House of Commons Hansard #52 of the 37th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was chapter.


Modernization Of The Standing Orders Of The House Of CommonsGovernment Orders

8:25 p.m.


Peter Adams Liberal Peterborough, ON

Mr. Chairman, I listened with great interest to what our colleague had to say. Some of the things he said I have great sympathy for. Some I have less sympathy for, but I was concerned about his tone. Most members this evening have avoided blaming whatever faults there are in the system, and no system is perfect, on the government.

I realize that in a majority parliament the majority has a good deal of sway. However I honestly believe that in the end the operation of this place depends on the co-operation of all parties and members. When we have unanimous consent on an issue almost anything can be done, as we all know.

I would like the hon. member's comments on a few things. We need all parties to make committees work. I believe televising committees gives them more power and influence. Public input carries more weight when it is televised across the country.

The last time I was involved with discussions about the televising of committees there were all sorts of hang ups, including those of leaders of the opposition parties, about whether it would make committees freer than they are at present.

I wonder if the member would commit to televising committees more than they are now. Would he compromise a bit on the views of his House leader and other House leaders so that we can get our committees out to the Canadian people through television?

The second point relates to committee travel. Our committees have more influence when they travel, and it has nothing to do with the standing orders. Visiting the regions of this great country is not only the right thing. It allows committees to carry more moral authority.

I was parliamentary secretary to the government House leader for two years. When I was last involved with travel arrangements in the House the most common reason for not travelling was lack of unanimous consent by the opposition parties.

I ask the member if he would work with his party and other opposition parties to make it easier for our committees to travel. It would give them more strength. I understand the difficulties the smaller parties have with committee travel, but it is a practical thing and has nothing to do with the standing orders.

I would also like to see more formal use made of the small quorum committees already have for hearing witnesses and receiving testimony. We do not need a full quorum to receive testimony.

I know it is difficult for the small parties to staff committees. However if they had the confidence of their House leaders they could give committees the authority to operate for several meetings, knowing there would be only five or six members and that the number would vary with the size of the committee. They could then hear testimony and report back. That would feed back into the travel arrangements as well.

The hon. member mentioned the formation of subcommittees. That is very special in this parliament. The subcommittees are effectively small equivalents of our large committees, but I think committees operating comfortably with a small quorum would work. It would be practical and would not need a change to the standing orders. It would simply need the willingness of the committee.

The next thing would be to strengthen the liaison committee. The liaison committee is the committee of chairs of committees, which I believe should have much more influence over the operation of committees. To give you an example, I have been to the liaison committee as chair of a committee with a unanimous direction of my committee, including the unanimous direction of each of the parties opposite, only to have what I proposed annulled by the opposition members on the liaison committee.

Or, going back to the power of the liaison committee, it is the liaison committee's requests for committees to travel that are annulled by opposition parties when they come to the House.

Would the member work with me to strengthen the liaison committee and through it strengthen the role of members of parliament?

Lastly, this is much more to do with the government, that is, to have the chairs of committees being given status equivalent to that of parliamentary secretaries. I believe it would be a simple step that would encourage members to seek the chairs of committees and to stay longer in their positions as committee chairs to get some continuity between years. It would give them more confidence and as a result would strengthen the committees.

Would the member be willing, rather than simply blaming the government side, to work with his party and the other opposition parties to strengthen committees in ways such as those?

Modernization Of The Standing Orders Of The House Of CommonsGovernment Orders

8:30 p.m.

Canadian Alliance

Deepak Obhrai Canadian Alliance Calgary East, AB

Mr. Chairman, my colleague from the NDP is telling me to say yes.

Modernization Of The Standing Orders Of The House Of CommonsGovernment Orders

8:30 p.m.

An hon. member

It's the only way I can get in on it.

Modernization Of The Standing Orders Of The House Of CommonsGovernment Orders

8:30 p.m.

Canadian Alliance

Deepak Obhrai Canadian Alliance Calgary East, AB

Mr. Chairman, actually he is absolutely right. For the first time I am hearing some positive suggestions on the committees. On all the suggestions that have been made I do not have any difficulty, except maybe a caveat here or there, but on the general scheme of things, no. A caveat for argument's sake on TV, yes. I think it is a good idea. It is accountable. We will probably have to be accountable for committee travel.

I think travelling is a good idea because we want to hear from Canadians and not all Canadians can come here. However, I do have a problem with travel. A judgment has to be made on travel. We cannot just have blind requests coming from every committee. When I was vice chair of a committee I definitely looked at the purpose of the travel, how it worked and what the advantages were. I will tell members that I did extensive travelling on the foreign affairs and international trade committee on the WTO hearings. I thought we were totally wasting our time and our money at some of the places we went to because the input was hopeless.

I agree, but what I am saying is that there is a need to sit down and review it and see if this travelling we are doing gives Canadians a voice. I do not have an objection to it, but every travel request should be looked at to see if it functions within the broader objective of getting what we want to get at. At times we are denied travel because the government is muscling its majority and not giving it to us.

On continuity, yes, there is nothing wrong with it. We do need to have continuity in a committee. Also, the idea of smaller committees is good. We need to have smaller committees to be effective. What the member is saying to me is that he recognizes that committees need improvement and that all members of parliament, not only the opposition members but every member of parliament, should be feeling that they are contributing to that committee and doing an important job.

I am sorry, but right now if we were in the government and we had a parliamentary secretary over there, the hon. member would probably be standing up saying the same thing to me and saying to take the parliamentary secretary off, because then the government would not control it. So the hon. member is right.

Modernization Of The Standing Orders Of The House Of CommonsGovernment Orders

8:35 p.m.


Peter Stoffer NDP Sackville—Musquodoboit Valley—Eastern Shore, NS

Mr. Chairman, I appreciate the opportunity to speak. If I may ask the indulgence of the House, I would like to thank the Tory caucus staff and the New Democratic caucus staff for holding a wonderful birthday party on the sixth floor and I will say happy birthday to the hon. member whose birthday was celebrated.

On a more serious note, talking about committees, I would like to ask the hon. member from Calgary a question in regard to the effectiveness of a committee. One thing I feel very proud of is my work on the fisheries and oceans committee from 1997 to 2000. Out of that committee we produced 13 reports, 8 of them unanimous. The one I am most proud of is the east coast report. As we all know there was a crisis in the cod fishery and the ground fishery on the east coast. That report cost Canadian taxpayers $182,000. We travelled extensively throughout Atlantic Canada.

All five parties unanimously agreed to every single word of the report. When we moved consensus of that report in the House of Commons through a vote, guess what happened? The same Liberals who signed the report and agreed to every single word voted against it.

My question, then, is this: what are we telling the people we spoke to? We spent an awful lot of their money listening to them. We spent an awful lot of their money travelling in helicopters and on hotels and for meals, et cetera. Those people spent a considerable amount of their energies and efforts coming to the committee to listen, to talk to us and to pour out their stories. One man near Pouch Cove poured out his heart about the fact that he only had 18 cents left in his bank account because he was running out of TAGS money.

The Liberals were there. They heard the stories. The parliamentary secretary heard them. We made a report. It was unanimous. We sent it on to the House for consent and the same Liberals that worked on that report then voted against their own report.

I am very proud of committee work. It is essential to what we do as parliamentarians.

My question, then, is very clear. When this happens in Canada, does that not send a very negative message to Canadians? We are saying we will listen to them, do a unanimous report, bring it to the House and then the government side will ignore it.

Modernization Of The Standing Orders Of The House Of CommonsGovernment Orders

8:35 p.m.

Canadian Alliance

Deepak Obhrai Canadian Alliance Calgary East, AB

Mr. Chairman, frankly I have no comment except to say that this is exactly what I am saying. We feel that after working so hard in the committees at the end of the day it does not go anywhere. The member has given a dandy example of it. Then we ask what we were doing on the committee. This applies to the members on the government side as well.

We are not in a boxing match. We are trying to see how we can really work this out with suggestions from this side and that side.

The point he indicated about committees was to say how committees can be ineffective. Maybe the government did not want it. If it did not want it, its members could have been told.

We need effective committees. The member is right. He has used an excellent example.

Modernization Of The Standing Orders Of The House Of CommonsGovernment Orders

8:35 p.m.


Réal Ménard Bloc Hochelaga—Maisonneuve, QC

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.

Modernization Of The Standing Orders Of The House Of CommonsGovernment Orders

8:55 p.m.

Mississauga South Ontario


Paul Szabo LiberalParliamentary Secretary to Minister of Public Works and Government Services

Mr. Chairman, I thank the member for his comments. They were well thought out.

I congratulate him for speaking without reading. It is one of the unwritten traditions of parliament that speeches should not be read. Written material can be referred to for quotations or detailed technical information. The enthusiasm and sincerity comes across much more clearly to people when notes are not read, so I congratulate the member for that. All members could learn from that. Possibly our committee should consider maybe applying that because I would rather see members faces than the top of their heads when they are reading a speech.

I want to just question the hon. member briefly on the private members' business. I had much success in the 35th parliament. I had three or four items selected, three of them were votable. In the 36th parliament I had none selected. So it has been either feast or famine.

It seems to me that there are more members than we could possibly deal with all votes and that is not possible. If we do not get our item past second reading and the session ends, our matter dies and we have to go back into the lottery et cetera. We can only have an item carried forward from a session if it has passed second reading. Then it could be reinstated at the same spot.

My point is that there are far too many members and far too many ideas out there for which to do justice.

Perhaps the solution would be to establish more rigorous criteria so we could come up with legislation that would be more innovative and timely and which would capture the imagination and support of a significant number of members in the House not just at committee. I believe the entire House must opine on the calibre of legislation in order to allow it to go the full process.

I suggest and support a process where the private members' business committee would not deem votability but rather assess criteria compliance. The House would then deal with whether the bar on a particular bill or motion should be set higher.

Motion No. 155 dealing with health warning labels is an example of a motion where a bill would not have been any more concrete. We need more relevant bills regardless of the fact that we have strong criteria. It would be nice to know that if a bill or a motion meets the criteria and passes the hurdle it will get a hearing. It would raise us all to a higher level in terms of quality of bills and motions.

Modernization Of The Standing Orders Of The House Of CommonsGovernment Orders

9 p.m.


Réal Ménard Bloc Hochelaga—Maisonneuve, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to refer to the questionnaire that the clerk of the subcommittee on private members' business distributed to all members of parliament.

A major distinction was made between a subjective and an objective criterion. We should rely on an objective criterion. This means that, once a year, all members should have the right to see one of their bills or motions voted on. If we start setting criteria, we might ask ourselves what is an innovative measure, an original measure, an unprecedented measure.

Each member of parliament and each political party may have a very subjective view of what is an unprecedented, original and innovative measure. We must start from the premise that all members of parliament are committed to the common good. Not all of them will want to introduce a bill, but we must start from the principle that they all want the common good and that they speak on behalf of their communities.

A bill may be extremely important to my community, but less so for another one. Unfortunately, this cannot be used as a criterion to accept or reject that bill. All members of parliament must be able to play their role as legislators and be able to have a vote on an issue that concerns their community.

The hon. member began his remarks by saying that, in the previous parliament, three of his bills became votable items, but our colleague here did not have any bill become a votable item in recent years. This is why parliamentarians do not all show the same interest.

Here, just about all of us represent 80,000 people. We all have the same salary. We all have the same legitimacy. If all members had the opportunity once a year, that is, three or four times in their mandate, to have a bill or a motion voted on, I think we would be very happy with the system.

I will close by telling you that we should do the analysis. I have no doubt that, if we asked the Chair and the clerks how many really outlandish bills there have been, that would embarrass us as parliamentarians over the past 10 years, I for one have not seen many that were really off the wall. It is true that I have seen some that did not reflect my political philosophy.

That explains why in a democracy we belong to different political parties. However, I think the members are sufficiently mature to prepare well drafted responsible bills that reflect their community. Very few bills have been totally crazy and a discredit to parliament.

Modernization Of The Standing Orders Of The House Of CommonsGovernment Orders

9 p.m.


Peter Stoffer NDP Sackville—Musquodoboit Valley—Eastern Shore, NS

Mr. Speaker, I have a clarification for the committee of the whole. Mr. Bill Rodgers, media relations for the leader of the Conservative Party, is celebrating his birthday this evening. I just wanted to extend congratulations to him.

My question for the hon. member from the Bloc is this. The other day I had a bill drawn actually from the committee and it was deemed non-votable. Thirty bills and motions were combined and the committee only picked seven. Mine, unfortunately, was not of them. It concerned hepatitis awareness month and it was a non-monetary. I thought it was a great idea.

The bill was not my idea. It was the idea of a lot of people who are suffering from different forms of hepatitis. They asked me if I would, as a member of parliament, be able to do something. They said that we have breast cancer awareness month, this month and that month but that we do not have anything for hepatitis. Over 700,000 Canadians have been inflicted with this disease.

I moved the bill but it was deemed non-votable. We had the hour debate. All opposition supported it wholeheartedly. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health supported it, but he said that since the department said no that he had to say no to make it votable. The parliamentary secretary, the only one in the House that day, stood up and voted no, making a tremendous amount of people very angry.

The good news about this bill is quite clear. The minister himself decided, through whatever parameters he is allowed to operate, and the parliamentary secretary said it yesterday as a statement in the House and today in a conference in Montreal, he stated to all these people that the month of May henceforth will be known as hepatitis awareness month.

I personally congratulate the minister for taking the initiative to do that. Over 700,000 Canadians also thank the minister for acknowledging their concern.

What I wonder is why we had to go through that whole process when it was a straightforward bill. I had 100 signatures from both sides to get it approved yet it was deemed non-votable. I tried to make it votable but the government said no. The minister then turns around and says yes. I thanked the minister for that publicly but why did we have to go through that type of process to make what I thought was a straightforward bill move along?

Modernization Of The Standing Orders Of The House Of CommonsGovernment Orders

9:05 p.m.


Réal Ménard Bloc Hochelaga—Maisonneuve, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am tempted to say jokingly that it was to try the member's patience, to see whether he really had any. He certainly did, of course.

But, on a more serious note, I think that what the member is saying is that this was a bill that had no impact on the public purse and was wanted by all parties.

I remember taking part in this debate one Friday, and our colleague was very eloquent. The only thought that comes to mind is that, when we are considering a bill, we should judge it on its merit alone and not on who is sponsoring it.

If the government introduces a good bill, I believe that all political parties will vote in favour of it. Regardless of whether or not the government is introducing it and whether or not we are members of the government, if the opposition introduces a good bill, the House should vote in favour of it. Once again, we must come up with a system which allows this freedom of thought and this respect for the work of parliamentarians.

I understand the disappointment of the member, who worked hard to draft a bill. Furthermore, he had invited Mr. Haché, who was here with us in the House.

If there is one thing that needs to be changed, it is how private members' bills are treated. I am confident—because a majority of parliamentarians understand the importance of this—that we will arrive at a solution which will satisfy all members.

Modernization Of The Standing Orders Of The House Of CommonsGovernment Orders

9:05 p.m.

Canadian Alliance

Garry Breitkreuz Canadian Alliance Yorkton—Melville, SK

Mr. Chairman, I want to correct my colleague from Mississauga South on three points he made in his brief intervention a moment ago.

First, his mathematics are not quite up to snuff here. He said that we would not be able to have all members have a bill made votable in the life of a parliament.

If a parliament is approximately 600 days in total, although it may be only 500 days, but if we do sit 150 days for four years that is 600 days. If there were 300 members and we had two hours a day devoted to private members' business, which is something I would like to see, every member would get his or her bill made votable if we had two hours of debate. That was one of the options put forward in a questionnaire.

If we were to limit the debate to two hours per bill or motion, which I think is reasonable, each member could have one bill or one motion made votable during the life of one parliament. It is possible. To simply dismiss that as impossible is not right.

The second thing I would like to correct is that labelling a motion as having the same weight as a bill is not quite accurate. Using the example of the labelling of alcohol containers that we voted on is a prime example of how a motion is not the same as a bill. I could support that motion but I could never have supported a bill. The motion was very fuzzy. It just wanted to examine the issue, and yes, of course I could examine the issue. A bill would have been more definite.

The third thing he mentioned is that he would like to have all MPs speak from the heart and not use notes. The way parliament is structured, if I have a 10 minute speech and a lot of points to make I do not have time to make it up. I need to get all my points in very quickly and I need them to be tightly structured. Because of the way the system is set up we often are forced to go to notes. I am not using notes tonight. It is easy to say that we should not use notes but it is more difficult to practice under the constraints of parliament if one has a lot to say.

Let me get into the remarks I wanted to make. For those who are watching on television, this is a take note debate which is very different from the normal debates that take place in parliament. I appreciate the government allowing us an opportunity to talk about the standing orders that govern the House. For the people who are watching and do not know what the standing orders are, they are the rules that we play by in parliament. They are the rules that govern us. In essence, they govern how democracy unfolds at this level in parliament.

I appreciate the opportunity to make some brief remarks on a couple of select issues. I could go off on all kinds of things and it does not mean I do not have an opinion on them, but we have to make some changes here. Unless we change the system we will not change much else in the country.

I spoke at a high school this afternoon, about a 20 minute drive out of Ottawa. One of the things the students gave back to me as I spoke about what goes on in this place is that they do not see much meaningful activity happening here. I do not think those students are at all out of touch with what is going on. In fact, I get that across the country.

That is a very sad commentary on what happens here. If we are in fact the highest court in the land and we are making the laws by which all Canadians have to play, the laws that govern the country and set the tone for what we feel is right and wrong, we need to be perceived as having open debate and that Canadians have input into what we do here. They need to feel that this is a meaningful activity and that through their member of parliament they have a voice in what is happening in parliament.

The cynicism that is developing across the country about the political process is becoming so ingrained that if we do not start making some changes here, it will be very difficult to turn that around.

What is one change we could make? We could make private members' business votable and make any consequential changes that may be required in order to do that. I feel very strongly that if we were to make that simple change and allow members to have a free vote on that, it would begin to change the way parliament is perceived across the country. It would give us a lot more credibility as we participate in things. That seemingly small change could send a ripple effect through the entire Chamber that would begin to go out across the country.

The students I spoke to this afternoon asked me what they could do. They said they felt helpless in influencing things that happen in the country. They felt their voices were not being heard. They felt they could not meaningfully participate in the debate.

If we made private members' business votable, I do not believe that debate would take place for only two hours. As an issue is raised and over the three or six months the issue is before parliament people across the country would begin to debate it. That is the problem as I perceive it.

The problem is not just in parliament. The problem is that people do not debate things across the country. They do not take an interest in what happens in Canada. People do not feel they have to scratch beneath the surface on issues because somebody else will do it for them.

We have to give people a voice. We need committees that travel and do meaningful work. MPs have to tell people that a certain issue would be coming up in parliament and ask them what they think about it. That would begin to send out the message that MPs are playing a very meaningful role in representing their constituents. This could happen through private members' business. It could reinvigorate this place like nothing else I know. It would begin to make MPs feel a lot more meaningful in what they do.

A lot of MPs feel alienated in that they do not have a lot of roles to play in what is going on in this place. By making private members' business votable, many things would happen as a result.

Private members' business would probably be debated more than some of the government legislation in the House. We would begin to have conversations in parliament, behind the scenes and across the country on issues that really matter to Canadians. The lack of respect for parliament that has begun to creep in would be reversed. That would be a very healthy thing. The more we could make people feel that they are part of the process and that they have control over issues that govern them, the more they would take an interest in the affairs of the country.

At election time we can create an impression and get votes. However we have to be sure that when people vote they vote on meaningful issues that really affect their lives. I speak from somebody who has gone through three elections now when I say that is something that needs to happen in Canada.

I do not wish to belabour these points. I could elaborate on every one of them. We have to make sure that people across Canada have the feeling that they have meaningful input into the process that is used in this place to govern them. One of those things would be to reinvigorate private members' business.

As deputy whip I happen to sit on the committee, so I have been able to give this a little more thought than most members. I feel very strongly that this is something we need to do. I would suggest increasing the time for private members' business as well. If it is possible to have it for two hours a day or an equivalent amount on a Friday or a Monday, we should try and fit that in. It would be a very healthy thing to do.

I mentioned that this might divert attention away from government business. I do not know if that is a positive or a negative. The government might view it as a positive, not having all the focus on its legislation, but it could also be very negative because what it introduces is very important legislation. We need to have that considered and looked at.

All the problems we have will not be solved by that. I am not naive enough to believe that, but it would be a step in the right direction. I urge the government to work on that and maybe some of my colleagues would like to ask me some questions about it.

The media tend to focus on leadership and on issues that really are not all that significant in the grand scheme of things when they report things on the evening news. This is another problem we also have. By making private members' business votable and by beginning to focus more on issues, we would get away from some of the extraneous stuff that often occupies a lot of media attention. That is true of every political party. That is not a partisan issue. It would be healthy to get issues discussed rather than personalities and scandals.

I can see a lot of good spinoff benefits from this. I want to put that on the record. If anybody has any comments, I would appreciate hearing from them.

Modernization Of The Standing Orders Of The House Of CommonsGovernment Orders

9:20 p.m.

Canadian Alliance

Ken Epp Canadian Alliance Elk Island, AB

Mr. Chairman, I would like to respond to a couple of things. With respect to the number of hours required, I would point out to my colleague and to the other members that not all 301 members would have a private member's bill that they would want to put forward.

If we look at the order paper right now, and even the notices of bills, we find 25% of members at most have submitted private members' bills. The issue of how many people would have their name in the hat at any time is greatly exaggerated if we are thinking of 301 members. At most it would be 100 members, so that would alleviate the time.

I will repeat a comment that I made earlier today as the personalities in the House have totally changed. We should have a deal whereby nobody gets seconds until everyone has had firsts. That is the way we used to do it at camp. Everyone got through the line for food and no one went through for the second time until everyone had firsts. Can you see, Mr. Chairman, if I went through the second time? I always made sure that I got enough the first time.

That would be a good way of doing this. All members who have a private member's bill they would like to submit would present it as we do now. Their name would go into the hat. When there is a draw we would draw them but not put their name back until there are no names left. That way if other members have a bill then their name would go in the hat. Those that have their bills ready would be eligible for each draw until they are drawn. Once they are drawn then other members would take precedence over them.

I have said this before. The hon. member for Mississauga South has had five private members' bills drawn and I have had none, so it would increase the fairness.

Modernization Of The Standing Orders Of The House Of CommonsGovernment Orders

9:20 p.m.


Reg Alcock Liberal Winnipeg South, MB

Mr. Chairman, when I last spoke I tried to differentiate between the debate changes that need to take place that would be rightly fitted under some topic of parliamentary reform.

Some of the issues and the challenges that the Chamber faces are of much greater magnitude than we would deal with in the debate. We have to deal with finding ways of changing this place to make it fit better with the ever changing community that we live in.

Some of the problems that we face are as a result of the Chamber being unable to find ways to move the pace of the external community. I will not spend a lot of time on that tonight. We are here to talk consequentially, to offer some advice to the committee about specific changes to the operations of the House that may produce the kind of effect that would allow members of the community to see this place as more relevant.

I do not mean to dismiss some of the talk about private members' bills and other instruments. They are not unimportant and their process is not unimportant. I do however wish to make one point. We are dealing with an odd kind of loss of authority. It is an odd kind of loss of authority because the House has enormous authority. Committees have enormous authority.

There is an incredible power in this place. We make and change laws. We tax, spend and do all sorts of things. We, the members of this place, can do it. Yet for a couple of reasons that are hard to reconcile, it is difficult for us to function in a manner that expresses that authority in a useful or consequential way.

What I mean by that is that we have two things going on here. When the hon. member opposite talks about private members' bills and the importance of individual members being able to put forward a bill, one could argue that all bills emanating from the House should be the bills of all members.

One of the things that we have allowed to happen, and it is interesting to read some of the observations of people who have studied the British parliamentary system and studied this parliament, is very hot partisan debate that has very little to do with governing to intrude upon the process where law is made. When one talks to members of the House, particularly members who have been here for a long time or former members, and asks them what experiences they talk most about or feel proud of, they say committee work. They say that the real work is done in committees. That is where they have the debates.

At least two hon. members opposite are members who I have worked with on committee. We have had very real debates that have produced very real compromises which produced a permanence to legislation. We can all feel good about that if that is what we were doing here.

On the other hand we have the kind of debate that takes place in this Chamber. The problem with it is that it is easy to make fun of. I could say that we have spent the last however many months arguing about Shawinigate and I could deride the opposition about that. The fact is that we would have done the same thing if we were on the other side of the House. I was in opposition for a period of time. The fact is that in the public arena, through the eyes of the television camera, we get rewarded for outrageous behaviour and strategic outrageous attacks.

Attacking the credibility and the personality of the Prime Minister is, I would argue, not a very pleasant thing to do, not a very nice thing to do. Unfortunately I cannot argue that it is not a strategically smart thing to do. However it has nothing to do with running the country. It has to do with fighting the battles of politics, which are about getting oneself in the position where one has the power to govern.

The circle I cannot square is that we cannot control that debate because there is a reward for that debate. There is a reward for members opposite to make members on this side look like they are corrupt or stupid. There is a reward for members on this side to make members on the other side look like they are incompetent or whatever pejorative kind of phrases one wants to use. If there was not a public reward for it we would not be doing it, however distasteful it might be.

I do not blame anybody in the House because we all do the same. That is the way the community has trained us to behave in the same way that we have concerns about public servants because that is the way we have trained them to be. How do we step aside from that debate into that environment that we all want to be a part of, which is an environment that produces law?

If there were a consequential change right now in the context of this modernization of the rules, and modernization is a tough word to apply because we are not making it very modern, we could talk about a whole bunch of other things such as the House getting the tools to function in the world. Unfortunately that is a topic for another time given the focus of this debate.

If I had to recommend to you, Mr. Chairman, and to the other members of this committee one change that would have a significant impact on the operation of this place, it would be to create a process whereby members would be elected to a committee for the duration of a parliament.

The exact mechanism for that might be a combination of seniority in election, much as we do with parliamentary associations. When a member comes here he or she would know where they would be. They would make that choice and they would have to fight for it. Older members who had more experience would have a chance to get there. Members would have to convince their colleagues that they are the person to be elected to that committee in the same way you and Mr. Speaker had to convince your colleagues about the election of the Speaker. However once there we have a couple of things. We have stability. The election of the chairman becomes a consequence of that because members now own that committee. If we think about that for a second, there is a whole bunch of powers of authority that those committees have that we never exercise. Why we do not exercise them is really the question? We do not exercise them right now because there is a fear that sits out there that somehow we will not be on the committee any more or that each year we will have to face reconsideration for the committee.

However there is always talk about estimates. The estimates process in this place is a joke. It is a farce. We do not deal with estimates. We do not provide an accountability function to anything around here, in part because it is not consequential. We cannot do anything, so harrumphing about what has gone on in a department for a period of time is not worthwhile. The amount of work it takes to get a piece of information in order to have the harrumph is not worth the effort.

We made a bunch of changes when we came to government. If members focused on the system that is there, those committees would have enormous authority. The problem is we have allowed that partisan debate to intrude upon the committee debate, so in committee it is hard to have the kind of partnering that we would like to talk about. We have done it on occasion. I look across to one of the members who worked with me on a particular committee where we did a lot of that.

There is an aspect to committee travel that is very interesting. Not only do we get a chance to understand the country a little better, we get a chance to understand each other a little better. We get a sense of the shared values that we all have. Part of the real value of this place in a Canadian context is the way it acts as a massive kind of values clarification exercise. We all understand our country and what makes the country work a little better

The process is really simple. The departments come forward and say what they are planning to do. Has any committee ever held hearings on that and then written a report that has differed with the department's opinion of what they wanted to do? The committees have the authority to do it. If the department did not respond to that comment by putting in their estimates, the committee could delete the funding.

Everybody gets a little twitchy about that but not only would that cause a complete reconsideration on the part of the department or its relationship with the House, it would also cause members to take their actions seriously. Right now we can be as irresponsible as we want on committee because we do not affect anything. However if we actually committed an act that changed a policy, we would have to live with that and I think that would force us to be more serious.

We should think of the value we place on minority governments. Why is that? It is because we have to negotiate. We have to negotiate, we have to clarify our values, we have to debate and then we have to decide. Those functions could occur within committee.

Making members stable on committee, would that produce the kind of change we want? I am honestly not sure because I think the real problem in here is us and our unwillingness to exercise the authority that we have. However stabilizing members on committee, and committees already have the right to elect their own chair, would take away an excuse for why the place does not function in the way we would like it to function.

Very simply, I will help design the system for election but that one change, break the prerogative, the members control of it, and then trust us to mess up but as long as we do the right thing.

Modernization Of The Standing Orders Of The House Of CommonsGovernment Orders

9:30 p.m.

Canadian Alliance

Garry Breitkreuz Canadian Alliance Yorkton—Melville, SK

Mr. Chairman, I listened carefully to what the hon. member said and I agree with much of it.

I want to be a bit of a devil's advocate. The member talked about how we try to find scandals on the other side and the opposition is made to look like they do not know what they are talking about, et cetera. How much value does he perceive there is in question period?

Does the member think that question period meets a need that is somehow fulfilled in what is played out here every day? I have found some question periods to be valuable, but if we abolished question period would there be a great loss to the country? Is question period just a very easy way for the media to get something for its time slot every evening or is there a meaningful role to be played by question period?

I sense that question period is what you were referring to when you talked about the opposition looking for scandals in government and that the government was trying to make the opposition look like it did not know what it is talking about. What does the member honestly feel about question period?

Modernization Of The Standing Orders Of The House Of CommonsGovernment Orders

9:35 p.m.

The Chairman

Before the member replies, I would like to make a suggestion because we are on new ground. We should be cautious in terms of addressing one another directly across the floor. While it certainly appears to be a healthy, positive mood in the debate at this time should it change it becomes difficult to bring it back to some semblance of order.

Modernization Of The Standing Orders Of The House Of CommonsGovernment Orders

9:35 p.m.


Reg Alcock Liberal Winnipeg South, MB

Mr. Chairman, I have thought hard about this. The problem is that it is really easy to look at something like that and say that that is the problem, but the reality is it is what we do. It is easy to look at it and say it is inconsequential, stupid and noisy. Do I think the debate that took place here for the past couple of months served any great public purpose? Absolutely not. There is a saying I think about all the time: “For every complex problem there is a simple answer and it is wrong”. Let us do it with a partisan debate. Would it not be wonderful if we all just focused on solving problems?

The reality is the partisan debate is in part how we establish differences which is how we provide people with choice. The trouble is the hot medium of television has made it possible to focus attention around such minutia and forced it to get hotter so we no longer talk about problems, we use the big words like liar. We have to get a word like that out there in order to break through the fog.

However that is also the environment we live in. It is a real part of the environment. It is really easy to blame the press. The press is part of the process, it is not the problem. The problem is the human appetite for that kind of debate. People watch it, they are interested and make their decisions based on it. How did they make a decision in the last election? Was it on a bunch of images about where one party stood versus another one?

I agree with the sentiment that there needs to be more massive reform here but I am not certain we are ready to go down that road just yet. We need to think about that one a little more. Quite seriously, I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how this place can move faster and become more relevant in the lives of people. It is not by tinkering with these rules. I can think of little changes that might help in the short term but I think we all need to get focused on the bigger changes.

Modernization Of The Standing Orders Of The House Of CommonsGovernment Orders

9:35 p.m.


John McKay Liberal Scarborough East, ON

Mr. Chairman, I would like to thank my hon. colleague for his wonderful lead into the comment that I would like to offer to the debate. This is an excellent form of debate. It gives us an opportunity to talk somewhat more frankly than we might otherwise speak.

I would like to offer comments on three areas: personal behaviour of members; caucus reform; and parliamentary reform. There is not really a great deal of difference between caucus reform and parliamentary reform.

On the issue of personal behaviour, I find it of some embarrassment to go home on a regular basis and talk about what has happened here, particularly given people's experience with parliament which is question period, which really has nothing to do with questions and even less to do with answers.

The analogy I use when I talk to people in schools, whether it is high schools, universities or public schools, is that if we had to judge the education system by recess, we would probably question the value of our taxpayer dollar. Similarly, if we had to judge question period, we would question the value of our taxpayer dollar. Regrettably that is what colours the public's perception of what we do here.

I am a relatively new MP. I have been here almost four years. I expect that my experience was somewhat similar to others. It is a little like getting married. I really did not know what I was doing. No amount of preparation actually prepared me for this experience. The books are not of any particular usefulness.

I make a point of trying to explain to constituents what I actually do. I had that experience last Sunday afternoon. We are all prone to meet with constituents. There was a group of about 50 or 75 people. I went through my agenda for the last three weeks and explained what it I did, the interactions I had with people and what the issues were. Over the course of half an hour to 45 minutes I did not lose a soul in that conversation. They were quite fascinated by what an MP does outside this Chamber and particularly outside of question period.

I developed a series of points that really are random and somewhat haphazard, but that I think would move us from the point of personal behaviour as we interact with each other to points of caucus reform to points of parliamentary reform, which I hope would be helpful.

I think members, as points of communications with constituents, should publish their agendas and tell people what they are doing. They should explain the issues that are of concern to them.

It strikes me as quite strange that parliament is not particularly proactive in explaining itself to the Canadian public. The counter distinction is amazing when we think about it. The Prime Minister's office literally has dozens of people who do nothing but promote the Prime Minister in a variety of areas, and justifiably so. Ministers literally have dozens of people in their offices who do nothing but promote the agenda of the minister and promote the minister.

The same cannot be said for either parliament as an institution or members of parliament who have little opportunities to communicate. The irony is that unless a member does something outrageous there is no way that he or she will have any attention.

I suppose it is somewhat naive to say that members should not take cheap shots but we are all going to do it. I just throw that out to put it on the record.

Members should be serious about their compensation. I practised law for 22 years. I never noticed that anyone who came into my office was overwhelming in his or her enthusiasm to pay me a retainer. However I learned rather quickly that if I did not ask for compensation for a retainer, which was commiserate with my abilities and skills in a particular area, then I would certainly not get that retainer.

It strikes me as strangely ironic that members are so shy about dealing with their own compensation. I cannot imagine what hockey player, teacher or doctor would work for 50% or 25% of what they are actually worth and still take all the same bumps and bruises. I find that strangely ironic among politicians.

In particular, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation puts out a little pamphlet on a regular basis and dumps all over us. I cannot quite fathom why we put up with that sort of nonsense, but we apparently do. The Canadian Taxpayers Federation is not the only vehicle that diminishes the role of MPs.

MPs have to start thinking in terms of growing democracy. We have a group that calls itself the civil society. The civil society has aggregated to itself the position of defending democracy. This is hugely ironic, given that not one or very few of the members of the so-called civil society representing so-called groups that may or may not appreciate the representation have ever voted for any of these people. None of these people have ever run in a municipal, provincial or a federal election. Yet they apparently defend democracy.

It is somewhat trite civic law to say that there are three branches in any government: the legislative branch, the judicial branch and the administrative branch. This debate occurs in a larger context and there is a huge pincer movement by the judicial branch and the executive branch. We live in an age of executive federalism with all its royal prerogatives, and I am using this pejoratively. Those royal prerogatives are being used on a somewhat aggressive basis and have real consequences for members who aspire to having careers in this place.

Similarly the judiciary has been handed an enormous instrument to involve itself in issues of society, namely the charter. I notice that the judiciary is not overly shy about exercising the charter in areas where it feels it should. As a consequence, we have these two very robust and aggressive aspects of government, namely executive federalism and the judiciary, squeezing the legislators and squeezing this place. I respectfully submit that is the context for this debate. I think it is time for push back.

On the issue of caucus discipline and parliamentary reform members need to think through the degrees of discipline. Clearly budget bills are of great significance for this side of the House. Clearly items that we ran on in platforms are of great significance for the House. After that issues of discipline I think diminish.

I had the occasion to be in Mongolia recently. Mongolia has 76 members in its legislature, 72 of whom are with the government party. It has electronic voting. As we sat there I was watching the government lose votes. That was somewhat ironic. Here are we, a mature democracy, apparently explaining to Mongolia, a relatively new democracy, how to exercise its democratic rights.

Private members' time should be reorganized so that there is a reasonable chance that private members' bills will see the light of day. There has been some discussion about that.

Committee hearings should be opened up so that we have draft bills at a much earlier stage and that we have white papers, brown papers and green papers; it does not really much matter. There is nothing more irritating as a member of a committee than to listen to staff members from a department saying that they have consulted with all the stakeholders. Really. Who are these stakeholders and so what?

In terms of earlier notice on opposition day motions, I like to speak to those motions from time to time, but I do not find out about them until 9 or 9.30 on the morning of the debate. Frankly I do not have a great deal of time to think, and I am up on my feet 10 to 15 minutes later responding to the motion.

On shortened deadlines for government responses, I do not see why the government needs 150 days to respond to a committee report or whatever.

I would not be overly embarrassed if the House was closed down for a few weeks every year during sittings and we just did committee work, either committee of the whole or standing committees. It would not bother me in the least.

We could get through a lot of stuff and make spending and estimate debates meaningful. We should either have one committee that looks after it all or have each committee develop some level of expertise so that we can hold the department's feet to the fire.

We should give the House leader time to debate and speak to the issue of time allocation. We have used time allocation from time to time. Opposition members might know that, but the House leader has no opportunity to speak to it on debate.

We need to create an MP culture which empowers MPs. MPs frankly need to go to MP school. They need to know that they cannot be removed from committee by the whip only, that it actually has to be by a vote of the House. They are secure. They need to know that, for instance, they can designate five people in their place and those people are the first up. Therefore a whip cannot load a committee with more obedient MPs than others.

Committees have, as does the House, virtually unlimited power of subpoena which we do not exercise. We can vote for reductions in departmental bills, and we do not exercise that.

I offer these thoughts as a potpourri of things which can be done. I am not overly persuaded that a lot of standing orders need to be amended. I think, rather, that MPs need to realize there are a great number of things they can do. Whether it is singly or in smaller groups, they can make impacts such as my colleague to my left did who I think had a double-double last week with significant pieces of legislation.

We are debating this motion because we love this place. There is sort of a bizarre way in which it all works. As Churchill said, parliamentary democracy or democracy in general is one of the worst of all forms of government until we look at the alternatives. That is the context of this debate.

Modernization Of The Standing Orders Of The House Of CommonsGovernment Orders

9:50 p.m.

Canadian Alliance

Keith Martin Canadian Alliance Esquimalt—Juan de Fuca, BC

Mr. Chairman, I compliment the government member on his eloquent suggestions.

My question is really quite simple. Will his government listen and implement the constructive solutions that he just spoke about?

Modernization Of The Standing Orders Of The House Of CommonsGovernment Orders

9:50 p.m.


John McKay Liberal Scarborough East, ON

Mr. Chairman, I thank the hon. member for his concise question. I think the government is moving incrementally along the path of parliamentary reform, but the essential problem is that no ministers, no members of government, can ever convince themselves that parliamentary reform is in their own interest.

Because members cannot convince themselves that it is in their own interest, there is no great enthusiasm to do what they need to do. If this system works, and it seems to work very well from the government's standpoint, why bother with change?

Ministers and the government in general need to rethink their position. My view is that good opposition makes good government. My view is that opposition comes not only from over there but back here. In our caucus a lot of the most significant opposition to government initiatives come from its own members. They refine legislative initiatives as much as they can.

I think certain ministers have seen the light, have reacted positively to suggestions from both sides of the House and are prepared to strengthen legislation. Let me take a controversial example of that.

In the last parliament the Minister of Justice, prior to dissolution, amended the youth justice bill based upon testimony before the committee. She introduced voluminous amendments which have now found their way into Bill C-7. Frankly I thought that was quite courageous on her part. The consequence regrettably was that she has been stonewalled by certain members of the opposition and it is very difficult.

Do I think the Minister of Justice will be persuaded in the future to amend her own bills after listening to testimony on the justice committee? I think I will have a tough sell. In that respect, if in fact we open those kinds of things there has to be a corollary that members of the opposition and our own backbenchers have to behave in some sort of responsible fashion. It has to be recognized at some point that debate finishes.

I cannot answer the question with great precision, but I offer as a response that government and government ministers need to be convinced that this is in their own interests. I think ultimately they can be convinced.

Modernization Of The Standing Orders Of The House Of CommonsGovernment Orders

9:55 p.m.

Canadian Alliance

Keith Martin Canadian Alliance Esquimalt—Juan de Fuca, BC

Mr. Chairman, I would love to have my friend from the government define incremental, but I will not ask.

The current government House leader in 1992, along with a number of other former cabinet ministers who are not here today, put out a document that was an unbelievable tome on specific solutions on how to reform the House. It contained everything from voting procedures and committee structures to how people are selected to sit on committees. It was a fantastic piece of work and an expression of the frustration that the current government felt when in opposition.

I ask my friend from the government whether he will ask the current government House leader to resurrect the document he wrote in 1992 so eloquently describing changes to democratize the House and implement the changes in that document.

Modernization Of The Standing Orders Of The House Of CommonsGovernment Orders

9:55 p.m.


John McKay Liberal Scarborough East, ON

Mr. Chairman, I cannot specifically refer to the report of the House leader, but I think there is some element of good will on the part of the House leader to respond to some of those issues.

I will suggest in defence of the House leader that there has been more than incremental progress since January until now, frankly under the chairmanship of you, Mr. Chairman. One area was in terms of getting electronic voting. Our caucuses voted on that issue and I think it will move forward. It is pretty significant reform.

On the issue of first reading, I think we will see more and more bills leave the House earlier and get into committee for longer periods of time, with which I think all of us would agree.

On increases to the budget of the Library of Parliament, $1 million has been put toward that. Any time there is more money in the Library of Parliament, it gives all of us an opportunity to be better prepared.

Meetings such as this, committees of the whole, I think give more opportunities for, how shall I say it, less partisan interaction. I have to commend the House leader for that kind of initiative.

One of the things that has been discussed is more opportunity for first time members to meet the candidates for Speaker and to give speeches on those candidates so that people who are in this House for the first time get to know the people who are offering themselves as candidates.

I understand that for things like closure debates, et cetera, there may be time issues that are coming up. As well, I believe concurrence issues are being discussed, with a reduction of the time that the government has to respond to parliamentary reports.

On one level I could argue this is happening at just a snail's pace. On the other hand I might also argue that from January to now, the House leader, with the co-operation of the committee chaired by the Chairman here, has made significant progress. Regrettably all votes are equal on the committee and frankly he can only make as much progress in this Chamber as he is able to make in the committee with all five members.

Again, at this point I am not prepared to be overly critical of our House leader. I think we all have our shopping lists, our wish lists. He was good enough to publish his in 1992.

Modernization Of The Standing Orders Of The House Of CommonsGovernment Orders

10 p.m.

Canadian Alliance

Keith Martin Canadian Alliance Esquimalt—Juan de Fuca, BC

Mr. Chairman, it is an honour to speak on this topic. I will preface my remarks by saying that if we looked at all the problems we have in the country today, if we talked about health care, about jobs, what is the one that is the most prominent, the one that is actually the most important, the route that actually can effect change and help the people of our country? That problem is the problem of democratizing this House. In my view, there is no challenge or problem in our country today greater than that of making this parliament a democracy.

In 1993, like many members of the House here today, I was elected. We came here motivated by largely the same reason: to improve the health and welfare of Canadians. What motivated us to come here, to leave our personal lives aside and to maybe take a financial hit, was to improve the health and welfare of the people we dealt with on a daily basis.

Maybe we saw people living in their cars because they were homeless. Maybe we were struck by individuals who needed health care and were waiting months to get a test to determine whether or not they had cancer, waiting for far too long. Perhaps we saw the conditions that aboriginal people live in, squalid conditions in many cases, that are unthinkable in a country like Canada. Perhaps we saw an education system that did not provide the education our children need. Perhaps we saw an economy that was declining and slipping far below those of our competitors.

Whatever our motivation, every person, to a man or to a woman, came here to make our country a better place. We came here with that in our hearts. We knew this was not a democracy. We came to change that. We came with hope. However, instead of finding a House of Commons we found a house of illusions. With the large change in the numbers of people that we had in 1993 and the hope that engendered in all of us, rather than making the changes which we had a narrow chance of doing, we saw this place, rather than getting more democratic, becoming less democratic.

This speech is not for the members in the House but for the public out there. It is for the few hearty souls out there who I hope are tuning into CPAC and listening to what my colleagues are saying here today, and I hope they bring it forward to their MPs, to the Prime Minister and to every single elected person that they know in this institution.

For those changes required in the House are changes that will enable us to help them. Those changes will enable us to reform our health care system, to improve our economy and to make this a land of opportunity, a place where we could start to achieve our potential rather than being hit below the belt.

The public may or may not understand that the House of Commons is not a democracy. It is a place that is controlled with a viselike grip, where the members from political parties are controlled by leaderships, where they are used as little more than voting machines and as bodies that attend committees, and hopefully we have a palpable pulse when we do that.

What a waste. What an abysmal waste of the incredible talent that exists within the House, for every man and woman in the House has talent, skills and passions that they came here to apply for the betterment of the people in their communities.

Can it be done? Absolutely. What needs to be done? First of all, let us look at the structure. Bills basically come in a standard form right into committees. Minor changes are made and they are rubber stamped all the way through.

In regard to private members' business, the public would find it extraordinary that an MP puts forth a bill and works very hard on it but only if his or her name is selected out of a big vat with 300 other names in it will he or she be lucky enough to be able to introduce that bill. Whether it is votable or not is the jurisdiction and the choice and the decision of a number of fellow committee members. Why we have private members' bills that are not votable is extraordinary and completely absurd. That is what is happening now.

MPs are not allowed to innovate because innovation is called freelancing, freelancing being a pejorative term to suggest that the individual who is trying to use his or her skill to build a plan is a maverick, a lone wolf, a rebel, not part of the team. When a member is accused of not being part of the team, a member unfortunately becomes polarized in regard to his colleagues. A member who tries to work with members from different political parties is again frowned on as being perhaps not one of us.

At the end of the day, how do we make change? How do we actually do our job? The most important aspect of that job is to help the people on the ground who may not have a home, who may not have health care, who may be unemployed, who are not eating well or who live in squalid conditions. The only way we can change that is if we reform this place so that we can use the collective talent in the House and apply it to those areas.

Why have we seen the death of innovation, particularly over the last two years? Why has this place been so restrained and constricted that individual members are frowned on if they work together? It is frowned on if they try to innovate, if they try to step ahead, if they lead from the front. Why do we have a structure like that?

Why do we not tap into the extraordinary potential that we have in the people in our country who are not members of parliament? Few of us in the House are experts on anything, just as I am an expert on nothing, but all of us are wise enough to find the best people in the country and find the best solutions not only within Canada but outside Canada and apply them to the problems of the nation.

When I spoke to my constituents a week and a half ago about this, they found it extraordinary that there were so many obstacles to trying to innovate and bring ideas to bear on the problems that are important at their dinner tables.

We need to allow innovation in the House, so what can we do? First, and I am probably repeating things that have been said before, free votes have to take place. Second, free votes have to take place but if the government loses a vote it should not be a vote of non-confidence in the government. That would require a very simple rule to be implemented by the government. It could be done overnight. No bill, other than a money bill, should be matters of a vote of confidence in the government. On all other bills if the government loses a vote, then the government had a bad bill and it can take it back and fix the problem. It should not have to lose power.

In regard to committee structure, I was at a committee meeting about the free trade of the Americas and spoke to a person who was putting forward a very heartfelt intervention on the free trade agreement. She asked me why the committee was studying the free trade agreement weeks before the actual meeting in Quebec City. I said to her that surely she did not expect the committee meeting to have any meaning. I told her that her assessment was perfectly right. The purpose of the committee was to keep MPs busy. That was what it was for. It was not meant to use her considerable talents in a meaningful way. What a tragedy.

It breaks my heart, as I am sure it breaks the hearts of all members in the House, to sit on a committee listening to brilliant suggestions and solutions and heartfelt interventions on the part of members of the public in regard to fixing an important problem in our country and to know full well that it at best will become a report that will get one day of press coverage and then be tossed on a shelf with thousands of other reports to collect dust.

Health care is a case in point. We are to study it again after having studied it in 1995. Nothing has happened since then. There was a blue ribbon panel in 1995 that studied this most important issue affecting Canadians, a matter of life and death, and what happened to it? Nothing.

In regard to aboriginal affairs, there was an eloquent, lengthy $60 million study with umpteen constructive suggestions to help the group in our society that is most impoverished. Has anything been done about it? Nothing.

A solution would be to give committees more independence and get parliamentary secretaries who are really whips for the government off committees. Bills should go to committee in draft form so that the public making interventions can actually mould and craft the bill into something effective and reasonable. They should do this along with members of parliament from across party lines. We could use our collective talents and collective wisdom to build a really effective bill rather than having bills come from the ministry and made by the minister's lawyers. That would make a good bill. The bill would go back to the minister and he or she and his or her people could carve it up. However, ultimately in this process the bill would be superior because it would have tapped into a greater potential within our country and within the House.

All private members' business should be made votable. Every individual MP should have at least one bill votable per term, bar none. Each MP should also have one private member's motion votable, although that is of less importance. Also with respect to private members' business, why has the government gutted our legal tools? We have only four lawyers compared to the more than 80 provided to the government to deal with bills. The 250 plus MPs who are not in cabinet need more than four lawyers to help them with private members' business. We need to invest in this so individual MPs can have access to these legal tools. This would do much to improve the House of Commons.

In closing I can only ask the members of the public who are listening tonight to please get involved in this process. I can only ask them to come to the front of the House of Commons and demand change, demand that we make the House a democracy. With the same vigour and zeal, in a non-violent way, that people protested the FTAA in Quebec, although that was misguided, Canadians should be coming to the House and demanding that we make private members' business votable.

I challenge members of the public to do that because if they work with us then we will make a change that will benefit not only the people of Canada but will certainly benefit the House and make it a nimble, vigorous institution that will make our country in the 21st century much better than it is today.

Modernization Of The Standing Orders Of The House Of CommonsGovernment Orders

10:10 p.m.


John McKay Liberal Scarborough East, ON

Mr. Chairman, I do not want to turn this into a debate for members from Scarborough, but I want to ask the hon. member about his bargain, some might say Faustian bargain, the bargain that every one of us made when we came to this place, and that is that we all ran under a party label. I ran under the Liberal Party label, which was in my case a particularly good choice and I did very well. If I am brutally analytical about that vote, almost all that vote was attributable to the fact that I was a Liberal, running under the leadership of the Prime Minister. I know the member opposite has had some awkward moments of late, with respect to his party.

The bargain that I make, as a government member, is that I support the team. The quid pro quo is that I have virtually unlimited access to ministers and to the Prime Minister. I can voice my views on an issue or a bill in private in a very direct fashion and literally influence the direction of government. I have seen that among a great number of backbenchers.

The corollary is that no one will ever know about it. That is the government backbencher bargain, that on issues of concern to me I will be able to influence government direction. I can give a variety of examples. The homeless issue was of significance in my riding. I and a few others had a great deal to do with the 180 degree change in direction by the government. However the understanding is that once that change in policy is made, I will support the team in other areas.

I ask the hon. member, in the context of what is a parliamentary democracy and in the context five parties in the House, how would he see the whole issue of free votes, freelancing and all that the member considers to be pejorative to operate, when in fact we are all here as part of one party or another.

Modernization Of The Standing Orders Of The House Of CommonsGovernment Orders

10:15 p.m.

Canadian Alliance

Keith Martin Canadian Alliance Esquimalt—Juan de Fuca, BC

Mr. Chairman, there is constructive discourse and destructive discourse. I support freelancing.

Freelancing implies that an individual, at least in the terms I used, is putting forth views, ideas and solutions that will be beneficial to the people of his or her community, the country and perhaps even the world.

Why should members not be allowed to do that? Why is it discouraged? Why has rigor mortis set in in terms of innovation? Why are cabinet members not allowed to innovate? What a tragedy for individuals who have perhaps hoped through their professional career as a politician to get into the Holy Grail of cabinetdom. If they get there, they might be lucky to get a cabinet post that is commensurate with their talents. Why not allow talented individuals to move forward to push for ideas and changes that will enable that ministry to function better for Canadians?

We do not have that right now. People are scratching their heads and asking: why are we studying the health care system again; why have we not dealt with the environmental problems which are significant yet are untouched; why are we not dealing with endangered species legislation; and why is the tax system not more efficient, effective, reasonable and user friendly?

I could go down every single cabinet member's post, as any other MP could, think of some big problems and some solutions, which the minister I am sure knows, to address those problems.

Why are these problems not dealt with? It is May 1 and we have a situation where the government is trying to keep the opposition fractured. It is a political game. The Liberals will not raise their heads and do something innovative, so no fire is drawn to them.

What is the point of having power if it is not used for the public good? If one wants to sit on the government benches and not use it then it is useless. We may as well go home.

What a tragedy for the members of cabinet and members of the government, or anyone in that position, to be forced and shoehorned into that kind of behaviour. What a tragedy for us. What a tragedy for the people in Canada, particularly those who are really hurting in our society.

We have only made a Faustian bargain, if we allow ourselves to make that bargain. We can do much to change that. We can make a bargain with our souls and with our community that is far better.