the event of a last-minute development, so that the essence of the proposed debate is not changed.
In fact, an opposition day is one of the rare days when an opposition party can control the debate. It picks the topic and makes major speeches, and this gives a party an opportunity to make its views known in the House of Commons and to promote a particular point of view.
The opportunity for other political parties, particularly the government, to change this motion through an amendment that, more often than not, will substantially alter the substance of the initial motion means that it is no longer an opposition day.
The instigator of the motion introduces it in the House but he can never be sure, unless he amends it himself or through a colleague, by splitting his time, that his motion will be debated as is by all the members of the House.
It is my sincere belief, and my first recommendation, that if we are to get back to what an opposition day really is, what it must do and what it must allow, we ought to ensure that motions are not amended except by the person who originated them, to reflect changes in the situation or the content of debates.
This would eliminate any possibility of manoeuvring to change motions or their nature, or to make the debate totally different from what it ought to have been initially.
For opposition days, therefore, I invite the Government Leader to at least acknowledge receipt of my letter to indicate “We have decided that we can or cannot follow up on this, for this or that reason”. The government ought to specify this in the Standing Orders.
The second point I would like to raise is somewhat more delicate, the matter of the Joint Committee on Scrutiny of Regulations. Normally, two of the House of Commons committees are chaired by members of the official opposition.
The purpose of this is to give some kind of counterbalance to the power of the government. The Standing Committee on Public Accounts, which examines government expenditures, is chaired by a member of the official opposition, and this is normal. This allows the opposition to be extremely productive in these committees by initiating matters and by presiding over the work of these committees.
Having opposition members chair the Standing Committee on Public Accounts and the Joint Committee on Scrutiny of Regulations sort of counterbalances the immense power of the government and its team.
However, there is a problem. The Reform Party, the official opposition in this Parliament, decided to assume its responsibilities concerning public accounts, but at the same time decided not to assume its responsibilities as official opposition on the Committee on Scrutiny of Regulations. And yet, this is extremely important.
To those who follow our proceedings, the Committee on Scrutiny of Regulations may appear as something terribly technical, very boring, and very difficult to understand. But it should be pointed out that on this committee, members have the opportunity to examine the way bills passed by Parliament will be enforced in everyday life. The bills we pass are very broad and provide for various things. They are general policy statements with a number of specifics, but each law is accompanied by regulations stating how its provisions will be enforced, by whom, and how responsibilities will be shared. Regulations are an extremely important part of any bill.
When the Committee on Scrutiny of Regulations is chaired by a member of the official opposition, this intentionally gives the opposition an extremely important role in monitoring government action. This gives the opposition a lot of power to scrutinize regulations, which do not come to the attention of members of this House. People are entitled to know that MPs draft bills, but that once a bill is passed by Parliament, its enforcement is the government's responsibility. Regulations are made by senior officials, people who know how to do their job and do it very well, but who are accountable only to the government and the Committee on Scrutiny of Regulations.
Since the Reform Party refused to assume its responsibilities, we thought that, as the third party, we could legitimately chair the committee since the chairperson must be a member of the opposition. The Reform Party refused our request. It is its problem. It has the right to do so. It would then have made sense for another opposition party—there are four altogether, the Bloc Quebecois being the second largest—to chair the committee. We thought it was up to the Bloc Quebecois to chair this committee, which acts as a government watchdog.
But no. Being the great democrats that they are, the Liberals decided to appoint one of their members to chair the committee because, for the first time ever, the official opposition was refusing to assume its responsibilities. We now find ourselves in a situation where the Liberals took it upon themselves to appoint a Liberal chairperson to the Standing Committee on Scrutiny of Regulations, thus tipping the balance that must exist in the parliamentary system. By appropriating the committee chair, the Liberals gave themselves an additional power, at the expense of the opposition. They took advantage of the Reform Party's withdrawal. But this is wrong. It is unacceptable.
I call upon the democratic sense of the members of this House. Today's debate must be free of partisanship, since its purpose is to improve the Standing Orders of the House, so that Parliament can operate as smoothly as possible.
So, I urge the government to restore the situation and to give back to the opposition the chair of the Standing Committee on Scrutiny of Regulations. It can offer the position again to the Reformers—we do not particularly relish the idea, but the Liberals can do so if they wish—but if the Reformers continue to say no, it would make sense to offer that responsibility to the next party, that is the Bloc Quebecois.
By appointing one of its own members to the chair, the government just set a precedent. It increased its power over the committee's operations, and this is not right. It is not right because it affects the very fragile balance that we have here. They transferred to the government responsibilities that should be assumed by the opposition. Worse, they did not transfer them, they took them over.
Therefore—and this is my second recommendation—the Standing Committee on Scrutiny of Regulations should have as its chair a member of the opposition. If it is not a member of the official opposition, it should be a member of the Bloc Quebecois or of another opposition party. The Bloc Quebecois has always fulfilled that responsibility and would be very pleased to continue to do so. This would restore a balance. It would only be normal to do so.
I call on the government to correct this anomaly, which almost went unnoticed to outside observers, but which says a lot about the will of the cabinet to take over more and more powers, thus leaving the opposition to fulfil an increasingly less meaningful role.
Let us not forget that a system such as ours works well when there is a balance between the opposition and the government, when the government is not free to do whatever it pleases, unimpeded, when the government must answer to other parliamentarians who do not share its point of view and who force it to improve its proposals and rules, to introduce better legislation. All citizens benefit.
The second recommendation is that the Liberal member who co-chairs the Standing Committee on Scrutiny of Regulations, which is an anomaly, step down and offer the position, as is only right, to a member of the official opposition or of the second opposition party.
The third point is an extremely serious one. It involves the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs. A few weeks ago, during the so-called flag flap, the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs was asked by the House of Commons to conduct a serious review of the behaviour of members of the House whose statements may have been an attack on the integrity of the Speaker. These statements were tantamount to threats. Members clearly said that, if the Speaker did not rule in a particular way, they would run riot, that he must resign, and that they would withdraw their confidence.
Make no mistake, this was the first time that such statements had been made about the Speaker so directly in all the media. The House decided to resort to an existing mechanism, the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, to investigate the behaviour of these members.
When members do not behave properly—a very rare occurrence, but not unheard of—the House may then, at leisure, turn to this committee. The member is therefore judged by his peers. A member whose conduct may have been questionable or was plainly reprehensible is therefore judged by his peers.
Since I have been a member, this is the second time this committee has been used. The first time, as members will recall, was in the case of Jean-Marc Jacob, the former member for Charlesbourg, who was accused of trying to corrupt the army, to get soldiers to transfer to Quebec after a winning referendum. It was quite a to-do, and Mr. Jacob was summoned before the committee.
A Reform motion was ruled in order in the House. It called on Mr. Jacob to explain his behaviour before the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs. The Bloc Quebecois was in agreement and Mr. Jacob, a member of the Bloc Quebecois, appeared before the committee. He was questioned for six full hours on May 2 and 7. During these six hours, the committee had the opportunity to put questions to Mr. Jacob. Committee members asked as many questions as they wanted to, relating to every conceivable aspect of this matter in order to get to the bottom of it.
There was a lengthy debate. The committee was struck as a result of a motion passed by this House on March 18. It tabled its report three months later, on June 18. Many were called to testify before the committee and, as material witness, the member himself, Mr. Jacob, was grilled by parliamentarians for six full hours.
We thought nothing of it. We abide by procedure. We figured “If you want to examine the conduct of Mr. Jacob, the MP, fine, so be it”. The hon. member appeared before the committee and answered its questions. In that, the Bloc Quebecois showed a great sense of responsibility. We abided by the House's standing orders.
When time came to examine the conduct of four other members, from the Reform Party and the Liberal Party, who had made rather surprising statements concerning the Speaker, we showed up at committee with questions to ask.
The committee chair decided that each witness should have 20 minutes, including five minutes for an opening statement. There was 15 minutes left for members to question the witnesses. Members of the Reform Party and of the Liberal Party, whose colleagues were involved, were entitled to ask questions, like everybody else. We have no problem with that.
But the fact remains that for the Bloc Quebecois only had five minutes to question these members who had threatened, so to speak, the Speaker of this House. How can any MP, regardless of how brilliant or effective he may be, manage to cast light on the unacceptable behavior of another MP in five minutes?
The Liberal chairman made use of his authority within the committee, with the support of his colleagues and the Reform MPs, who were in the same boat, having also made unfortunate statements. They came to an agreement among themselves, and they were the majority—imagine, the government and the official opposition—and they decided that there would be 20 minutes, no more.
We asked whether the questions could go on longer because we had things we wanted to ask. Jean-Marc Jacob was grilled for six hours. We were not asking for six hours per witness, but neither were we asking for five minutes. Such is the concept of justice in parliament and in committees, where the Liberals and the Reform Party are running the show. Five minutes to question them, but six hours when a Bloc MP is involved.
That is what justice is like in this Parliament. When a Bloc MP is in an awkward situation, he gets questioned for six hours, and three months are spent on it. When it is a Reform or Liberal MP, their parties vote together, make use of their power, and allow us five minutes.
This is unacceptable, and the people have a right to know. I rose in the House to raise a point of order. It was an unusual situation. I brought the matter to the Speaker's attention and told him “Mr. Speaker, this makes no sense. How can the work get done properly?” His reply was “Well now, generally things are done properly in committees. You will sort this out among yourselves, and big boys like you ought to be able to reach some agreement”. The committee chair, a Liberal, got up and said “Mr. Speaker, the member for Roberval is barking up the wrong tree. The member for Roberval ought to know that we have reached agreement for witnesses to be able to be called back before the committee”.
I bought that, and I sat back down, telling my colleagues “You will go back to the committee and ask for the witnesses to be recalled, even if it is only for five minutes a shot. You will call them back as often as necessary for there to be a proper examination”.
Do you know what happened? The Bloc went back again and called for the witnesses to be heard again, as the Liberal member had told us in the House. The Liberal chairman claimed he was not an undemocratic person by saying “You can recall a witness as often as you want. It is provided for in the committee's rules”.
When the committee resumed its proceedings, we asked that the witnesses be recalled, but the Liberal and Reform majority refused. These Liberal and Reform committee members were in a conflict of interest. How can Parliament operate properly if special and ad hoc committees, whose role it is to review the behaviour of parliamentarians who did something wrong, are controlled by people who are in a conflict of interest?
If it is the behaviour of a Liberal member that is reviewed, the Liberal majority can of course allocate five minutes to the review, as opposed to six hours. The next time it could decide on two minutes or, for that matter, 30 seconds.
That is the way things work. However, Canadians have the right to know that one the most important tools in this Parliament, and in all the parliaments I know, is the special committee that reviews members' behaviour. Members are judged by their peers. However, that committee was manipulated by the Liberal and Reform majorities, with the result that it could not do the job that had to be done.
This is unacceptable and must be condemned. When it is a Bloc Quebecois member who appears before the committee, the proceedings last for six hours. It should be the same for a Liberal or Reform member, if necessary. It should not be six hours for a Bloc Quebecois member and five minutes for a Liberal member.