Mr. Speaker, this has been a very interesting morning, as several speakers have suggested.
I compliment the members of the Progressive Conservative Party for voluntarily conceding their opposition day on a matter that is of great concern to them, to debate a motion which I believe they and other parties will not be supporting.
In a certain sense, one is reminded of Nelson Mandela's principle of healing and reconciliation after periods of great intellectual torment and turbulence such as we have experienced. It has been an experience to go through those exhausting hours of debate overnight. It is in a way a trial by ordeal. Many members of this parliament have been through it three times in the last three years. The issue that must of course arise is, can we not do better.
You have been a very indulgent presiding officer, Mr. Speaker, on a matter affecting your privileges and the privileges of the House as an institution. You could have restricted the debate by applying criteria of relevance but you have, sir, if I may say so, shown great generosity in allowing the debate to sometimes stray.
Allow me, though, on the most immediate technical point to make one statement that I think should be on the record. We have an enormous respect for the technical staff attached to the office of the Speaker. These people are not appointed on the basis of ideology or political preference. They are career people. They are professionals. They are technocrats. They serve the Speaker. They will serve your successor whenever that time comes and they will serve no matter what government is in office. I think that should be on record. The Speaker's staff is an extension of the Speaker himself.
Many Speakers are not constitutional lawyers. There is no reason why they should be. They do not necessarily have a great knowledge of parliamentary precedents. The staff supply that detailed knowledge, the history. It is for the Speaker to decide how to use the history. But without that staff, the Speaker could not function. I think it is agreed on all sides that the office of the Speaker, the technical staff, are beyond any reproach and we all have enormous confidence in them.
History has been referred to here. You, yourself, Mr. Speaker, in a moment of passing humour, referred to people losing their heads, your predecessors in that office. That was at a fairly early time. I am reminded of the comment of the great Mr. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes that it is revolting to have no better justification for a present day position than that so it was in the time of Henry II. These are old precedents and we have to review history creatively as something that develops.
The office of Speaker has changed. There is certainly a great difference between the office of Speaker in the pre-modern period, which I suppose could take us up to the time of King James I, and the period afterward. The notion of a contest between the Speaker and the government of the realm is out of date. It was surpassed by the economic and social developments, the English civil war which was a battle between two rival elites, the passing of power from the aristocratic group to the landed gentry, still to be continued later on. The precedents from that era have to give way to the modern office of Speaker and the modern parliament. Today parliament is vastly different from what it was before the Hanoverian kings came into Great Britain and before the system of cabinet government developed and responsible democracy. When Dicey speaks of the sovereignty of the king-in-parliament, he is speaking of parliament as an institution, the government, but the Speaker is a part of that.
This is recognized in the further legitimacy given to your office, Mr. Speaker, by the principle of election, which, as we all know, is very recent in this country. I think it only goes back to your immediate predecessor. However, the extra legitimacy is there to invest you with powers as part of the whole constitutional system of the country.
What Dicey referred to as the thing that makes work the new modern parliament and the modern system of checks and balances within it, was the observance of the parliamentary constitutional rules of game within parliament by opposition and by government. The minority has its rights but so does the majority and the Speaker's function is there to see that the business of the country is not unnecessarily delayed or obstructed. There is a judgment call here that he has to exercise.
As I said, in the last three years of this parliament there have been three different occasions of these marathon all-night sittings that certainly exhaust members and, continued indefinitely, might certainly do worse than that. If there can be 400 amendments to a bill of two or three pages and two or three clauses, then why not 4,000 or 40,000? So we are getting into a very practical issue.
It is interesting to note that other parliaments than our own have changed their procedure. In some ways the pre-emptive concern since the quiet revolution with Quebec issues has obscured the task of modernization and updating of parliamentary institutions and parliamentary processes and we have lagged behind.
I referred in another context a couple of days ago to Mr. Smith Goes To Washington . Jimmy Stewart, the great actor, spoke 22 hours in a filibuster to hold up what he thought was an ignoble project. They cannot do that any more in the United States Congress.
Just imagine Mrs. Thatcher's Britain or Clement Atlee's Britain. The House of Commons in Great Britain, from which we derive our inspiration if no longer our binding precedents, functions differently today.
We have passed the stage of the Victorian gentlemen's club of the late 19th century when parliament debated two or three bills a year sometimes. We are into hundreds of pieces of legislation and everybody has to understand that. The parliamentary rules need re-adjustment, and the Speaker in the same way, in a creative, progressive interpretation of history, interprets his lot in that way. I find in this sense that what we have done in the last week is unproductive and uncreative.
If one asks “Does the Speaker not have inherent powers in relation to amendments and legislation?”, the answer is yes. Every piece of legislation, every amendment, is scrutinized in terms of its grammatical accuracy. It is scrutinized in terms of the congruence of the French and the English languages.
I believe also, Mr. Speaker, although I have never asked you about this point, that you exercise a prudent control over what might be called the bowdlerization of the language or inappropriate expressions within it. Is it not within the power of the Speaker to control what he might consider redundant, superfluous or trivial amendments? Can we have an amendment to an amendment? I will not say this in relation to the debate on the clarity bill, but on the Nisga'a bill we had amendments replacing a semicolon with a colon. Surely we are at the point where the functioning of the modern parliament and the role of the Speaker requires the Speaker to use powers, to consult with the technical officers of the staff and, if necessary, to use his discretion to strike out certain measures.
This is not uttered, though, as a criticism of the conduct of all the participants of the great debate of the last few days. As we have all said, there was great feeling in many parts of the House and it is possible that some or all of the main actors might act differently if they were doing it again. Nevertheless, I think the spirit of this motion and the way in which this debate has emerged would be to allow all parties, in the calm and healing spirit after the debate, to consider seriously ways of modernizing our procedures and ways of supporting the Speaker in the constructive use of his inherent, prerogative powers. Can we not do it differently?
I would have hoped that a more constructive measure would be to have somebody, whether it is the committee on procedure and House affairs, come back with suggestions for avoiding these marathon debates; come back perhaps as they have done, I think under your guidance, Mr. Speaker, with the all-party committee that selects private members' bills for giving priority; to come up with suggestions that would aid the Speaker in saying to people who are sponsoring legislation or sponsoring a great mass of amendments to be reasonable and to consider also the rights of all parliamentarians and the country to have business adopted in an expeditious way. Can we not agree on this? I would hope there would be attention to this.
It occurs to me that not everybody has used the facilities available. It amazed me with the Nisga'a treaty, for example, when I was faced with a unanimous report of an all-party parliamentary committee, that we would then later have a marathon debate in parliament. The whole notion of committees was that parliament would delegate responsibility to the committees and then would trust the committees and respect their judgment. Could this have been done with the clarity bill?
We had an extensive debate in December. Was a legislative committee necessary? It is these sorts of matters that now can be approached by all parties.
We should stress that what emerged in all parties, and I think also with our colleagues in the Bloc, was a recognition of your office, Mr. Speaker, its own privileges and a respect for the conduct of the office and the conduct of parliamentary officials. We have trust in the institution of the Speaker. We have confidence in the officers, including the staff members.
The constructive thing coming out of this debate is the concession by all the parties in the House to suspend, with the consent of the Conservatives, their day in parliament, which was to be today, to get on to this issue; and you, sir, to allow a larger debate on the conduct of parliament, which much transcends the technical issue in this motion. That would be the constructive lesson to draw from all of this.