Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to speak to the bill today. I am sure the House leader of the NDP, who has long been an advocate of parliamentary reform, will be in the House of course to listen to my speech since he called us all in a few minutes ago to be part of that. I am sure he will not be leaving momentarily to do anything else.
A lot of people have put a lot of work into bringing this forward and they should be congratulated. Although these are tiny steps in an effort to modernize parliament, they are good in the sense that something has been done. I thank the members who sat on the committee for their work. I know it is not easy to bring consensus on these kind of things, and they have been able to do that.
I hope that maybe I had a small part in this as well. In January of this year I brought forward a document called, “Building Trust”. At the time, when I was House leader, we made 12 specific proposals that we thought would at least help parliament be more responsive and help to build trust between constituents, Canadians and the House of Commons. The immediate reaction from the government House leader was that these were half-baked and preposterous ideas, and that they could not be done. I do not know if he was right or not but exactly half of the recommendations that I brought forward at that time are included in the report. So maybe they were half-baked in the sense that only half of them were accepted.
It is interesting that after the initial knee-jerk reaction of nothing can change, it always has to stay the same, we did make some progress with the report and the baby steps of change perhaps have started once again. Perhaps under a different administration, and I think that is what it will take, the important steps necessary for true parliamentary reform will take place. It is very important that change does take place.
In Maclean's magazine last year it did a poll amongst business people and concluded that 7% of business people believe that members of parliament have a significant impact on the actions of the government. Only 7% think that what we do here makes a difference in the laws of the land. When people want things changed do they go to their member of parliament? Knowledgeable business people frequently do not bother. They go to NGOs, business advocacy groups and to lobbying firms. They find that is more effective than talking to members of parliament because members of parliament are shut out too often from the important work of parliament.
I will read a quote from 1968 in which a person lamented:
So this is your Member of Parliament; whipped by the discipline of the party machines; starved for information by the mandarin class; dwarfed by the Cabinet and by bigness generally in industry, labour and communications; ignored in an age of summitry and the leadership cult.
That was said by John Turner.
If that was a problem in 1968, I can assure Mr. Turner that the problem is at least as severe now, perhaps worse.
Members of parliament are often the last to know about important government decisions and important government legislation. Time and again, in the last parliament and again in this parliament, we see members of parliament coming forward with points of privilege asking why it is that some industry leader or some advocacy group got a copy of a piece of legislation before it was tabled in the House. Why is it that ministers go to press conferences and make announcements or ministerial statements without bothering to even consult or tell the House or even announce it simultaneously in the House? We just read about it in the newspapers. The Speaker frequently gets up and says doing that is not good practice and urges the government not to continue to do it, but of course it just continues to do it.
It is important, for real parliamentary change, to enhance the role of members of parliament. Enhancing the role of members of parliament would not only allow us to recruit good candidates in years to come but good people who are willing to give of themselves in public service which would make this place more efficient, more effective and more relevant.
It would build trust again between our constituents and parliament, a trust that I think has been broken. It would also allow for better laws, regulations and communication between constituents, Canadians and the House.
It may be a pipe dream, but many of us, from Mr. McGrath on down, continue to believe it is a battle worth fighting for. The changes we are talking about today are small steps. I am under no illusion that they will break the log-jam of control that is currently exerted by the Prime Minister's office and through the bureaucracy to the privy council.
A few positive things have been done. I specifically refer to a recommendation I made in January which was adopted by the committee on the issue of closure. When the government wants to bring in closure it is obliged now to at least get the minister into the House of Commons to talk about why it had to do it. Is it time sensitive? Have there been hours, days and weeks of debate? Have there been obstruction tactics on the opposition side? He or she has to at least come into the House to explain.
Again that is a small step forward. Maybe the government will be a little more reluctant to use closure. It has used closure at a record pace, a pace that sets it in a class all its own, although not a good class. It has certainly used it time and again and just after a couple of hours of debate it shuts it down and we are forced to move on. The legislation is basically rammed through here like sausages through a factory, and that is unfortunate. This committee report will at least get the ministers to come forward, and that is a good thing.
Another thing I hope will be good is that candidates for speaker in the next parliament will be able to explain to parliamentarians what it is they hope to accomplish: their style, their modus operandi, the things they consider important, the things on which they want to do more. They will be able to explain their position and we will be able to vote on that position by secret ballot. It is important to know what we are voting on and who we are voting to support. I believe that is another small step forward.
The appointment of important positions like the clerk of the House and officers of parliament should be approved by parliament. That is also a step forward and something that I recommended in January. I anticipate no problems with that. In fact we have been blessed with good clerks and good officers of parliament, but people should know and perceive that those positions are non-partisan, that they have the support of everyone in the House. Canadians need to know that those important technical officer type positions are not partisan appointments in the sense of favouring one party or one government over another.
There are some other things that could have been put in the report, but one that is actually in the report is the greater use of ministerial statements. I have to agree again, as I so often do, with the House leader of the New Democratic Party on this particular issue. He points out how this fall we started off with what I think is a disgraceful example of not including parliamentarians in the important business of the day. That is why we feel the frustration bubbling.
People are concerned about terrorism right now. It is obviously dominating all our thoughts and prayers, but it is also dominating the business of the House, or at least it should be. However, instead of the government telling us in the House about the important announcements, decisions and tactics that it may be employing or initiating, or about the consultations that are going on, these things are told to Liberal fundraisers or told on Larry King Live . Decisions are announced at press conferences maybe coming out of a cabinet meeting but nary an important decision or announcement is made in the House of Commons.
I think to myself how much I would have appreciated it, and still would frankly because it has not happened, had the Prime Minister stood up on September 17 and said that parliamentarians would be included in this most important war of the 21st century. During the gulf war, for example, he invited the leaders of all parties to sit down with him for some private briefings about matters of the day so they would not have to stand in the House of Commons searching for answers. Members should know when things are happening and that security briefings are being given to the Prime Minister. We should not have to read about those things in the paper. We do not need to know the contents but we should know something about them because parliament is included.
I would have loved if the Prime Minister had said that he asked his House leader to take housekeeping legislation off the table and to immediately bring in an anti-terrorism bill that the House could debate and pass post-haste.
Would it not have been good to get parliamentarians involved right away on the issue of the day? Instead we have debated, for example, gopher control on the prairies. While that may be of some importance to farmers, it is not what is gripping the nation. We should have put housekeeping stuff aside and seized on the security issue until it was solved. It would have been good for parliament and Canadians would have seen that parliamentarians are as concerned as they are with security issues.
I would have loved if the Prime Minister had stood up and said that he had struck a special all-party committee to deal with the relationship we were going to have with the new home security secretary of the United States of America. That person is co-ordinating the entire security activities of the most powerful nation in the world and we have no relationship to him. We do not know what he is doing. We do not have a clue as to what our response could be. Maybe we could even help him in his very important business of making the United States safe, but by inference the world safe and certainly North America safe. We will have no influence on that because we have no means of talking to him, no committee, no structure other than what might be happening at the bureaucratic level. We do not even know what that is because we are not included in that.
We do not ask for any briefings or any publication of anything that could affect national security or any investigations of terrorists, but certainly it is the business of the House to make Canadians secure. We should be talking about the modernization of our military, about long term military procurement contracts, how that will be done and budgeting for that. We should be talking about the perimeter security issues of the country in a way that dominates the House and dominates the committees.
Instead we run the risk, I see it already in committees, of just following the regular course of events, regular business that happened to be on the plate last June as if nothing has happened.
I would say a lot has happened. While the business of the world must go on as far as the regular budgetary process and so on, right now parliamentarians feel frozen out of the process. We have a system now where instead of a budget that is brought in in a timely fashion--and that should be another piece of modernization, something where we can at least know when the next budget is going to come down--we are left here every day wondering what impact the recession and the world situation will have on the budget of the federal government. No one knows if or when we will have a federal budget. If it does happen the finance committee has an obligation to be part of that, to have consultations and to travel the country. Instead committee members do not even know if it will happen so they cannot even start the process of talking to people.
It is not right. It is something again where parliamentarians are sidelined. That is why only 7% of business people think it is worth talking to their member of parliament, and that is unfortunate.
Most parliamentarians I have met are willing, able and thirsting for a way to impact the business of the House on behalf of their constituents and Canadians but too often they find out that they are just an afterthought.
While the modernization report tinkers with a few things, and they are good things which I approve of, it does not get to the core of the issue which is respect for the role of the members of parliament to represent their constituents here and be an advocate for those positions. There is just not enough opportunity to do it. I do not think the report strikes at the essence of it, which is that there is too much power given to too few people who make all the real decisions.
A year ago Gordon Gibson wrote an article in his newspaper column lamenting about how it would not take too much to change things. This was just before the last federal election. He said all it would take to change things at that time was only six Liberal members of parliament. Many have complained about how irrelevant they are, how they are trained seals who have to vote as they are told, that they do not have real impact in committees and that the committees are a sham. However, at that time it would have taken only six Liberal members of parliament to stand up with the opposition to change the way we do business in here.
For example, the Canadian Alliance brought forward a motion about free votes. If six Liberal members had stood up and said that they thought that the defeat of a government motion should not mean the defeat of the government unless followed by an explicit vote of non-confidence, history would have been changed. True modernization would have happened in the House of Commons. The stranglehold that the Prime Minister's office holds on this place would have been broken. Instead, too often there is lip service about the need to change but too much cache put in the fact that allegiance to the party or the leader is paramount. I can speak with some personal testimony that while loyalty to the leader is a good thing, blind loyalty is not.
If true change is going to take place in the House of Commons, people are going to have to stand up and be counted. When they will not stand up and be counted even when they know things are not right, when they do nothing, then they are aiding and abetting the problem they are complaining about. Instead of standing and demanding things of the Prime Minister and the circle of people around him, they quietly go into the night. Then when an election comes around they wonder why they cannot get quality candidates. They wonder why they do not have any impact. They wonder why businesses just write them off as a joke. Only 7% of businesses even think they have any impact. Why even go to anyone?
That is a shame. What a difference it would make if we could say, “I know some members of parliament and you had better have your ducks in a row because when you go before committee and they give you a grilling and you cannot answer their questions, they will change that legislation and you will be behind the eight ball one way or another”. Instead we all know what happens. Legislation comes forward. The minister meets with people behind the scenes. They cook it all up ahead of time. They get it into committee and have some hearings. Then whatever the Prime Minister has decided just goes through that committee like sausages and it comes out just the way they wanted it to. That is a shame.
It is no wonder that MPs go to committees and in frustration walk away. They do not become experts in their field. There is often no point to it because they feel all their work is for naught. There have been committees where people have spent six months on a bill. They have become clause by clause experts on it, but then at the last minute when the clauses are actually voted on, the government whip has come in and changed the membership of the committee. All of those people who have become experts are taken off the committee and trained seals are put in their place for voting. All of the amendments are tossed out and that bill goes through the committee in a day.
No wonder people on both sides of the House get frustrated. It is going to take a few more people on the Liberal side since they have 100% of the power in here, to stand up and say that this is not just frustrating but it is unacceptable. Things like free votes in this place would be a great step forward.
I would urge the government, and the government House leader in particular, to consider looking at what other jurisdictions are doing. It is not absurd to have important international treaties negotiated by the government on behalf of Canada approved in the House of Commons. It is done in Australia and New Zealand. It is certainly done in the United States of America. Nothing can go through there unless the senate has given its approval. The president negotiates and the senate gives final approval. Why is it those sorts of things are considered taboo in this place?
What about looking at British Columbia as an example? Premier Gordon Campbell took office with a mandate to have fixed election dates. He was not constitutionally obligated to do that, but what a novel idea. Within 90 days of the election he said elections would be held the third Thursday in November every four years. People can count on it and put it in their diaries. If they want to take a holiday they can book it before or after because that is when the election is going to be. There is broad support in Canada for that kind of thing, yet for some reason those sorts of things are considered taboo.
The modernization committee steps are small ones. They are not going to break the ice jam. They are not going to change the culture of this place.
I urge members of parliament to consider that steps that enhance the role of members of parliament are what will enhance our reputations back home both with businesses and individuals. Canadians will thank us if real parliamentary reform and modernization brings about an important and increased role for members of parliament.