Mr. Speaker, Bill C-20 has been charged by opposition members as being arbitrary, a constitutional voie de fait, goodness knows what other charges. This is very surprising. I will repeat what I had the pleasure of saying in a public forum organized by the member of parliament for Markham and presided over by ex-premier Bob Rae, that the revolutionary aspect of this bill is that the federal government by legislation voluntarily limits its prerogative, executive powers.
There is no question that in 1980 when the first referendum arose there was no right under constitutional law or international law for a province unilaterally to secede. There was no right at all.
The issue of what was a clear question and a clear majority, I could remind the hon. member for Macleod who referred to this earlier, was discussed very fully at that time, and it has been around.
When the supreme court came into the picture it was because there was a plethora of individual suits before individual judges of the Canadian judicial system. The federal government had several options. One was to challenge the constitutional standing to sue of the individual litigants, which I think technically, in legal terms, might have been the better course. The other was to go ahead, and the supreme court has rendered an advisory opinion, which is not of course legally binding on the federal government.
What we have in Bill C-20 therefore is what European Union jurists have rightly hailed as a rather surprising evolution in the rules as to self-determination going well beyond the European Union's own rules developed in 1992 for the special case of eastern European states and the issue of recognition under international law, which is of course one of the ways in which a new state comes into existence.
What is interesting and surprising in Bill C-20 is that the federal government, so far from imposing its will on other people, is saying “We are prepared to recognize a right of self-determination, to recognize it legally, but here are the basic conditions. We want to be sure this is what people want. What is the objection therefore to saying that we would require a clear question and a clear majority before we go ahead with this?”
In these terms it is very difficult to see what all the fuss is about with this particular law. It takes nothing away from anyone in Quebec or any other province. It is an example of the federal government voluntarily limiting its own response and saying “In the exercise of our prerogative powers in the future, we will consider ourselves bound by the expression clearly given of people of a particular province”.
I do have something to say, though, on a larger issue that has been touched on by some of my colleagues and that is the nature of the parliamentary processes. It is inconceivable that a bill with a handful of sections, covering even in the French and English versions a handful pages, should be the subject of I am told, originally, 1,540 amendments. Now they are down to 400.
Surely we are entering into an undergraduate game with frivolous, repetitive or otherwise uninteresting and boring propositions. Why should the business of the House be held up by this sort of activity?
It is sometimes said that parliament is controlled by members and that there are no limits on the control members can exercise. People cite the parliament in Great Britain. You yourself, Mr. Speaker, are a student of that parliament and you will know that it has always been a very robust parliament. You will remember that Oliver Cromwell said to parliament, “You gentlemen have been around too long for all the good you have done. Go, for the sake of God, go”. It is recorded that not a dog barked at their departure which was gently assisted by Oliver Cromwell's friends.
What I am really saying is that it is a necessary part of the parliamentary process that the rules of the game are observed. We can have a tyranny of a majority but we can also have a tyranny of a minority. The British parliament has never hesitated to establish rules that ensure respect by all parties, majority and minority, for the rules of the game and for the ability of parliament to conduct the national business.
In the United States those of us who are old enough will remember Jimmy Stewart, the senator who could speak for 22 hours uselessly on a bill, but the United States congress has now regulated that power. There is a basic criticism of the parliament in Germany in the 1920s, a democratic regime that did nothing about the forces of evil of the right or the left in that situation. The German democracy collapsed as much from the inanition of parliament in exercising its powers to control the abusive use of parliamentary procedures as by the extremist forces outside.
I am really saying to members of the opposition that surely the points have been well established in debate. What is achieved by wasting the time of the people of Canada, wasting the time of citizens who are expecting us to act on important bills? Has the point that opposition members have been trying to make not been made adequately enough in the debate?
I have no doubt therefore that we will be forced as parliamentarians to consider proper rules to engage the orderly conduct of House business.
One of the ideas whose time has certainly come is electronic voting, the United Nations system. I think those of us who like the happy ritual of elevating oneself and sitting down again and think it is a quaint old fashioned custom are having doubts about it. It is an idea that perhaps may go very quickly through the House, as well as the ability to establish new rules that ensure no one will be able to make an abusive use of parliamentary procedures. That is a tyranny of a minority carried out incessantly and carried out without proper respect for parliamentary customs and procedures. It can in my view be dangerous to the constitutional system that we all respect.
Parliament is an ancient institution, but is also an institution of mutual respect that rests on a delicate system of checks and balances respected by all members. I would suggest to the members opposite that the Reform Party made the point with the Nisga'a treaty what can be done with parliamentary procedures.
As a distinguished Reform member said to me yesterday, stated once it is interesting, stated twice it becomes boring. However it does direct attention to the fact that the pre-emptive concern with sovereignty association issues has been at the expense of this parliament's considering the modernizing and updating of parliamentary procedures. It is long overdue that we bring parliament into the 21st century. Decent rules that assure proper respect for other members' rights are part of that.