Mr. Speaker, I will start this morning by thanking all members of the committee for the work they have done on the modernization of parliament. I specifically thank the clerks, Audrey O'Brien and Diane Diotte, for the great job they did in assisting the committee through all the work, as well as our researcher, James Robertson. They did a commendable job.
I also thank the Deputy Speaker, the member for Stormont--Dundas--Charlottenburgh, who acted as chair for the committee which had to come up with a unanimous report. It is not always easy to be a chair and deal with all the political parties in this type of debate. I congratulate members for the work they did. I thank them on behalf of all parliamentarians and all Canadians.
Democratizing government and improving its accountability are bedrock Alliance principles. When the 37th parliament began the Liberal government was not interested in reforming parliament in a meaningful way. It started off on the wrong foot. The only reform pursued by the government was the restriction of the ability of members to submit amendments at report stage. The scheme was so unpopular it required the use of closure to ram it through.
Despite that start the House established a modernization committee. I commend the government House leader for agreeing to the parliamentary reforms in the report. Most of the proposals tend to favour the opposition. I think the government House leader recognizes that over time the opposition has lost a great deal of procedural ground.
As a result parliament has been on the brink of becoming dysfunctional. The government's powers are sweeping. If the opposition is to provide the necessary checks and balances it must be accorded certain rights. An opposing view is crucial to the functioning of parliament.
Stanley Knowles, who was a fierce defender of the rights of the opposition, said:
--you do not have full political democracy let alone the economic as well as political democracy unless you include a full and unquestioned recognition of the rights and functions of the opposition to the government of the day. Only in this way can you protect the rights of minorities. Only in this way can you make sure that the force of public opinion will be brought to bear on the legislative process.
Another respected parliamentarian, former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, believed that:
If Parliament is to be preserved as a living institution His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition must fearlessly perform its functions...The reading of history proves that freedom always dies when criticism ends.
Our goal should be to work toward establishing equality of strength between the government and the opposition. While the report is moving in the right direction we still have a long way to go. I am pleased the government House leader talked about digesting the report for a while and looking forward to making further changes in the future.
Many of the ideas and concepts in the modernization committee's report came from the Alliance Party's parliamentary reform package, building trust, that it launched at the beginning of parliament. We approved allowing candidates for speaker to make speeches prior to their election. This would let all members see and hear the candidates in the Chamber before there is a vote.
Another change pertains to the use of written questions and the reference of unanswered questions to a standing committee. This would increase the opposition's long term ability to hold the government accountable for its actions, something we have not been able to do in the history of this parliament. It is an important change.
There is a requirement for the minister sponsoring any bill whose passage involves closure or time allocation to justify the use of closure in a 30 minute question and answer session. This would make the government pay a political price each time it invoked closure.
It would ensure Canadians received an explanation from the minister. They would be entitled to an explanation not from the minister's parliamentary secretary or the government House leader but from the minister responsible. The minister would need to explain why the bill needed to have closure in the House. It is an important move.
The approval of the House of the appointment of the clerk of the House and officers of parliament would recognize that they report to parliament and not to cabinet or the Prime Minister. That is a positive move.
Requiring that annual reports of officers of parliament be referred to and considered by the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs would ensure that elected parliamentarians gave them careful and timely consideration.
The televising of committees should be expanded. Committees are where most of the real work of parliament happens. Up to now few have been televised. The proposal would have them videotaped and made available to CPAC and the press gallery.
In this time of crisis due to terrorism and the prospect of going to war it will be especially important that all major committee hearings over the next few weeks are televised across the nation. People should be able to see the head of CSIS, the head of our defence forces and the ministers in charge being questioned by all members of the House. That will be very important. It is a crucial part of the report.
The committee recommended an improvement to the way the estimates are considered. Each year the Leader of the Opposition, in consultation with opposition House leaders, would be empowered to refer the estimates of two departments to committee of the whole. Ministers would be required to defend their estimates in the House for up to five hours. This would improve and highlight the accountability process of the estimates.
This is done in provincial legislatures now. When I was minister of the environment in British Columbia I would sometimes be questioned in the house by the opposition for hours and days on the estimates in my department. That would happen here with only two ministers but it is a good start. It would bring accountability to each minister.
Witnesses in committee would be reminded that they are required to tell the truth when appearing before a committee. They would be informed by the chairman of the consequences if they do not. That is important.
I would be remiss not to mention the report's unfortunate omissions. We have a lot more work to do. I am pleased that the government House leader agrees with that. The committee did not consider tackling the issue of free votes.
The McGrath committee studied the confidence convention and concluded that only explicit motions of confidence or matters central to the government's platform should be treated as confidence. All references to confidence were expunged from the standing orders that regulate the functioning of parliament.
Despite these reforms most votes of parliament still take place along strict party lines. Recently the opposition adjourned the House on a Thursday afternoon. Some members wondered if that could be considered a matter of confidence. This is a clear sign that members need to be reminded about the confidence convention.
The hon. member for Calgary Southwest described this point in a speech he delivered in the House in April 1998. He said:
There is a myth in the House that lurking out there somewhere is the fiery dragon of the confidence convention, the erroneous belief studiously cultivated by the government that if a government bill or motion is defeated, or an opposition bill, motion or amendment is passed, this obliges the government to resign. This myth is used to coerce government members, especially backbenchers, to vote for government bills and motions with which they and their constituents disagree and to vote against opposition bills, motions and amendments with which they substantially agree. The reality is that the fiery dragon of the confidence convention in its traditional form is dead. The sooner the House officially recognizes that fact, the better for all.
We did not recommend changing any rules because there are no relevant rules to change. We wanted to reaffirm what the rules are. We could adopt a motion that says the House shall not consider the vote on any motion to be a question of confidence in the government unless the motion is directly related to the government's budget or the motion is explicitly worded as a question of confidence.
We were hoping the committee would recommend wording to clarify ministerial responsibility. We have a lot of documents written by the PCO and academics, but the House has never made a statement of its own. It is ironic because ministers are responsible to the House.
The U.K. passed a resolution regarding ministerial accountability. It can be found on page 63 of the 22nd edition of Erskine May. We should come up with our own wording. The statement should include the usual constitutional references and some additional statements to address recent issues.
The House should urge the Prime Minister to make important announcements in the House and not at Liberal fundraisers. The ethics counsellor still reports to the Prime Minister instead of to the House regarding the ethics of cabinet ministers.
The election of standing committee chairmen and vice-chairmen by secret ballot were not included in the report. It would have brought more autonomy to committees. The election of the Speaker by secret ballot was designed to take the choice away from the Prime Minister and give it to the entire House. Since committees are creatures of the House and the independence of chairmen is as important to members when they are in committee as when they are in the House, the secret ballot procedure used to select the Speaker should be applied to the election of standing committee chairmen and vice-chairmen.
Removing parliamentary secretaries from committees was another proposal the government felt it could not live with. This would have strengthened the independence of committees. Committees will continue to be impeded by the interference of cabinet through parliamentary secretaries.
There was progress on closure and time allocation. While the committee recommended a 30 minute question period before a motion of time allocation or closure is moved, it could have gone further. It could have recommended that the Speaker be granted more authority to deny a motion from being put if he felt the rights of the minority were being infringed.
The committee also failed to come up with an agreement on adding a question and comment period to a minister's speech on second and third reading stages of a bill. We will therefore have to continue the practice of allowing ministers to drone on for 40 minutes without an opportunity to challenge what they are saying. The most interesting and informative aspect of debate is the question and comment period. The bill would deny us that on most important speeches.
Regrettably there is no progress on private members' business, just the expression that the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs should deal with it.
Our supply motion last June was designed to commit the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs to come up with a workable proposal allowing for all items to be votable by November 1. The recent survey by the subcommittee on private members' business indicated that over 70% of the members were unhappy with how the system works. An overwhelming majority wanted all items in the House to be votable. We hope that will happen by November 1.
The committee did not see fit to come up with a workable procedure to deal with omnibus bills. The way we presently deal with omnibus bills is described on page 619 of Marleau and Montpetit. It suggests that historically disputes over omnibus bills are brought about by political interaction. It describes on page 618 how the opposition paralyzed the House for 14 days in 1982. Surely there is a better way to resolve disputes of this kind.
Our most recent example of Bill C-15 was handled in a similar although less severe way. Apart from the begging of all opposition parties, the official opposition had to threaten the smooth and timely manner that legislation is processed through the House. There must be a better way.
The Speaker could be given the authority to divide a bill if in his opinion the omnibus nature of a bill prevents members from casting their votes responsibly and intelligibly on behalf of their constituents. I do not see why committees cannot be given the authority to divide a bill without having to seek the authority of the House.
There may also be a simpler solution. The government could negotiate with the opposition what principles are to be lumped together in an omnibus bill before tabling the legislation. This would eliminate unnecessary procedural battles in the House.
I thank all my colleagues and the House leaders in this institution for the changes that took place. They are not perfect but we are certainly moving forward.