Mr. Speaker, I think the motion that the House is dealing with has been used very generously as a proxy to talk about the broader subject of parliamentary reform in a number of aspects.
With regard, however, to the specifics of the motion and particularly with regard to appointments, clearly a substantial number of appointments are made by a government. I do not know the precise number. I think it is something in the neighbourhood of some 4,300 appointments. This motion is specifically referring to matters such as ambassadors, consuls general and heads of regulatory bodies and crown corporations.
I do not think that there would be any disagreement with regard to the spirit of the main motion. Indeed, many if not most of these appointments actually do get referred to committee under the existing Standing Orders. I have been at committee where we have reviewed the appointment of an ambassador. I have been to a meeting where we reviewed the appointment of the current privacy commissioner and had an opportunity to pose questions and to get an understanding of the work going on there. So this happens, and I think that I probably will be supporting the main motion, unamended.
If I could use a little latitude to talk more broadly about what may be the underpinning intent of the motion, it is, I believe, that parliamentary reform in a number of aspects is something that members in this place would like to see. This aspect has to do with more independence and more empowerment of committees. It means that committees will have this opportunity.
Having been a parliamentarian for some nine years, I can reflect on my work on committee, whether it be the finance committee, the health committee, the transport committee, estimates of government operations, or industry. I have had a broad experience. I also have had the opportunity to sit in for other members to do their committee work for them and I have watched how committees operate
I think it is terribly noble to say that committees should be empowered, should be more independent and should have this authority, but when we get these rights to do things that also carries with it the fact that we have responsibilities. We have to do the job properly. Are committees doing the job properly now in all respects? I think most members here would agree: no.
For example, let us simply look at the review of estimates. We have in our Standing Orders that the estimates are referred to committee automatically. If a committee does not review the estimates, they are deemed to have been reported back to the House. Therefore committees really do not have to do anything. What is the experience of the House? It is that 80% of committees do not review the estimates or report them back to the House. They are deemed to be reported back.
How can we suggest that we need more responsibility when in fact we are actually not taking care of probably one of the most important aspects of committee work, that being the review of the estimates and the performance reports? This is extremely important. Therefore to suggest that as a right we want to be able to do this has to also incorporate the concept that there is a responsibility to do the committee work that is being asked for and that is being required under the Standing Orders.
There have been other suggestions that committees should have greater autonomy to do certain things. There have been concerns expressed that a majority government, for instance, has the majority of members on a committee and therefore by virtue of mathematics tends to be able to control the agenda and in fact the results of virtually every vote. That is the peculiarity of a majority government. We could talk about the merits of having majorities or somehow releasing members of Parliament so that everyone can go their own ways. However, I can only assume that members will continue to want to represent the views of a party, of their platform, et cetera.
It would be very difficult to say “Let us just release members and we will trust them to be partisan in their activities”. The reality of this place is that it is a partisan House. The reality of this place is that members, as they discharge their responsibilities, also have other responsibilities, needs and wants. At the same time, if an opportunity should present itself in committee “I'll give you this if you give that” is something I have seen a lot.
We cannot suggest that this one item should be seen as simply a major improvement in the process. I think the spirit of the linear idea of reviewing appointments is important, but there have been some questions about whether or not those appointments should be reviewed. Or is it that we would like not only to review them but to have the decision making as to who in fact gets the job? On that purview of who gets the final appointment and where the approval process is, I do not think that at this point it has been suggested that it be changed to the committees. The motion before us does not suggest that the committees would make the appointment. They would not vote on the appointments. They would prepare reports and report on the referral to committee of an appointment.
There is precedent in parliamentary history that appointments not be politicized, not put into that purview, such as they might be in the United States where there are public hearings. There have been some quite public and quite damning episodes where people of integrity have been trashed in public. It is not the Canadian way. It is not the parliamentary way. I do not think I could support that, but I certainly do support the committees having this kind of latitude.
In this broader discussion about committees reviewing appointments and the other responsibilities they have if they want more rights, what happens with, for instance, referral of bills before second reading? They can go to the committee and the committee can do some work, but the fact of the matter is that once a bill is printed it has been developed by the departmental officials with whatever consultation they have done and it has cabinet sign-off. Once it is printed at first reading, as far as I am concerned that is a fixed position against which parliamentarians have to work. Even if it goes to committee before second reading, there will have to be some pretty serious work done to make changes. We have seen that on bills like Bill C-5, the species at risk bill, and some other bills. We have that authority to refer. We already do. It is not used very often but we do that already. It has not made the difference that I think people had hoped it would.
Maybe for public consumption it is nice to say as a generality that we have to empower committees, but the reality is that committees are in a partisan environment. They are subject to the ebb and flow of other things that happen in the House, to party discipline, to party platforms and to all the things that we experience throughout our parliamentary careers. It is idealistic to suggest that somehow we will simplistically change this unless one could demonstrate that in the Parliament of Canada it could operate in virtually all facets in a non-partisan fashion.
I believe that as long as we have parties running in an election with their own leaders, their own platforms and their own philosophies, partisanship always will be part of this place, and we have to work within the reality of this place. That is why I am happy that the motion before us does not go that one step farther and state that it will be the committee. I have seen committees stacked by members. If the appointed members do not seem able to wrap their support around a particular item, I see those people replaced all the time. If we want something to happen at committee, parties can make it happen. It is part of the partisan process. We have seen it. We have seen it with the drug patent legislation and other stories I have heard here.
I think that what we really want and the proxy that the motion brings to this place is that members of Parliament want to earn the respect of the Canadian public. I think that there is a serious concern about the attitude that Canadians have expressed toward parliamentarians from time to time. It has become almost a national pastime to bash politicians, yet I know most of the members in the House reasonably well and I know that 85% of them come from backgrounds where they have significant community service records, where they have done an enormous amount of work on behalf of their communities and therefore on behalf of Canada on a totally voluntary basis. They do come with credentials and that is the reason why they were elected. They were elected not because they promised to do things. They were elected because they had shown what they could do.
In this place there are changes that we can make to earn back that respect. I think that things like standing up in this place and reading a speech is actually contrary to parliamentary policy or parliamentary tradition. I do not think that members should stand up here and read a speech. Members should stand up here and look another member in the face and tell them how they really feel. If members do not know what they are talking about then they might as well sit down, because it is really important that we speak to each other about what we know. If members do not know, then they should sit down and not say anything because I do not want to hear somebody read a speech to me. I would rather that they send it to me and then sit down.
We need to have people talk about things that they know about . If they do not know about the subject, we do not need to have them stand up and give a speech. That is an example of something we can do in this place. It is a matter of credibility. It is a matter of integrity. It is a matter of talking about the culture of Parliament. We should talk about how we do things here. We have been playing with private members' business for a long time. I have often wondered about this as we play with issues of parliamentary reform, whether it be committees or whatever. It has been suggested as well, for instance, that private members' bills could go to committees after first reading, that we could let them all go, that the lottery process is ridiculous.
There are 301 members of Parliament. If we assume that half of them, about 150, would be interested in participating in the private members' process, they could not all get their bills dealt with by a committee within a session, so we would still have to rely on a lottery process of some sort. Somebody has to go first. It is maybe disingenuous to suggest somehow referring it to committee. Actually I could see that it might very well grind Parliament to a halt simply by virtue of the fact that committees would be burdened with private members' bills to which they would have to give due consideration. Every member is going to want to appear before committee. They are going to want to call witnesses. Most of them will go to the justice and finance committees. I wonder how the justice and finance committees are going to do their work if suddenly they are seized by private members' business and they have to do it.
We have to get our priorities straight. Reform of Parliament is an important aspect of this, but I think that reforming the culture of Parliament and reforming our attitudinal postures in this place are very important. We have to live with the reality, however, that this is a partisan environment. Our elections were partisan. We become members of a partisan party, a partisan group and a partisan government and we come here. But when we do not do our jobs properly, we do so at our own peril. Unfortunately we know that members of Parliament are often elected not for themselves but because of the party that they are with, their party platform or the region they come from, et cetera. These are the realities of this place.
Let us look at history. We know that this mix does change. It changed significantly enough that a government went from a majority down to two seats. It can change in one region from a majority of seats to a handful of seats or no seats. It has happened. As I have said, governments do not do their jobs properly at their own peril.
It is very important as we look at these aspects of how we empower committees or members of Parliament themselves that we are realistic about the environment in which we live. We have to be respectful of each other. We have to do our jobs. We have to know our subject matter. I think that the best starting point for us in this place is to make sure that people who participate in debates on issues in this place are those people who have done the work and know the issues and have something to contribute. I believe that the whole quality of the debate and the challenge to other members of Parliament would be to raise the game up to that level, to make it relevant and to make sure that we do not have the partisan bickering on matters of importance that transcend partisan activities.
We have just had a debate on the future of the health care system. We are awaiting the Romanow report. We want to ensure that Canadians have a health care system which provides for the medically necessary needs of Canadians. We want to ensure that it is properly funded, universal, accessible, publicly funded and portable so that Canadians have that security.
However it continues to be undermined. Today when I looked at the news I saw an advertisement on behalf of the premiers of the provinces saying that the provinces pay 86% of health care; it used to be 50% but now the federal government is only paying 14%. We all know the reason is that the dollars are not only in cash. They are in tax points. The federal government is the sole funder of aboriginal health care and all of the health protection issues. The direct spending that the federal government puts into health spending changes those numbers.
Those are the partisan games that are played. Those are the partisan issues that tend to influence Canadians because the optics make it appear that something is wrong. People will be influenced when we rely upon newspapers and television ads to make the case rather than sit down and look at what contributions are being made. If the provinces are not going to give credit for the tax points, there is a simple solution for that. Responsible parliamentarians say we should just undo it, let the federal government take those tax points back and make it all cash. The government could do that.
We have this motion and we agree with the premise but the motion was made with a broader point in mind. It was a demand to start talking about parliamentary reform in a way which would make this place function in a manner in which parliamentarians could feel proud about what they are doing and represent properly the interests of their constituents.
However if we do not accept the reality of being in a partisan environment, I do not believe we will fool anyone about any kind of reform. There will always be trade-offs.
For example, we have adopted the rule of applying votes. With the unanimous consent of the House we can have a vote on one issue, then apply the vote so we can get out of here quicker. The whip stands and says “with Liberal members voting yea”. If people look at parliamentarians as a bunch of sheep because we all vote the same way, this could not be a more dramatic example of that. Someone stands up and says we are all voting one way, and every other party does the same thing.
Why is that? We did that in reaction to people who wanted to demonstrate against a bill. They would put in a large number of amendments which would take the House days to vote. Therefore to get over that we decided to apply votes. However it does require unanimous consent.
There will come a day when a member will get sufficiently cynical about this place and will start denying unanimous consent on everything. This place will grind to a halt because we have accommodated that cynicism.
We must be realistic about this place and we must work together. It does not mean that we have to abandon the partisanship that is part of the environment we are a part of through the election process and which we bring to government. It does mean that we must work together in the best interests of all Canadians and at the same time have the freedom to represent the interests of our constituents, and debate openly and freely on motions, whether they be brought by the opposition, or on other matters that come before this place.
I hope that as we move forward on this overall theme of parliamentary reform and renewal that members will build on some of the points that I have raised.