That the Report of the Special Committee on the Modernization and Improvement of the Procedures of the House of Commons, presented on Friday, June 1, 2001, be concurred in, provided that the proposed amendment therein to Standing Order 52(13) be amended by deleting the words “of his or her party” and that the recommendations of the Report, as amended, come into force on the Monday following the adoption of this Order.
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased and honoured to take part in today's debate to adopt the report of the Special Committee on the Modernization and Improvement of Procedures of the House of Commons.
First, I would like to acknowledge the excellent co-operation of opposition House leaders, namely the hon. member for West Vancouver--Sunshine Coast, the House leader for the Alliance Party; the hon. member for Roberval, the House leader for the Bloc Quebecois; the hon. member for Winnipeg--Transcona, the House leader for the New Democrats; the hon. member for Pictou--Antigonish--Guysborough, the House leader for the Progressive Conservative representative coalition; as well as the hon. members for Fraser Valley and Longueuil.
I would also like to recognize the Deputy Speaker, the hon. member for Stormont--Dundas--Charlottenburgh, for the excellent guidance and leadership which he demonstrated as chair of the special committee.
Also a word of tribute to all members who took part in the debate in the House and to my own colleagues who attended the caucus committee meetings of the Liberal caucus to contribute their views. Presumably the same thing occurred in other caucuses, and I want to congratulate all members for their participation.
Needless to say, the members of our committee had a specific agenda, one which was collective. The agenda was to improve our procedural rules of this great institution so that members, both present and future, could do better what they were sent here to do: represent their constituents and defend their parties' policies, whether government or opposition; a delicate balance. That is why we adopted at the outset that our report would only have those items on which we all agreed to unanimously. Every clause in the report is unanimous. The report is unanimous. If it was not unanimous, it was not in the report at all. That is the system we established, and that is one of the reasons why it worked. I credit everyone who contributed to that process.
I am encouraged by the outcome of the deliberations. The report proposes substantive recommendations which focus on the need to improve procedural tools, members need to promote good governments and modernize the functioning of the institution.
However, this is not the be all and end all of reports. This is the first phase. I would like colleagues to consider having a second phase of modernizations in which we could inspire ourselves from the work done by other parliaments.
Let us examine some of the recommendations. For example, we have recommended increased ministerial responsibility. I will give a few examples of this.
There will be a 30 minute debate on the use of time allocation and closure motions. Time allocation is necessary, of course, when debating legislation, so that the government can put through its legislative program. The opposition parties are, I am sure, aware of that necessity but they object when the government makes use of it. There will be what might be termed a formal protest in which members could express their grievances and explain why, in their opinion, time allocation was hasty, unnecessary or whatever, depending on the circumstances.
As for the main estimates, there will now be a measure by which the Leader of the Opposition can refer two of the estimates to the committee of the whole. In the past there has been criticism in this area. I recall comments by the House leader of the Progressive Conservative Party in this connection.
In his opinion, certain ministers did not appear enough before committees to defend their budgetary estimates. If this occurs in the future, the Leader of the Opposition could require them to debate their budgetary estimates in the House before the cameras. This would be an incentive for ministers to appear in committee, knowing that otherwise they will be brought to the floor of the House. I think this is a good measure and I agree with those who wanted it.
With respect to the workings of the House, a certain number of existing rules have been modified and new rules have been recommended. For example, votes held at the end of the day, which require a 15 minute bell, and sometimes a 30 minute bell if the vote is unexpected, are not always necessary. If, for example, votes were held immediately following oral question period, when parliamentarians are already in the House, clearly we would not need to wait for 15 minutes since everyone would already be present. Therefore there will be a rule whereby votes may be held immediately following oral question period, as many parliamentarians have suggested. I thank them. This will now be part of the standing orders, when we return from the Thanksgiving break, a week from now.
Regarding the timetable for government bills, there will now be a mechanism, to be tested for a six month period only because it is controversial in the eyes of the opposition, which will make it possible to establish a timetable for a bill. If the bill takes more time in the House, it will automatically be given less in committee. If the bill goes through the House more quickly, it will allow for a more in-depth study in committee. We could thus, if we so decide, establish a timetable similar to what exists in the British parliament. This measure will be tested for six months.
There are written questions on the order paper, a matter which again is a source of contention. I have had to deal with that in the many years I spent in opposition, too many if I could editorialize.
Members want to have their questions answered. If ministers pass the deadline for answering them, the matter would now be referred to a standing committee in which a report would be required in addition to permitting an additional question for every one that remained unanswered. If a member was entitled to have four questions on the order paper and the minister did not answer any of them, at the end of the deadline the member could add a fifth one.
One does not stall the process of answering questions by allowing the order paper to be overloaded. That will not be possible anymore in the unlikely event that any minister, or particularly their officials, are inclined to do that at the present time.
On the ratification of the appointment of officers of parliament, the rules right now are a hodgepodge. The appointment of certain officers of parliament require a resolution of the House. Others require a study by a committee and the House. Others require a debate. Some are non-debatable and so on. On others the House is not consulted at all. Now there will be a uniform method.
An officer of parliament would now be appointed by a vote of the House in every case and there would not be a debate. It would simply be a non-debatable motion, but the House would always pronounce itself whether it be the appointment of a clerk, or the auditor general or any other officer of parliament. The system will be made uniform for all appointments.
Notice of opposition day motions was a bone of contention for government members in the past. They always felt that they found out the subject matter for debate at the last minute. The opposition group or party proposing the motion obviously knew what it would propose, so it had a head start and the government could not react because the minister was not in town to answer or had little time to prepare.
Now, one hour prior to opening on the sitting day prior to an opposition day, the government and Speaker would have to know what the subject would be. I believe that will be a good system. It will permit the government to hopefully provide better answers, although I thought the answers were already pretty good, to debates initiated on opposition days.
Members would be given a greater opportunity to participate in parliamentary debate and to be heard under the new mechanism. I thank everyone for agreeing with this.
Then there is the issue of candidacy for speakership, something that is of interest to every MP, particularly new MPs in parliament. When they are called upon to vote for a speaker they may never have met or seen the candidates. Now, candidates would be able to speak for five minutes in the House to announce to their colleagues their candidacy, if they wish to do so. It is not obligatory for someone to do so but this opportunity would be given. We were informed that this procedure which exists in the U.K. House.
On the topic of ministerial statements, the members of the committee agree to recommend strongly that the government make greater use of ministers' statements.
We will therefore change the order of the House to allow a minister to make a statement on a bill he or she will then introduce. At the moment the order is reversed and this is not allowed.
I come now to the broadcasting of committee proceedings. If ever there was a good time to speak of this it is today. With the situation, national security and the unspeakable events that occurred in the United States on September 11, I think one committee room equipped for television is not enough. From now on there will be two.
I think that if this does not prove to be enough we can have a third, but at least we will double parliament's ability to televise committee hearings. This is more than double, if we count it, because it is exponential.
One committee monopolized the room almost all the time. This arrangement will make the room more accessible than it was in the past.
Take note debates will now be conducted in committee of the whole. This will enable fewer members to join together to hold in the House of Commons a somewhat more intimate debate, rather than speak some 50 metres away, which is often the case in evening debates.
We have in fact used this approach informally for several months now. Here again this is something I noted in the British parliament and suggested to my colleagues. Informally, we tried it on several occasions, and I think we are happy with it.
As regards private members' business, we know how important it is to members. We are aware of the impact of any change. In this regard, the House leaders agreed that we should hear from the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs rather than deal with this ourselves because, after all, none of us, by definition, is a backbencher, but we do listen to comments.
In conclusion, the changes today would fulfill in part a commitment made by the government in the Speech from the Throne earlier this year to modernize the rules of the House. They would also fulfill an unwritten commitment, if I can call it that, that all of us have had for a long time: to improve the rules and the functioning of this place.
The changes are part of the ongoing work of the House on parliamentary reform. They are based on all party and all member agreement and they reflect our goodwill and desire to make the institution work.
I will repeat something I said at the beginning. This is only the first phase. During the first phase I went to the U.K. with the then opposition House leader and we learned a lot from what it did. We should repeat the same exercise and learn what other parliaments do. We should have a second phase of modernization once we have had a few months to test how this round works. We could then adjust it if necessary with the consent of everyone, and hopefully proceed to the second phase.
I offer my sincere thanks to all hon. members for their co-operation. Although the rules are imperfect, having been made by humans, I am convinced they would make parliament work better.