Mr. Chairman, I know you have an important role to play with regard to the committee that the House has charged to look into the modernization of parliament issue.
I find it very fascinating the work that has been done and the proposals which have been presented, for instance the leadoff debate by the government House leader. Much of that was discussed at committee and unanimous consent is mandated for any changes. I understand there is very good progress so far.
Interestingly enough though, the entire debate has split into two channels. The committee as I understand it is dealing with the procedures of the House such as how to make it run smoothly, how to deal with filibustering and report stage motions which are frivolous and how do we make it more efficient? All those points are very characteristically how does this place work.
The other stream that has taken a life of its own has to do with the premise that there is a question as to the relevance of members of parliament and how do we engage the public and convince them that they have a role to play and a say? That is the citizen engagement issue.
The member talked about the public as if they were a homogeneous group but they are not. Across the country very few members of parliament had more than 50% of the vote in any riding. So the views of constituents in a particular riding are going to be divergent. There is going to be a bit of everything.
There are certain things that go beyond partisan purposes or objectives. Members of parliament on committee and when they do special work seek items that can go beyond the partisanship. We have an official Opposition and other opposition parties, and their role is to be the opposition. The government's role is to implement its mandate. Its democratically elected government has a constitutional obligation to deliver a program under which it was elected.
The members of the governing party are considered to be sheep because they support the platform on which they ran. How ironic, of course they have to support the plan on which they ran. There are issues that are not specific in the platform but certainly are specific in a party's policy such as a long standing policy background. It is clear that the thrust of most of the voting here probably is reflective of either the platform or the policy of a particular party.
The member who just spoke raised some issues. There are issues related to the environment, reproductive technologies, some cloning and stem cell harvesting and other issues which could go way beyond partisanship. These are things I can study and get into. We can hear witnesses, come up with good reports and help government fashion a legislative and regulatory framework which could guide some of these things that are evolving in our society. This is where the participatory democracy comes from, when we can find those ways to set aside the partisanship.
I will take this opportunity to suggest three or four items that I would like the committee to look at in trying to provide some guidance in shaping some of the things that happen in this place.
The first one is the concept of relevance. I must admit there was one member who spoke earlier who said that if there was time to speak, he always got up because he loved to speak. We have to exercise personal discipline. The Chair has some discretion to impose or to raise the question of relevance when members rise and tend to ramble on or repeat themselves et cetera. The efficiency of the operation of the House, if enforced judiciously, would encourage members who like to speak for the sake of speaking to check themselves periodically.
The whole aspect of debate within the House, and it would spill over to committees, is to make it much more relevant and crisp. In the British parliament the speeches of ministers on very important bills are very rarely more than 10 minutes long. There are certain points to be made and many of them have been well debated, but when we get down to it, a minister does not need 40 minutes to speak on a bill. Quite frankly, it is very difficult to fashion a good speech to last 40 minutes and keep everybody there.
The issue of relevance should not be overlooked in terms of the principle that the members should try to discipline themselves on that. However the Chair should also encourage us to keep on point and ensure that we do not act in a partisan way simply to repeat or to somehow stretch the envelope into areas that are not terribly relevant to the matter before the House.
The issue of question and comment is an area which leads to a lot of abuse in the House in that regard, simply from the standpoint that comment generally lends itself to members speaking for some time and raising new issues which were not in a member's speech. It tends to sidetrack the focus on the comments of a previous speaker.
I am hoping that the relevance issue will play an important role in shaping a signal for discipline by all members. Personally imposed and with the assistance of the Chair, I think we could be more efficient within the House.
I was fascinated to learn the longstanding tradition in the British parliamentary system, and I have not seen written rules on this, is that speeches should not be read in the House unless they are quoting from some references or providing detailed technical information. One member responded very quickly by saying that he had a lot to say, that he had 10 points to get across and he could not do it by memory.
I am not suggesting that members should not have any paper in front of them. Certainly they could have one page which would have the themes to which they were speaking. However imagine what would happen to the quality of the speaking within the House if members had to address the House rather than read to the House?
It would be very important for us to consider whether or not members should come here with their piles of papers. As the cameras film them giving their speech all that would show would be the tops of their heads. I have often thought, when watching CPAC and the proceedings of the House, that those members who address the House have eye contact. They can sense whether or not they have lost people or whether they are grumbling. There can almost be an interactive dialogue going on simply by checking the mood of the House.
It is important that we consider the great orators of parliamentary tradition. That skill has been lost.
Why is it that people can come in here with canned speeches and read them. If the paper were taken away from them and they were asked to carry on, they would probably say in many cases that they could not because they do not know very much about the subject they were in the House talking about. It would be terribly embarrassing for some members.
I hate to say this but, if that is the case, what is the relevance of a member standing up here? We might as well simply circulate the speech to all members or put it on their ParlNet. If a speaking spot opened up on a subject on which the member was not too familiar he or she could just read the speech.
I think the relevance of speaking in the House has to reflect the fact that these people have evidentiary knowledge or have done their research because the subject matter is something that is important to them. Debate is to try to sway opinion. I do not think many people are moved by looking at the top of someone's head as they read a speech prepared for them by somebody else.
Much has been said about committees. Committees have a very important role to play if they can get their act together. Fortunately we have some committees that do extremely well. I would think the finance committee has an excellent reputation. The foreign affairs committee has quite a good reputation. The environment committee to some extent has a pretty good reputation because it has strong leadership, et cetera, and I think the people on it are very interested. They continue to educate themselves and champion important initiatives.
One of the big problems we have with five official parties, and the need to put members on different committees—I think it is 16 members—is that it spreads us very thin. Members who have served on two committees know what I am talking about. I know of a number of cases where members are on two committees and the committees happen to meet at exactly the same time.
How can a member properly prepare let alone keep up with committee work? It is unfortunate that we are in that situation but there is not much we can do about it because we have five official parties. It was a lot different when there were three parties. We could have 10 members or maybe even 8 members on a committee and still do some good work. Quite frankly, more work would get done on committees if there were fewer members.
One of the committees' principal responsibilities is to deal with government bills. In committee today we went through clause by clause of a bill and some 30 amendments were proposed by the government. I would think by and large that most of those amendments were housekeeping in nature. No major changes were made to the thrust of the bill. The committee took a long time to deal with the bill which created a lot of frustration among the members, particularly those in opposition. They did not like the idea that the government was ramming through a bunch of changes.
It was very clear though, by watching the opposition members' growing frustration, that they were not quite aware of the way in which bills are dealt with at committee, particularly at clause by clause, and in fact did not know their rights as committee members. They could have put forward their own amendments and called for recorded votes. They could also have stood clauses for later consideration while they consulted with someone. This tends to support the suggestion of one member that an MP school might be important.
When I became a member of parliament and we received orientation in early 1994, the one day orientation was sadly lacking. There was more information than could possibly be absorbed. It certainly did not prepare us for what we had to do. We were just told to fend for ourselves and hopefully we would learn a little bit.
Interestingly enough, this time around after the election, there were, I believe, 17 new members of our caucus. I penned a 10 page typed letter on a potpourri of items just as a heads up. I probably could have gone on a lot longer.
It strikes me that some of the day to day ordinary activities of members of parliament do not get communicated to MPs. I think we do a terrible job, quite frankly, on orienting MPs on the day to day activities.
What is duty? What are votes? What are motions? What does it mean when the Speaker says “on division”? Those things are not written in too many places unless we start using enormous textbooks. We should probably start building a pragmatic manual for members of parliament so they can better understand budgeting, House duty, House hours, private members' business and where they can get help. They do not realize that they do not need a legislative assistant. The library of parliament is there with a large number of people with PhDs who are prepared to do all kinds of work for them.
The resources we have are enormous. I can look around this place at members who have been here particularly from the class of '93 or earlier. I can point to each one of them and tell exactly the niche they have found for themselves in this place and the contributions they have made. Regardless of partisan stripe, I know that each and every one of them looks for a way to make a contribution and find their niche, usually related to either their riding or their own personal experience or expertise.
I have no sympathy for members who just whine about things and say they do not get this or that. There is an onus on each individual member of parliament to take up the challenge and to understand that the best way to get an item past the chair, whether one is a government member or an opposition member, is to get a bill or a motion before the House, to have it voted on by the members and passed. The very best outcome is to do the best job possible to garner consensus, to get public support and to convince the government that it should take on the item and introduce it, just as the member for Sackville—Musquodoboit Valley—Eastern Shore said. He had an idea on the blood issue but it did not go the way he wanted. Good ideas should bypass partisanship.
The last thing I want to talk about has not been mentioned yet. I hope the House will take this in the spirit in which it is given. The premise is that Canadians do not feel engaged or they do not seem to understand parliament. I told the member from Scarborough what my agenda is. A lot of people were amazed. They did not know what I did.
It seems to me that we are not doing a very good job of explaining to Canadians at large the scope of activity that goes on. More important, I do not think Canadians feel connected to this place. They can watch CPAC if they can get away from work but that means sitting in front of a television.
I am hoping there is a way to do this. I am wondering why I as a member of parliament or a constituent of mine cannot tune in to a radio band and listen to the proceedings of the House of Commons of Canada. Why can I not follow the debate unless I am not in front of a television? Why do my constituents need to be in front of a television to hear me speak on an issue that concerns them or to hear the questions I am asked or the answers that I give?
How hard could it be for the Parliament of Canada to communicate to Canadians the activities in the House? Question period is not a good reflection on members of parliament and the quality of work in this place. The debate on bills, motions, opposition day motions and the like are very interesting and very important to a lot of people out there.
I raise that with you, Mr. Chairman, in the hope that you will bring it to the committee to find out if there is a possibility for Canadians to listen to the House of Commons when there are matters of importance they would like to hear rather than waiting for Hansard to be published or going to the library if they do not have access to the Internet.
If it is important enough to be debated in this place it is important enough for Canadians to be aware of it and to be aware of it on a timely basis. The broadcasting angle may be a way to address that need and to connect with Canadians about the important work in this place.