That Standing Order 106 be amended
(a) by replacing section (2) with the following:
“(2) At the commencement of every session and, if necessary, during the course of a session, each standing or special committee shall elect a Chair and two Vice-Chairs, of whom the Chair and one Vice-Chair shall be Members of the government party and one Vice-Chair shall be a Member of the Opposition. In the case of the Standing Committee on Public Accounts, the Chair shall continue to be a Member of the Official Opposition and the Vice-Chairs shall be Members of the government party. In the case of the Standing Joint Committee on Scrutiny of Regulations, the Co-Chair acting on behalf of the House shall be a Member of the Official Opposition and the Vice-Chairs shall be Members of the government party.”
(b) by inserting the following new section (3):
“(3) When more than one candidate is nominated for the office of Chair or Vice-Chair of a committee, the election shall be conducted by secret ballot as follows:
(a) the clerk of the committee, who shall preside over the election, shall announce the candidates to the committee members present and provide them with ballot papers;
(b) committee members wishing to indicate their choice for Chairman or Vice-Chairman of the committee shall print the first and last name of a candidate on the ballot paper;
(c) committee members shall deposit their completed ballot papers in a box provided for that purpose;
(d) the clerk of the committee shall count the ballots and announce the name of the candidate who has received the majority of votes;
(e) if no candidate has received a majority of votes, a second ballot shall be taken, provided that the candidate with the least number of votes shall be dropped from the second ballot; balloting shall continue in this manner until a candidate receives a majority of votes, at which time the clerk shall destroy the ballots and in no way divulge the number of ballots cast for any candidate.”;
and that the Clerk be authorized to make any required editorial and consequential amendments and that the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs conduct a review of this new procedure before a second application takes place.
Mr. Speaker,after five and one-half hours we have had a great victory for democracy in the House. We are going to have a vote on this issue. Every member of the House will have to stand and tell Canadians whether they want a free vote for chairs and vice-chairs of committees. That is all we have been asking for. We did not need five and one-half hours of government filibustering, trying to break and twist the rules. The public can now see that it was all done for naught. There will be a vote. We will not have as long a debate, but there will be a vote.
Before I begin my main remarks I want to thank the New Democratic Party for trading supply days with the Alliance so that the matter of secret ballot elections at the committees can be dealt with before the standing committees organize. I am certain that the NDP would have done this itself, but as a small opposition party it is allowed only one votable opposition motion per year. The official opposition considered this a matter for all private members and not the subject matter for just one opposition party. We were happy to use one of our votable supply day motions to bring this matter to a conclusion.
I would also like to thank the Conservative Party that offered me its day on Monday in case the government did take it off the agenda or try to filibuster it out of the Parliament Buildings of Canada.
We have on the Order Paper a private member's motion, a report from the committee and a supply day motion all dealing with secret ballot elections at committee. The proposals call for a secret ballot election when more than one candidate is proposed for the election of the chairman or vice-chairman. It is similar to the way we elect our Speaker and we have done a good job of that over the last few years.
The reason my party chose to adopt this procedure through a supply day motion is that the current procedural mechanism provided for private members is inadequate. I do not have to go into the details. I know most members are familiar with the shortcomings of our private members' business procedures, thus the reason the procedure and house affairs committee recommended improvements in its 66th report in the last session and tabled the same report in this session.
The other alternative is to adopt a motion at committee and then have it reported to the House, which we have done. However getting the report adopted is a problem. The chief government whip indicated to reporters outside the committee room after the procedure and house affairs committee adopted the new secret ballot procedure that she would use whatever means she had available to her to prevent the report from ever seeing the light of day.
She mentioned a procedure that is mentioned in “Building Trust II”. “Building Trust II” is a package of parliamentary reforms sponsored by the Canadian Alliance. I will read the section from “Building Trust II” that deals with committee reports and the procedural manoeuvre the government plans to deploy. The heading is “Empowering Committees--Concurrence in Reports”. I will begin with the associated quote from my deputy House leader. She states:
The authority of parliamentary committees stems from the adoption of their reports by the House. It is a little known fact that the government, by simply “talking out” a report for an afternoon, can prevent the report from coming to a vote.
That is what happened this morning.
In these cases the motion to concur in the report becomes a government order and can only thereafter be moved by a cabinet minister. There is no accountability in giving the government the prerogative to move a motion to concur in a report that is critical of the government or requests sensitive documents from the government. It makes no sense and this loophole should be removed.
The Alliance recommendation is simply that:
The standing orders should be amended to provide for motions to concur in committee reports to be put to a vote and not shelved by a simple procedural manoeuvre.
Here is a perfect example of how that loophole can be abused by the government. Here we have a case where the majority of members of a committee agree on a proposal and the government, fearful that a majority of members in the House might also agree, uses a simple manoeuvre to prevent that decision from ever coming to a vote. It is another example of how the executive branch of government enjoys much too much power in the House. That is why it was necessary to use a supply day to move forward on parliamentary reform and circumvent any procedural trickery from the frontbench, much like the five and one-half hours of trickery we have put up with today.
In 1985 the House of Commons adopted the secret ballot procedure to elect its Speaker. It was seen as a necessary step to enhance the independence of the office of the Speaker by taking the choice of the Speaker away from the Prime Minister. In a 1997 report commissioned by the Privy Council Office, C.E.S. Franks, a respected expert in Canadian parliamentary democracy, recommended that committees elect their own chairmen for the same reason.
It has been suggested that because the secret ballot proposal is not included in a package of proposals, we should not proceed with it. The argument is that standing order changes should not be done in a piecemeal way.
I point out that the government House leader, at the beginning of this Parliament, offered one single reform: the reform that impeded members' ability to move amendments at report stage. The government singled out a reform that benefited it and at the same time suggested that private members could not target a few reforms of their own.
I have another example. At one time we could not ask questions of the government related to the orders of the day. It was an inhibiting rule so we eliminated it by unanimous consent. It could be argued that it was a piecemeal reform but it was a worthwhile change and we made it when we had consensus. That is what we did in question period today. We are on this debate. I got to ask a question of the Prime Minister and it was answered by the government House leader. We can now do that. It was a good amendment and we did it piecemeal.
At one time it was unparliamentary to sing O Canada in the House. On a motion by the member for Edmonton North we now sing O Canada every Wednesday. It was not a part of a package but it was a good idea and members ran with it. It is amazing to me that every time I speak outside of the House and I mention that to people they do not believe we only do it once a week. They have a hard time believing we never did it prior to the member for Edmonton North bringing it before the House.
Improving the televising of committees was done independent of other reforms. We have a report from the last session that improves private members' business. Even though it is a single reform idea, it is a good idea that has the support of most if not all members of the House.
There used to be only 20 supply days but since that could not be divided proportionately among the four opposition parties, one was added. The traditional last allotted day was altered to allow for debate on the estimates and a motion. That was a single reform proposal that was adopted as a stand alone item.
We altered the standing orders to take government operations out of one committee and make an additional committee at the request of one government member, which was another stand alone change.
The size of committees gets altered all the time to provide for someone's needs or because it makes sense. Those changes require a standing order change.
We will soon be dealing with the problems of the Senate opting out of the Joint Committee on Official Languages. The government is requesting a standing order change to deal with this order, a one time item.
The piecemeal argument is not well taken. It is only an excuse by the executive not to proceed with the change. We should take note of who is objecting and why they are objecting. Why do they object to enhancing the role of the private member, yet they ram through with the use of closure single item reforms that benefit the government and the PMO?
The chief government whip argues that we should always vote openly and be accountable for our vote. Of course we should when we vote on policy and tax issues. What we are talking about here is voting in an election. Just because that election has to be within the walls of Parliament does not mean it has to be an open vote. We elect our Speaker by secret ballot.
The government whip says that the Speaker's position is different. Yes and no. We expect the same independence and fair consideration from the chairman as we would from the Speaker. We expect the Speaker to exclude himself or herself from a caucus but we do not expect the chairman to do the same.
As the hon. member said, there are some differences. Before speakers were elected by secret ballot they did not attend caucus either. Secret ballot is irrelevant for that argument. The junior chair officers probably occupy the chair more often than the Speaker but they also attend caucus and nobody is concerned about that.
The secret ballot issue is much more than just a sensible parliamentary reform. It has come to symbolize the struggle for power between the executive branch, the PMO, the Prime Minister and the private members of the House.
This leads me to something I spoke about earlier. It was a point that was made by C.E.S. Franks, who was commissioned by the Privy Council to report on democratic reforms. Professor Franks made the point that the only way we could proceed on democratic reform would be if a substantial number of government members were to say that they were not going to take it any more and dissent. He said that the last time government members dissented in the name of democracy was when Sir John A. Macdonald was Prime Minister. His government in the first four sessions of the Dominion Parliament was defeated five times on government bills, twice on government resolutions preparatory to bills and twice on resolutions from supply. What is interesting is that only three of the motions on which the government was defeated were moved by an opposition member. Two were moved by so-called supporters of the government. Sir John A. referred to these members as loose fish and shaky fellows.
Party discipline has evolved over the years and is now at a point where prime ministers, such as the late Pierre Trudeau referred to his backbench as nobodies and the current Prime Minister likens them to terra cotta soldiers.
When the motion today comes to a vote I hope all backbenchers in the House will realize how important it is and, no matter what the party discipline, they vote with their conscience. We have heard what they say outside the House but this is a very important issue for the future of Parliament and how Parliament will work.
There is a need for renewed interest in parliamentary reform. The government's response to the need for parliamentary reform as reflected in the throne speech was disappointing. The task to reform Parliament has been left once again to private members and the opposition.
For example, the 66th report of the procedure and House affairs committee tabled in the last session recommended that all private members' business be votable. The government leadership on the committee resisted making all private members' business votable for nine years. For nine years they made lame excuses not to move forward on this file despite the pressure from within their own caucuses and the actual balloting and surveys we have had in the House where it shows 76% of members want private members' business votable.
I am sure that all private members would agree with me that the government forced private members to follow the Mahatma Gandhi path of policy implementation. Mr. Gandhi once said “first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight with you and then you win”. Well, private members got tired of being ignored. They got tired of being laughed at and they regret that they had to fight so hard for so little respect.
I point out that the Liberals have not won yet because the report has to be adopted by the House. The obstacle that stands in their way is the same obstacle that stands in their way and prevents committees from electing their own chairs. That obstacle is the cabinet and the Prime Minister of Canada.
Since the standing committees will be organizing in the next few weeks and days, the timing for a motion to introduce secret ballot elections at committee is very timely.
Before the introduction of the secret ballot vote in the 19th century, governments attempted to influence the outcome of elections through intimidation, blackmail and bribery. Witnesses of our modern day standing committee elections make the same observations. It is the height of hypocrisy for Canada to send observers to a country like Zimbabwe to oversee its election when in our own Parliament we tolerate undemocratic strong-arming tactics of the 19th century thugs.
At the moment the only election conducted by our secret ballot in Parliament is the one to elect our Speaker. This came about as a result of recommendations of the McGrath committee in the mid-1980s. It is embarrassing that we in the House only began secret ballot elections in the mid-1980s since the secret ballot was first introduced in Canada in British Columbia in the mid-1870s. A lot of good things come from British Columbia.
What most observers of Parliament find shocking is that the election process for the chairmen and vice-chairmen of standing committees in the Canadian House of Commons in the 21st century is not that different than what took place in Canadian elections in the 19th century. In the 19th century secret ballot was considered a radical and controversial proposition. Reformers back then knew that the right to vote without secret ballot was a hollow ritual because it could not be exercised without fear of consequences.
Modern reformers are of the same opinion about the election process here within Parliament with respect to the election of standing committee chairmen and vice-chairmen. For example, consider the last time the Standing Committee on Finance set out to elect a chairman. Word got around that the Prime Minister's choice was going to have some trouble getting elected. The government whip attended the election and her strong-arm tactics became the subject matter of a question of privilege where a number of members who were present at the finance meeting rose in the House and accused the Liberal whip of intimidation.
The legislative council of the state of Victoria, Australia passed the world's first secret ballot law in March 1856. South Australia approved similar legislation just a month later, and it is a smaller and younger country than we are.
British Columbia enacted the Dominion's first secret ballot legislation in 1873. Ontario and the Dominion government followed in 1874, Quebec and Nova Scotia in 1875, and then the other provinces and the territories.
In the publication The Archivist from January-February 1989 Volume 16, it describes the Quebec experience from the 1800s. What is frightening is that the description eerily mirrors in many ways the standing committee election experience in this Parliament. It states on page 8 that since the vote was not secret in the 1800s it was possible to threaten voters with reprisals if they did not vote the right way.
The finance committee example I just cited earlier fits the Quebec experience of the 1800s perfectly.
I have another parallel. I refer to pages 8 and 9 of The Archivist . It says that the government party, formed of members of a group known as the Chateau Clique, advocated executive power in the hands of the governor and legislative counsel. The opposition, known as the Parti canadien, wanted the parliamentary majority to have control over the executive and over appointment of officials. A number of governors used every tactic possible to have their supporters elected. These included choosing biased returning officers, selecting strategic locations for polling stations in various ridings, and hiring bullies. Since elections did not take place concurrently in neighbouring ridings in the 1880s, a party's bullies could move from riding to riding.
The scenario in Quebec in the 1800s is exactly what is taking place here. The executive branch, and more specifically the Prime Minister's office, is in complete control of Parliament and uses every tactic it can to maintain that control. The description of bullies going from riding to riding reminds me of what the Liberal whip does each fall during the chairmen elections at committee. The chief whip and her deputies move from committee to committee ensuring their members vote the right way.
In Quebec the Parti canadien responded with force and, as a result of its popular support, was able to retain a majority in the assembly. Election violence continued to increase until the outbreak of the rebellion in 1837-38. The 1841 election which followed the suspension of the constitution and the adoption of the Act of Union was no different from earlier elections. Governor Sydenham used tactics similar to those of his predecessors to ensure that the candidates of his choice were elected. However the reformers fought back and eventually secured adoption of the principle of responsible government.
We have reformers here in the House too. The Canadian Alliance and other parties have been advocating secret ballot elections at committee for some time. I also give some credit to the backbench of the Liberal Party because a number of them have done the same thing. While we will not see violence as we did in the 1800s, we will see a good parliamentary fight if a fight is necessary, and it may be necessary.
In reviewing the reasons why members resisted the secret ballot in the 19th century and the reasons offered today by some members, we find disturbing similarities.
On April 21, 1874, John Cameron spoke in the House and offered his argument against a secret ballot. He said:
Elections cannot be carried without money. Under an open system of voting, you can readily ascertain whether the voter has deceived you. Under vote by ballot, an elector may take your money and vote as he likes without detection.
One hundred and thirty-two years later we discover the same attitude in Parliament. Recently a Liberal member refused to help a veteran who was his constituent because the member discovered that the veteran did not vote for him. Here we have a member in the 21st century immediately acting on information about how a constituent voted and imposing a consequence because the constituent, in his opinion, did not vote the right way.
We forget the injustices the secret ballot helped our democracy overcome. We saw it in the case of the veteran looking for assistance from a member of Parliament and we see it every fall when the standing committees organize.
It is no wonder that in Canadian Houses the secret ballot election is an increasingly popular method of conducting elections as a response to renewed public interest in parliamentary reform.
The issue was first addressed in this House by the Lefebvre committee struck in 1982. The committee noted in its report that:
The Speaker belongs to the House, not to the government or the opposition...Although the Speaker once elected has always become the true representative of the House of Commons, [as he proves so much today] the Prime Minister under our practice has always exercised a very strong influence over the initial of a candidate.
It was a report of a second committee, the McGrath committee of 1985, that led to those changes being adopted in 1986. The result was the first Speaker of the Canadian House, the Hon. John Fraser, a very good friend of mine, being elected by secret ballot in the House.
While this change is a welcomed reform, the Prime Minister still exercises strong influence over the election of the Deputy Speaker, Deputy Chairman of Committees of the Whole, the Assistant Deputy Chairman of Committees of the Whole and every single chairman of the standing committees of the House.
All these positions should be taken out of the hands of the Prime Minister. It has been suggested that the Speaker appoint the junior chair officers. Since he is elected by secret ballot, his choices would enjoy more confidence from the House than the Prime Minister's choices. The Speaker would probably enjoy more loyalty and discipline if he were the one making the choice.
I am aware that the secret ballot will reduce the influence of the government leadership. As House leader of the official opposition I, too, will lose influence. It is not just the government who enjoys the predictable outcome of the current process. The official opposition presently enjoys chairing the Standing Committee on Public Accounts and the Standing Joint Committee on Scrutiny of Regulations. My party has at least one vice-chairman position on all other standing committees. The loss of personal influence as a leader is not what is at issue here.
Since 1986 we have trusted the House to choose its own Speaker. It is now time that we trust private members to choose their own committee leadership.
In conclusion, the McGrath committee in 1985 studied the confidence convention and it concluded that only explicit of motions of confidence or matters central to the government's platform should be treated as confidence. All references to confidence were expunged from the Standing Orders that regulated the function of Parliament.
Despite all these reforms in the past, I implore the backbenchers in the House to look at this motion and vote for it. Let us move forward for democracy in Canada and in this Parliament.