Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to intervene on this motion by our colleagues in the Canadian Alliance within the framework of opposition day.
On behalf of the Bloc Quebecois, I am intervening as a member of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs and, like my colleague from Yorkton—Melville, as a member of the subcommittee on private members' business, because the opposition motion of today, on which we should vote in the House, addresses this directly. I believe it would be appropriate to read the opposition motion:
That the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs be instructed to draft, and report to this House no later than November 1, 2001, changes to the Standing Orders improving procedures for the consideration of Private Members' Business, including a workable proposal allowing for all items to be votable.
I wish to indicate right off to my colleague from Yorkton-Melville that the members of the Bloc Quebecois support this motion for the various reasons I shall be sharing with hon. members in the next few minutes.
The motion per se addresses an element on which we should focus: that the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs must produce a workable proposal; it must be realistic and realizable.
I will be suggesting some improvements. All of us here agree that there is room for considerable improvement. It is all very well to say that the government should do this or that, but we ought to suggest some improvements.
For the benefit of our listeners, whom I could describe as uninitiated, one of the problems I have noticed here in the House is that sometimes, when we deal with rather obscure technical details, we have a tendency to address our speeches to each other, as parliamentarians, and forget that we are above all democratically elected representatives of the public.
One of the reasons that parliament agreed to cameras in the House of Commons and in certain committees was to ensure that the public, those acting as watchdogs over the work of their elected officials, could take in the debates.
I think that we should begin by explaining the process as it now stands, what this opposition motion is all about, and what could be changed, so as to help the public better understand the changes we might suggest.
Right now, a member from either the government or the opposition side may introduce a motion or a private member's bill, as opposed to a government bill.
A member, whether he is a Liberal member, as he is in this case, or a member from one of the other four opposition parties, may introduce a bill on any topic he wishes, subject, of course, to certain criteria, which I do not have time to go into here. Any member may introduce a motion or a bill.
Since there are 301 members and the time allowed for consideration of these motions and private members' bills is quite limited, parliament has instituted a draw procedure so that all members have an opportunity to introduce a bill.
It is clearly understood that in 2001 we could debate at length this draw procedure. The names of members who want to table motions or bills at first reading are in a container, a sort of urn, or hat—well, not exactly—a sort of container from which the bills are literally drawn.
Since 1993, I have been thinking about a way to improve this procedure of the draw, because it might well be considered archaic, from another era. Sometimes we like our old symbols here in Canada. Sometimes they are holdovers from the monarchy or of the British system.
The best proof of that is the continued existence of the Senate here. We still have a Governor General, and lieutenant governors in the provinces. This is the product of a monarchy of another era, but at any rate we have not time here to go on at length on the subject.
They came up with the system I consider archaic. However, I cannot suggest anything better or more transparent or fairer than the draw.
When the name of a member is selected, following the draw, the member may want his bill to be voted on. There are members, though, who say when their name is drawn “I really do not care that much if my bill is voted on. I am happy to be drawn, to have my name drawn, but I only want to have an hour's debate on the issue, just to draw the attention of the House and of public opinion to it”. That is the member's choice.
I must admit that it is rare for an MP to decide that even if his or her name gets picked in the lottery his or her bill does not need to be voted on. The bulk of members whose names are picked come before the subcommittee on private members' business where they have to plead their case, no more and no less.
This subcommittee is made up of representatives of all parties. I can say, as a member, it is not seen as a partisan committee. The same party divisions are not felt there as in the others, be they on environment, transport or Canadian heritage. One is not aware of the same partisanship, the same party lines.
Each member of the subcommittee on private members' business listens attentively to the case being made by colleagues who have been selected, so that at the end of the process when all those whose names have been selected have been heard they can reach a consensus on which bill can be made votable and which not.
If the bill falls into the non-votable category, there is one hour's debate on it and then it dies at the end of the hour.
If the bill is deemed to be votable by the subcommittee on private members' business, then there are three hours of debate on second reading. These three are not consecutive. There is one hour on one day, a second on another, and the third later on. Once there have been three hours of debate, a division follows. That is, in a nutshell, the current procedure.
What the opposition motion suggests is, of course, that we should arrange things so that once all bills have been in the lottery and the subcommittee on private members' business procedure has been carried out—one of the rare committees, as I have already said, that is non-partisan and holds informed and consensual discussions—all bills should then be votable. However, if we want all items selected following a draw to be votable, we must basically eliminate the procedure involving the private members' business subcommittee.
This is not a major objection. Some of my caucus colleagues might have preferred the status quo, but we realize that there could be some improvement. All private members' business would become votable.
However, we must devise a formula so that interested members can always have their turn. Neither the Prime Minister nor the ministers introduce private members' bills. If we eliminate these 30 some people, it leaves 271 other members, not all of whom introduce bills or motions under private members' business. Technically, there is a considerable number of them and this is why the opposition motion provides that we should find a functional formula, a workable proposal.
This is why I will now make suggestions to improve things. As member of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, I have a suggestion to make on behalf of my party, but we will also discuss other possibilities. Among the realistic and feasible suggestions to deal with this issue, there is one that is of particular interest to me.
We could set aside one day for private members' business, even if this means extending sitting hours on other days or beginning earlier on other days. On Mondays we start at 11 a.m.; on Tuesdays we begin at 10 a.m.; on Wednesdays, because of the caucus meetings, it may be difficult to start before 2 p.m.; on Thursdays and Fridays, the House begin its proceedings at 10 a.m. Since we would have one day of debates on private members' business and the government would in effect lose one day to discuss its own bills, it would certainly be possible to make up for the hours lost on that day during the rest of the week by beginning earlier or finishing later.
I would see Friday as the day for private members' business, motions and votable bills. Fridays have become a bit of a joke. Those following the debates on Fridays can see that most of our questions are addressed to empty benches.
We see that on Fridays, 17, 18 or 19 of the 24, 27 or 28—I am not sure of the exact number—members of cabinet are missing on average; we can provide the statistics if members wish. Answers to our questions are given by parliamentary secretaries who are absolutely, totally and completely ignorant about the issues our questions address. I do not necessarily wish to imply that these parliamentary secretaries are themselves ignorant, but they are not familiar with the issues, with the result that Oral Question Period on Fridays, as any journalist following the business of the House can testify, is a farce, a circus.
In any event, most members return to their ridings on Thursdays. Canada is a big country, and members are returning to the Yukon, Labrador, British Columbia and Newfoundland. I do not have a problem with this but, as a democratic institution, are we effective on Fridays? Unless I am dreaming, unless I am not on the same planet as my colleagues, is Friday a model of parliamentary efficiency?
Mr. Speaker, you have been a member for quite a long time. You know the answer, but I know you cannot reply to my question. In your innermost being, you are telling yourself that the member for Beauport—Montmorency—Côte-de-Beaupré—Île-d'Orléans is right.
We must take the bull by the horns and improve how things are done on Fridays. If Fridays were kept for private members' business, there would be ample time, even if it meant changing sitting times, to accommodate more members.
I have not drawn up any mathematical model or virtual timetable of what I am proposing. It will be up to us, to our clerks, and those connected with the business of parliament to suggest how this should be done. I personally would like to see the matter of Friday's sittings seriously re-examined.
The government House leader might come back with “Yes, but on Fridays we have time set aside for government orders. How could that be handled?” As I have said, we could start earlier or finish later the other days, so that at the end of the process the government would still have the same number of hours weekly. This is a non-partisan proposal, a realistic and practicable proposal I am making. The government might find this to its liking and would ensure that it was not deprived of its time for debating the bills it introduces in the House.
The private members' business subcommittee did a survey. My colleague from Yorkton—Melville is well aware that a majority of members recognize that there should be a new approach. These colleagues recognize that this matter could be improved.
As the results of the survey have not yet been officially tabled in the House, I do not want to discuss the results further. I want to preserve the confidentiality of the work of the private members' business subcommittee. I do not think I would run afoul of its confidentiality by saying that the feeling is largely shared by all of our colleagues.
What changes should be made? What should the new approach be? It will be up to us to develop it.
I close by saying that a piece of business from a private member is foremost the expression of the member's deep values. When a member is elected, in a way it amounts to telling him to take our words to the House. A member is there as well to express the wishes of his riding, and he must not forget this role.
In the context of this process, I introduced a bill that would enable mechanics to have the cost of their tools deducted from their taxes. Unfortunately, 91 Liberal members changed their opinion on this. Before the election, there was one attitude, after it, another. It had been debated.
Unfortunately, the bill was not passed. I was lucky enough to have my name drawn. A colleague may come along with an interesting idea—no one has a monopoly on interesting ideas in this House—and could have it debated if the procedure were changed.