House of Commons Hansard #92 of the 37th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was leader.


PetitionsRoutine Proceedings

October 4th, 2001 / 9:55 a.m.


Peter Adams Liberal Peterborough, ON

Mr. Speaker, I rise to present another petition on behalf of the thousands of citizens of Peterborough who are in favour of the restoration of the VIA Rail service between Toronto and Peterborough. They believe that this will reduce greenhouse emissions, reduce accidents on the highways and greatly improve the efficiency and business environment of the Greater Toronto area including Peterborough.

Questions on the Order PaperRoutine Proceedings

10:05 a.m.

Halifax West Nova Scotia


Geoff Regan LiberalParliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons

Mr. Speaker, I ask that all questions be allowed to stand.

Questions on the Order PaperRoutine Proceedings

10:05 a.m.

The Speaker

Is that agreed?

Questions on the Order PaperRoutine Proceedings

10:05 a.m.

Some hon. members


Request for Emergency DebateRoutine Proceedings

10:05 a.m.

Canadian Alliance

John Duncan Canadian Alliance Vancouver Island North, BC

Mr. Speaker, pursuant to Standing Order 52, I request leave to move a motion for the adjournment of the House on Thursday, October 4, for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter requiring urgent consideration.

The softwood lumber trade action started by the U.S. against Canada is costing thousands of jobs and is threatening one of our most important industries. In British Columbia alone there is an estimated 15,000 forest workers laid off as of today.

The estimates run as high as 30,000 in British Columbia by the end of the year and nationally we are looking at 40,000 to 50,000 unemployed forest workers. This is a very serious situation indeed.

I do not think I need to go into further detail at this time but there is certainly much to discuss that would be usefully done in the House.

Mr. Speaker, I respectfully and earnestly ask that you grant this request.

Request for Emergency DebateRoutine Proceedings

10:05 a.m.

The Speaker

The Chair has carefully considered the matter and wishes to take a little more time to consider the request of the hon. member. I must say that my initial inclination is to grant the request. I am leaning that way but I will consider the matter for a while yet. I will get back to the House before two o'clock with an answer. I will communicate to the hon. member as to when I will come back to make that decision.

Request for Emergency DebateRoutine Proceedings

10:05 a.m.

Canadian Alliance

Gary Lunn Canadian Alliance Saanich—Gulf Islands, BC

Mr. Speaker, members of the Progressive Conservative Democratic Representative caucus would concur with the motion by the member for Vancouver Island North.

Request for Emergency DebateRoutine Proceedings

10:05 a.m.

The Speaker

I am sure there are members on every side that would concur but that is not the point of the application. It is a question of whether the Speaker concurs. It is one of the few opportunities where it is my decision that will really end the matter. I appreciate the hon. member's intervention. I am sure all hon. members do.

Business of the HouseRoutine Proceedings

10:05 a.m.


Marlene Catterall Liberal Ottawa West—Nepean, ON

Mr. Speaker, discussions have taken place between all the parties, as well as the member for Fraser Valley, concerning the taking of the division on Bill C-217 scheduled at the conclusion of private members' business later today, and I believe you would find consent for the following motion. I move:

That at the conclusion of today's debate on Bill C-217 all questions necessary to dispose of the motion for second reading be deemed put, a recorded division deemed requested and deferred to Tuesday, October 16 at the expiry of the time provided for government orders.

Business of the HouseRoutine Proceedings

10:10 a.m.

The Speaker

Does the hon. the chief government whip have the unanimous consent of the House to propose the motion?

Business of the HouseRoutine Proceedings

10:10 a.m.

Some hon. members


Business of the HouseRoutine Proceedings

10:10 a.m.

The Speaker

The House has heard the terms of the motion. Is it the pleasure of the House to adopt the motion?

Business of the HouseRoutine Proceedings

10:10 a.m.

Some hon. members


(Motion agreed to)

Modernization and Improvement of the Procedures of the House of CommonsGovernment Orders

10:10 a.m.

Glengarry—Prescott—Russell Ontario


Don Boudria LiberalMinister of State and Leader of the Government in the House of Commons


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.

Modernization and Improvement of the Procedures of the House of CommonsGovernment Orders

10:20 a.m.

Canadian Alliance

John Reynolds Canadian Alliance West Vancouver—Sunshine Coast, BC

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.

Modernization and Improvement of the Procedures of the House of CommonsGovernment Orders

10:35 a.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Bélair)

Order, please. From now on, the hon. members who take the floor will have 20 minutes to deliver their speeches, which will be followed by a period of 10 minutes for questions and comments, unless these members indicate to the Chair that they want to split their time.

Modernization and Improvement of the Procedures of the House of CommonsGovernment Orders

10:35 a.m.


Michel Gauthier Bloc Roberval, QC

Mr. Speaker, I want to begin by explaining to those who are listening to us that it is extremely important, in a debate like this one, in a job like the one done by House leaders, to be objective and non-partisan.

The reason is quite simple. To amend the rules of debate in parliament is not a partisan exercise and it must never become one. On the contrary, it is a highly democratic exercise whose objective must be to improve the quality of the discussions in a this Chamber and to allow members to play a meaningful role in the management of public business and in debates on bills.

It is always from this perspective that the business of the House is conducted. In this regard, I must salute the efforts of the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons who, unlike his predecessor from the same government, never wanted to make any change that was not fully supported by the House leaders of each party.

Any change to the rules of debate in parliament should get the unanimous support of the political parties concerned, because it has to do with the balance of powers held by the various members, by the opposition parties and to the government party in parliament.

The changes we are making today are extremely limited. As the House leader of the Canadian Alliance pointed out earlier, much remains to be done. Many of us could, and indeed do with all our heart, wish for amendments to the standing orders but what we must understand is that what I hope we are seeing here is the beginning of an ongoing process.

To this process, we have all brought our objectivity, our experience and our desire for quality debate in parliament and, as I said earlier, the result, however modest, reflects not just consensus but unanimity.

I have some advice for the government should it ever wish to change the rules under which parliament operates, as it has done in the past, without the agreement of all parties.

Whenever a government proceeds in this manner, it uses its majority to unbalance, as it were, the debates we hold in the House of Commons. Even if the intention is sometimes worthwhile, even if the purpose of the change is good and desirable, this should never, in my opinion, be something decided upon by only one, two or three parties. There must be unanimity.

In this regard, I pay tribute to the government House leader, who had the courage and drive to follow through to the end. I also wish to thank the colleagues from other parties who set aside all partisan considerations in the interests of the quality of the debates we hold in this parliament.

Why do I place such emphasis on this? Let me explain. What one must understand is that whenever changes are made to the ways things are done, the manner of debating, or the rules of procedure in a parliament based on the British model, as ours is, not only does this affect the balance within that institution but it also affects what is done in other parliaments.

Those listening are entitled to know that, naturally, we are not insensitive to what has gone on in the British parliament, in the Australian parliament, or in other similar parliaments.

Over time, parliamentarians have made changes to their procedures, in good faith and often by consensus. No one should accuse us of wanting to reinvent the wheel just because we want to make changes. These must be based on experience, precedent and rulings, in order to avoid actions being taken with totally unexpected consequences.

We must, therefore, be extremely prudent, but we also need to compare what is being done elsewhere. Debates held in the parliament of a country like Canada cannot be compared to debates held at the municipal level, no matter how large the municipality, or in other types of deliberative assemblies. Although we can occasionally take inspiration from good initiatives elsewhere, we cannot model ourselves on anything other than parliaments with the same task as our own.

That is why, every time we make changes here, it has an impact on provincial legislatures such as the Quebec national assembly, the Ontario legislature and the like. It has impact on the British parliament, or other types of parliaments, because it is a generally accepted practice for parliamentarians anxious to improve the quality of their debates to look at what others are doing.

Seen in this light, our changes, no matter how modest, are a step in the right direction. Some of them will allow MPs to play a more significant role in the way things are done. Some will open up interesting perspectives, so that we can continue what we have started.

I must tell my colleagues in other parties that, in my opinion, what we are doing today, and the report we are approving, is not the end of the process but the beginning. We could not consider we had completed our mission as House leaders by bringing in these changes to the way parliament operates.

Many other improvements are needed as well but they can all be introduced over time as the thoughts of each House leader and political party evolve. We do not need an adversarial debate to explain to the government that it is necessary to be more open, to allow the opposition to play a more significant role. Nor can the government convince the opposition in an adversarial debate that we have to accept the process operating more smoothly, more rapidly and more efficiently.

Everyone wants to hang on to their privileges. The opposition wants to be able to stop unfortunate government incidents. The government wants to be able to govern and make legislative decisions it considers fair. The secret behind the job we have done and will continue to do is to keep at all cost the balance we currently have while promoting the role of the members and the opposition parties.

Unfortunately, at this point in time, the role of the executive is increasingly important. This is what the analysts and the experts in political science are saying: in our system, the Office of the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister appoint all the ministers who sit here and draw on the parliamentary majority. They pretty well hold all the power.

The only way the opposition gets to be heard is to utilize parliamentary means to make the government pay the political price of certain decisions we do not consider desirable. If the government is within its right, public opinion will be the judge. The role of parliament is therefore to alert public opinion to some of the government's decisions. Sometimes the political cost forces the government to back down, to be a little more conciliatory, even if all powers, in absolute terms, are in the hands of the executive.

Certain tools have to stay in the House of Commons for reasonable use by the opposition to put a halt to undesirable government activities. This is what parliament is all about.

A person does not need a lot of love for parliament to recognize that a functioning parliament is an assurance of democracy. Regardless of the difficult times we may face as a society, when parliament can guarantee healthy and balanced debate between the various factions of the opposition, the left, the right, the centre and the centre left and the government, the public recognizes that the system works. Parliamentarians recognize that their voters are being properly served.

In a democracy where parliament is nothing more than a pretence at democracy, we can expect the public to be discontent and totally disdainful of an assembly where nothing happens other than members making promises in speeches but powerless to change or influence the decisions of the executive.

Therefore, it is extremely important that our work, which is well underway and which has led to non-partisan co-operation between parliamentary leaders and political parties, can continue. We must go further and benefit from other people's experience. We must improve the role of a member of parliament and we must achieve an even better balance between the opposition and the government to ensure that our debates can be conducted in the most serene way possible, for the greater benefit of the people who elect us--or members of other political parties--here every four years.

It is in this spirit that we must work. It is in this spirit that we have worked and it is in this spirit that, personally, I have always defended our participation in the parliamentary leaders committee. There are two improvements that I find extraordinarily interesting and that I want to briefly discuss.

The first one has to do with a member asking questions to a minister after hours. There is now a better balance in the exchange between the minister who provides a reply and the member, since the latter can now respond. A kind of balance has been achieved and I think it benefits the opposition, which is an excellent thing.

There is also the fact that an opposition day motion cannot be amended without the agreement of the party that presented it. Under the parliamentary system, such an amendment could change the nature of the debate, since it could significantly change the nature of the issue debated. The proposed change is a good one.

Also, when the government resorts to closure, the minister who sponsors the bill will have to face a series of questions during a certain period of time in the House of Commons. This will allow us to better understand the reasons why the minister is using closure to pass his bill. It will also give the opposition a better opportunity to explain why it is opposed to a bill.

Each time a change is made to the rules of the House to enhance the members' role and to hold those who are elected to this Chamber accountable, we cast a vote of confidence in all those who cast their votes on election day. As my role or the office I hold becomes more meaningful, so does the decision made by my fellow citizens to elect me. By enhancing the role of members and parliamentarians, we are paying tribute to the citizens who send us here.

I would like to conclude by saying that this is but a beginning. We must continue to work together. We must look to what others are doing elsewhere in order to find the best possible approach. Beyond partisan politics and beyond any political options, it is in everyone's interest that the debates that take place in this parliament—as the ones that take place in the national assembly in Quebec City and in the British parliament—be constructive, positive, and earn it the confidence of the citizens that elect the members.

With this end in view, I affirm that this is a first step, and we will continue the work. I offer my co-operation, and my colleagues from the Bloc Quebecois also offer their co-operation. We need to do more in this regard.

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10:50 a.m.


Bill Blaikie NDP Winnipeg—Transcona, MB

Mr. Speaker, I rise on a point of order. I find it passing strange that as we debate something which has to do with increasing the relevance of parliament what quorum we have has to be provided by the opposition, if in fact we have quorum. In fact we do not, so before I proceed any further I would call quorum.

Modernization and Improvement of the Procedures of the House of CommonsGovernment Orders

10:50 a.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Bélair)

There is no quorum. The bells shall ring for a maximum of 15 minutes. Call in the members.

And the bells having rung:

Modernization and Improvement of the Procedures of the House of CommonsGovernment Orders

10:55 a.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Bélair)

Quorum has been reached. Debate shall continue.

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10:55 a.m.


Bill Blaikie NDP Winnipeg—Transcona, MB

Mr. Speaker, I did that for a couple of reasons: first, because I am tired of seeing either no one or one or two members on the government side, and second, it relates to one of the recommendations in the modernization committee report which we are now debating, and that is the recommendation to have committees sit at times other than when the House is sitting, in the way that the House used to be run when I first arrived here 22 years ago.

What we now have with this telescoping of the timing of the work of committees and the sitting of the House into the same period of time is a situation that is rendering this place increasingly irrelevant and increasingly meaningless in terms of the sense one has when one is participating in a debate on the floor of the House.

We should at least have the feeling, Mr. Speaker, and we should in fact have the reality that we are actually speaking to somebody, not just to you, with all due regard to the intensity with which you listen to what we have to say. The fact of the matter is that if there is no one on the government side to talk to, to even hear our--

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10:55 a.m.

An hon. member

Out of order.

Modernization and Improvement of the Procedures of the House of CommonsGovernment Orders

10:55 a.m.


Bill Blaikie NDP Winnipeg—Transcona, MB

There is nothing out of order about referring to the government in the collective sense, I would remind the hon. member.

If there is no one on the government side to talk to, then what is the point? What is the point of the opposition speaking? Who are we speaking to?

I think one of the recommendations in the modernization committee report, which is that the whips come up with a plan to have committees meet at times other than when the House is sitting is in fact one of the best recommendations in this committee report, because we cannot continue like this. We cannot do our job properly if we have to be in two or three places at the same time. While I am here I am not at the justice committee, of which I am also a member and which is sitting right now, hearing witnesses on Bill C-15. I cannot be in both places at once.

That may happen from time to time but it should not be a regular occurrence. It should not be something that members have to deal with all the time, constantly having to choose between the Chamber and committee. I would certainly urge that after the passage of this report the whips get busy right away. It may mean that committees would have to sit, God forbid, on Mondays or on Thursday evenings or on Fridays. Committees always sat on those days when I first came here. They sat Monday through Friday. We did not get a week back in the riding after every three or four weeks either.

As far as I am concerned, the whole place has become kind of wimpy as far as work schedules are concerned. We should be making better use of our time and not trying to telescope the work of the House and the committees into this smaller and smaller period, which is getting to be about two and a half days now. It just makes for a lack of quality time, shall we say, here in the House of Commons and in committee. I am very much concerned about it. One of the reasons I called quorum was to make that point.

I want to read to the House something from the committee report and highlight a few things. Let me read what the report says under “Ministerial Statements”.

I hear a cellphone, and that is another thing I do not like, having cellphones in the House of Commons. We should have a rule against it. We should not have to listen to cellphones going off when--

Modernization and Improvement of the Procedures of the House of CommonsGovernment Orders

11 a.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Bélair)

There is a rule which states very clearly that cellphones are not allowed in the House, and this is the third one I have heard this morning. I urge colleagues to please abide by this rule because it can be very annoying for the member speaking. It is as simple as that: common sense.

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11 a.m.


Bill Blaikie NDP Winnipeg—Transcona, MB

Are we all so self-important that we cannot shut off our cellphones when we come in here and pay attention to the business of the House for the duration of time that we are here? It just makes me sick.

As I was saying with respect to ministerial statements, the report states:

First, it is important that more ministerial statements and announcements be made in the House of Commons. In particular, topical developments, or foreseeable policy decisions, should be made first--or, at least, concurrently--in the chamber. Ministers, and their departments, need to be encouraged to make use of the forum provided by the House of Commons. Not only will this enhance the pre-eminence of Parliament, but it will also reiterate the legislative underpinning for governmental decisions. While we recognize that not all announcements will be made in Parliament, it is important that more of them be made in this setting.

It is ironic that we should be debating and adopting the recommendations of the modernization committee report that I just read, on a day and in a setting where we have had major policy announcements repeatedly made on topical developments.

What could be more topical than the events of September 11? Major policy announcements have repeatedly been made, not in the House but at Liberal fundraising dinners.

I say to the government House leader that there is something deeply ironic, if not hypocritical, about adopting this policy in the context of a time when we have seen major policy announcements made, not in the House but at Liberal fundraising dinners. I do not hold him responsible for the behaviour of his Prime Minister or of the government entirely, and I hope that in his heart of hearts he would agree with me

The Prime Minister should have reported to the House first after his meeting with George Bush as recommended by the modernization committee report. He should have reported to the House first, not after or in the course of fragmented responses to questions in question period.

However he did not. He is in violation of the spirit of the report for not doing so, as is the Minister of Transport for whom I otherwise have a great deal of respect. After a take note debate in the House, which made the airline issue the property of the House of Commons, the Minister of Transport did not come into the House and say that this is what we debated last night and this is what he will do about the problem. No, the announcement was made in the press gallery.

How many times does this kind of abuse have to happen before the Canadian public gets the message? Maybe Canadians already got the message that parliament does not matter. It does not matter to the government so why should it matter to them?

I would hope against hope that the adoption of the report would mean a sea of change in the way the government relates to parliament through the increased use of ministerial and prime ministerial statements. That would have been the statesmanlike thing to do. The prime ministerial thing to do would have been to use the House of Commons in that context.

Question period, even at its best which it seldom is, is too adversarial a context for delivering the kind of comprehensive policy statements we would have expected of the Prime Minister in the context of what happened in New York City on September 11.

There are many good things in the report and I will not have time to elaborate on them all. I have already alluded to the recommendations having to do with ministerial statements and with the timing of committees.

The procedure that is recommended with respect to closure or time allocation is a good one. We will see how it works. I hope it will act as a brake on the government when it comes to time allocation.

When time allocation occurs I hope the government will provide an opportunity for ministers to justify what they are doing, or at least allow members of the opposition an opportunity to question the appropriate minister. I am looking forward to seeing how it works.

As was said by the Alliance House leader, I would have preferred that the Speaker had been given some power independent of the House to rule on whether motions of time allocation were in order, but that was not to be. We could only do what was unanimously agreed upon.

I want to enter a reservation on another item which may turn out to be all right. It has to do with candidates for Speaker making speeches to the House. The original McGrath committee, of which I was a member, made a recommendation about how a Speaker should be elected. It was felt at that time that it would be unseemly for members to campaign for the speakership.

This was not a view shared by Alliance members when they came here as Reformers. It is something they have managed to create a consensus about, that there should be some opportunity for candidates for the speakership to speak to members. I hope this will not lead to full scale campaigning. I will wait to see whether or not the initial reservations of the McGrath committee are borne out in this regard.

The recommendation with respect to estimates is a good one. We are going back to a former way of dealing with the estimates before my time. It was in 1969 that the estimates were taken out of the House and sent to committee in the way they are now.

This was not something that was done by all party agreement. It was part of a package of so-called parliamentary reform imposed through closure by the government at that time. The process may have worked for a while, but it has not led to the kind of scrutiny of the estimates and accountability in terms of spending that Canadians expect of their parliament.

I am glad to see we will return some of the estimates to the floor of the House of Commons. As the Alliance House leader indicated, this is something which is done regularly in many provincial legislatures where ministers are accountable. Ministers have to answer for their spending in a way that federal cabinet ministers do not have to do.

I will comment on what the Alliance House leader said with respect to the confidence convention. The whole issue about free votes has been a preoccupation of his party since it got here. The Alliance House leader pointed out that the confidence convention did not exist procedurally. However it used to exist procedurally.

There was the language of confidence in the standing orders prior to the adoption of the McGrath committee report in 1985. Members were able to hide behind procedural language which said, for instance, that because opposition day motions were motions of supply they were in fact confidence motions. Therefore people had to treat them as confidence motions.

That is all gone. All the language of confidence has been removed from the standing orders. The Alliance House leader is noticing that in spite of that we have not had any significant change in the culture of confidence. We have changed the procedure and the standing orders but we have not changed the culture of confidence.

I hear what the Alliance House leader is arguing for. At one point I would have hoped this would not be necessary. Maybe we do need a motion in the House which lays out that only certain things are matters of confidence unless they are deemed to be matters of confidence in the wording of the legislation itself.

This happens informally from time to time. A couple of times the current Prime Minister has said something is a matter of confidence. It is a way of signalling to his backbenchers that he will not tolerate any dissent on the matter.

This is something that should be regularized. If it were regularized the possibility would exist for government backbenchers to rein in their government when they feel it was going in the wrong direction.

A piece of legislation could then be defeated without defeating the government. That is what this is all about. However that was not accomplished in this report. It waits for another day and will probably wait a long time. I do not see the current Prime Minister or the current culture of the Liberal Party as being terribly open to this kind of parliamentary development.

The government House leader said that parliamentary reform was an ongoing thing. I do not regard this committee report as reform. It is well named when it is called modernization. Reform to me suggests a redistribution of power between the government and the opposition and between the Prime Minister and his backbenchers.

There is not much reform here; there might be a bit. I am trying to make the government House leader feel better, but there is not much that I would call reform. That does not mean that what is in the report is not worth doing. However let us not go overboard and call it something that it is not.

We still wait for the day when members of parliament will have more independence from the government, particularly in committee. At the risk of alienating the member for Fraser Valley because he sometimes complains that I mention the McGrath committee too much, we recommended then that committee members not be pulled off committees by the government when they had the audacity to have independent thought, to think that the government was not perfect, or to amend legislation in ways that had not already been suggested to them by the parliamentary secretary.

That raises another matter and another recommendation in the McGrath committee which stated that parliamentary secretaries not be on committees. Government members do not and should not need a coach in committees. Presumably government members are able to exercise some kind of rational, intelligent function and make decisions themselves without having to take their cue from a parliamentary secretary.

Had these kinds of things been included in this report then I would call it parliamentary reform. I do not call this parliamentary reform. Nevertheless I welcome it and I hope that we will be able to make the best of what little we have before us.