Mr. Chairman, it is a new experience for me to rise closer to the Chair and to talk from the first row. I felt it was important for me to participate in this debate.
For the benefit of those people watching us tonight on television, I would like to explain that this debate is focused on a review of the standing orders of the House of Commons. It is therefore a debate that concerns all parliamentarians.
I do not agree with my colleague who just spoke and who suggested that decisions are not made in parliament. I myself have not yet lost my illusions as a member, and I still believe that it is possible for all members to work together to make parliament a place where real decisions are made.
For parliament to become a place where real decisions are made, we obviously have to change a few things, because the way it is working now, members do not trust parliament.
If we were to ask every parliamentarian how the caucuses work during the Wednesday meetings and how unsatisfied the members are with the way the parliamentary system is presently working, I think that the dissatisfaction index would be very high in all parties, on the government side as well as on the opposition side.
It is quite disturbing when one thinks of it, because the duties of a member should normally inspire confidence. Members are rather well paid to carry out their duties. They hold socially prominent positions, but when asked to assess their work, members of parliament express a considerable degree of dissatisfaction.
This feeling of dissatisfaction comes from the belief that we cannot change things around and there is no room for a member of parliament to become a true spokesperson for his or her constituents.
I have jotted down some things, since our House leader, the member for Roberval, your friend, Mr. Chairman, said that the clerks will be taking notes tonight on what members say and that a report will be submitted. So, this should be a real opportunity to change things.
I have thought about the five things I would like to change. We all know that we cannot bring 50 changes about, that is not how members work and the system works; we could not deal with dozens of changes at the same time.
However, if, as the member for Hochelaga—Maisonneuve, who loves parliament, who has yet to lose his illusions, and who is quite happy as a member of parliament, I were asked if there is anything else I would like to do beside being the member for Hochelaga—Maisonneuve, I would say no.
Maybe I would not mind, from time to time, sitting in your chair, Mr. Chairman, but for the main part, I am very happy as the member representing the riding of Hochelaga—Maisonneuve. I find my work very rewarding and I love the people of Hochelaga— Maisonneuve. I also love the relations I have with all of my colleagues.
I would like to suggest five changes, however. First, we must have confidence in the fact that we are producers of laws. We chose to live in a society where it is believed that all people are equal. We chose to live in a society where the rule of law is paramount and where social relationships are enshrined in laws. We are parliamentarians whose first concern is to produce laws. This is why bills are so important.
I wish all members could, once a year, produce a bill that would be voted on. I make a distinction between bills and motions. I think that, over the span of a year—there are 365 days in a year—which is divided into two parliamentary sessions, the 301 members of the House should have the opportunity to introduce a bill which, of course, would reflect a concern of their community. That bill would go through a three stage process and then be voted upon. The fact that the member would win or lose that vote is not what is important here. The purpose of a private member's bill is to tell the government “There is, in my community, such and such a concern that needs to be brought to your attention”.
And this is also true for members of the government majority. Let us not think that government members are satisfied with the way things work. We will certainly hear from members who are called backbenchers. I do like this expression, because a backbencher simply does not exist. We are all members of parliament who have the same responsibilities and who enjoy the same trust from our fellow citizens.
There is some dissatisfaction because we do not feel that we can really change things. One way to give more freedom to members of parliament so that they can truly be spokespersons for their communities would be to allow them to introduce bills that would be votable items.
I make a distinction as regards motions. In my opinion, motions should not automatically be votable items. If a member so indicates, then the motion should be voted on, of course. The member would then use up his turn.
It is important that, in a given year, each member have the possibility of triggering a debate on a motion or a bill reflecting a concern of his or her community. During the course of our parliamentary mandate—assuming that it would last three or four years—we would have three or four opportunities to introduce bills.
The Sub-Committee on Private Members' Business circulated a questionnaire, which members of parliament had to fill out by April 27 and in which they were asked if they thought that this should be done by party. I do not want some time allotted to the Bloc Quebecois to discuss bills, because party politics are such that it would always be the most important bills, electorally speaking, that would be debated.
Let me give an example. In 1995, I introduced a bill to recognize same sex spouses. This was a controversial and relatively new issue on which there was no consensus.
I am not upset with the government, but do you know what subterfuge it used? The member for Saint-Léonard, who was the leader of the government at that time, called a vote at 11 o'clock on Monday morning. Because this was a controversial bill, there was not one minister in the House to vote on it, except the member for Hamilton East, who was responsible for Canadian Heritage and who showed great political courage. She was the only member of Cabinet to vote in favour of the bill.
I am not saying this to blame the government, but if we do not have strict rules that are equitable and applicable to all MPs, certain controversial matters will never get discussed. In a democracy, just because a question gets only minority support at one point in time does not mean that it cannot gain majority support at some other time.
I repeat, if we want our fellow citizens and our fellow MPs to have confidence in the parliamentary process, we have to allow bills to be debated and voted on.
The second amendment I would like to propose relates to parliamentary committees. When I was first elected as an MP, I was not even 30 unlike you, Mr. Chairman. Let us recall the situation. Mr. Bouchard was the leader of the Bloc Quebecois at that time. At the first Bloc caucus, he told the members “the place within the parliamentary system where an MP can really make his presence felt, where he can show what he knows and what he is capable of, is the parliamentary committee”.
A parliamentary committee is not supposed to be partisan. It is the only place we are supposed to work without any partisanship for the good of our fellow citizens.
The problem is that parliamentary committees become a tool of the government. For parliamentary committees to become a truly non-partisan working place, three conditions must be met.
The members appointed to these committees must not be removable. The whip must not be able to change them depending on whether or not he is happy with the work they have done. Members must remain on committees for the duration of the parliament and they must report only to the parliamentary committee to which they are assigned.
Second, committee chairs must be elected by secret ballot by all members of the committee. It is not necessary for a committee to be chaired by a member of the government majority. This may be the case, but the chair can be a member of the opposition.
Let us take the example of a member with extensive experience who is very knowledgeable about a subject and who has the trust of his colleagues. Chairing a parliamentary committee is a self-sacrifice because one gives up one's speaking time and takes on responsibility for management and administration. The work of a parliamentary committee involves a great deal of administration.
But if one has the trust of others as chair, if one is elected by secret ballot, and if committee members are not removable during the parliament, I believe that we have a guarantee of impartiality which will serve everyone.
Earlier, my colleague said that there is a problem with committees' travels. I agree with him because, too often, opposition members have taken a parliamentary committee hostage over travel matters.
I do not think that permission for a committee to travel should be based on unanimity. The rule of the majority should apply, because it is important that committees be able to travel. There are costs associated with democracy and there are costs when a committee travels. We cannot, on the one hand, hope that Canadians may have a forum to express their views and that we may become true spokespersons for our constituents and, on the other hand, still think that everything must be done in Ottawa.
On Thursday afternoon, the government will be submitting its bill on new reproduction technologies to the Standing Committee on Health, on which I sit. I will be begging for the committee to be authorized to travel across Canada in order to find out what Canadians, but not only Canadians, think of this issue.
So, this is another way for the committees to become more effective.
My third suggestion is very important. As a member, I presume that I have the trust of my constituents and that the trust they put in me sometimes leads me to act as a arbitrator. I know that the government member for Beauce works very hard for the Liberal caucus. I hope that members will be provided with financial support for community organizations to the tune of around $1 per constituent.
As the member for Hochelaga—Maisonneuve, if I had $90,000 or $100,000—which is not a whole lot—I could as a community leader elected by the people give $3,000, $4,000 of $5,000 to a community organization and tell its members “On behalf of my fellow citizens, I am offering a small amount of money to help you carry on. It is our way, as members of parliament, to keep an eye on what is going on in our communities”.
Of course, we would have to be held accountable. I would not have a problem if, once a year, I were asked to state in the local papers using my own advertising budget how I spent the $90,000 or $100,000 I am allocated, and my fellow citizens could know democratically how this money was spent.
I will now raise another point, which is the speaking time MPs should be allowed. I am not in a good position to say that, because, obviously, everyone knows that I like to talk a lot and that I generally use all the time allotted me. However, I think it can be said that in 20 minutes it is possible to cover the issue of a bill fairly well. I do not think speeches would have be limited to two speakers per party, since there may be a subject more than two people from a single party would like to speak on.
I say a 20 minute speech in general terms. But when we are at third reading, since we have become familiar with the principle of the bill, the bill has been examined in committee, and, generally speaking, we know the amendments the opposition parties want, I think we should be allowed 30 minutes, plus ten minutes for questions and comments, to have an in depth debate. Generally, when we are at third reading it means the bill is likely to be passed and is likely to apply to society as a whole.
So, in summary, I would like all bills to be votable items and all members to be able to introduce a votable bill once a year, which would mean three or four bills per mandate. I make a distinction between bills and motions because motions involve less work than the drafting of a bill.
I draw the members' attention to the fact that, these last few years, we did not always have the resources we needed as parliamentarians. We ought to remember the time when we had only three legislative counsels here, in the House of Commons, to draft all the amendments proposed in committee and all the bills. It was absurd.
There were reputable legislative counsels who paid dearly for their desire to serve their members well because, unfortunately, certain members of this House made representations that cost these people their jobs.
It is important to see to it that these legislative counsels are independent, that their only concern is their relationship with the members they serve and that, as parliamentarians, we have all the resources we need to ensure that the drafting of a bill does not take three, four or five months.
Mr. Chairman, I want to address one small criticism to you, a friendly criticism. You are my respected friend and everyone knows of your willingness to serve this House. However when, taking a practice at Westminster as your inspiration, you expressed the desire to limit Parliamentarians' right to express themselves on the matter of the amendments, to not allow certain amendments to be introduced before the House but through the committees, and when you restricted members' access to introducing amendments, it is my feeling that, although far from your intention, you have done considerable harm to parliamentarians.
A bill is something dynamic, and it should be the members' prerogative to decide whether they want to bring amendments before a committee or before the House. Taking your cue directly from Westminster—and we are aware of just how much you admire the mother of parliaments—could unfortunately lead to our being gagged as parliamentarians.
I am bringing all our good feelings for each other into play to call upon you to review this decision, to be the true small-l liberal one needs to be in a democracy, to allow all parliamentarians to use all possible forums to bring amendments before this House, without their having to be screened by a committee or subjected to any restriction other than the need to be compatible with the bill in question.
That is all I have to say. I hope our debate will be a profitable one. I am very confident that the government and all of the opposition parties want to work together to ensure that MPs' duties are rehabilitated. If the duties of the MPs are rehabilitated, then all politicians will benefit.