That this House take note of proposals for modernization and improvement of the procedures of the House of Commons.
Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to take part in today's take note debate on the modernization of the House of Commons. Parliament is an evolutionary institution that we must continually modernize to meet the varied needs of parliamentarians and all Canadians.
Since this government came to office under the very capable leadership of the right hon. Prime Minister, in 1993, we have been guided by the idea that parliamentary reform is necessary to restore public confidence in Parliament and to end the erosion of its role that began under the previous government.
We went to work right away in 1993 to implement our electoral promises. As a result, members are now involved in the budget process thanks to the annual prebudget consultations held by the Standing Committee on Finance. This work done by the finance committee has now become an institution. Canadians from across the country come to meet their members and tell them that they wish to speak before the committee during the prebudget consultations.
Members, Liberal members at any rate, vote freely on all private members' bills. There are free votes within our party, more than 100 since 1993. I encourage other parties to adopt this modernization one day. Fifteen private members' bills have become law since 1993, far more than under any other government in Canadian history.
Members participate in take note debates on major national and international questions. There have been 43 of these since 1993, or 44 counting today's.
We call upon the appropriate House committees to make recommendations on draft bills, such as the one on the ethics commissioner position, which is currently with the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs.
More bills go to a committee before second reading. This procedure was established by my predecessor, the Right Honourable Herb Gray, whom I may call by name now that he is no longer a parliamentarian. This gives members an opportunity to propose a broader range of amendments. Since 1993, the government has submitted 34 bills to committees prior to second reading.
The government has improved its reports to Parliament in connection with the budget, in order to help the committee examine government spending.
In 1997 we amended a whole series of standing orders in order to reflect the presence of the five parties in Parliament. I would remind hon. members that, at that time, the leaders were: the member for Langley—Abbotsford, with whom I worked closely, once we had the five parties, to improve the way the system was working, the member for Pictou—Antigonish—Guysborough, the member for Winnipeg, and the same leader of the Bloc Quebecois as we have now.
We had to work together to change a whole series of standing orders in order to make Parliament workable in a totally extraordinary situation—there had never before been a parliament with five political parties—and we managed to do it.
In 2001, after the 2000 election, we tabled the changes in the House of Commons. In order to facilitate the legislative process, the House clarified the Speaker's role with respect to motions at report stage.
The process we were using was an archaic one, as hon. members will recall, and it had us voting all night to change a comma or semicolon, or something equally minor. It was not modern; we have modernized the Parliamentary rules in order to make them better.
This was another initiative taken by our Prime Minister. He had mentioned it in his red book. We provided an additional $1 million to the Library of Parliament for its Research Branch for parliamentarians. This is modernization. An additional $900,000 was earmarked for the research services of political parties and caucuses.
Based on the questions that are put to us in the House of Commons, it is not always obvious that these political parties received additional research money, but they actually did. The salaries paid to hon. members are more transparent and much more in line with those of similar groups in our society.
We had a strange way, to say the least, of remunerating parliamentarians. This made Canadians wonder about the whole process. That process was not particularly generous, but it did not match that of other Canadians. Therefore, we changed it.
The budgets of hon. members were increased by $20,000 and their accommodation allowance by $3,000. So, a whole series of changes were made.
In 2001, Mr. Speaker, under your excellent chairmanship, we had the modernization committee. At that time we modified 26 standing orders. Now the Leader of the Opposition can refer two sets of estimates to committee of the whole. That was unprecedented.
The House can require 30 minute debates when we have time allocation and closure. There used to be a situation where members of Parliament were questioning and they would stand on points of order, or alleged points of order, about whether the government was justified in moving time allocation when the opposition delays bills, which it does from time to time. Now there is a formal process to do that. There is a half-hour question period.
More take note debates are being held. As a regular part of the House leaders' agenda, every week now is the subject of take note debates. The House leaders of every party can go there and raise the concerns of their various caucuses about what the subject of a take note debate should be.
As a matter of fact we were asked in the House of Commons today whether we should have a debate about some international treaty or other to which I answered that it was a fine subject for the House leader of that particular member's party to bring forward. This has been a very useful process, particularly since September 11. We have to raise a number of issues in debate in the House.
We have simplified the process for emergency debates. We now have them in committee of the whole, based a little on the U.K. example where members can congregate around the clerk's table in a way that makes for a debate that is less formal.
We have changed the number of weeks that we sit to permit people to be with their families during March.
We now have deferred votes immediately after question period. We did so today.
We have made the appointment of all officers of Parliament subject to House of Commons approval, formalizing what had been, to a degree, an informal practice. Now we have that. Should a new clerk be appointed many years from now when our clerk retires, that would be the subject of a vote in the House should the House demand a vote on that. That was not previously provided for in the rules.
In 2002, we are again responding to the changing interests of members.
We have had modernization of our rules in the current year. I am not only speaking of what happened last week. The royal assent bill was passed which allows royal assent to be given to legislation through a written procedure. The way they have done it in the U.K. for countless years, we now have it here at the House of Commons.
We have established a new Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates and created the Standing Committee on Official Languages.
We have adopted a procedure for making all private members' business items votable.
The House agreed to require the election of committee chairs by secret ballot, although the process by which we reached that was not one about which I was personally overenthusiastic, as the Chair would know.
We are here today to talk about the 2002 modernization committee. The 2001 committee report stated that there were to be other procedural changes. It was in 2001, Mr. Speaker, again under your able chairmanship, that we stated that we wanted to have another modernization committee report after the next election. We are here now. We will have the second modernization committee. Following consultation with other House leaders, we have agreed to start the modernization committee to consider further improvements to House rules.
I am pleased that House leaders of all parties have looked at this as enthusiastically as I have. The difference this time, though, is that House leaders felt that if they were accompanied by perhaps a representative from their various caucuses it would not be just House leadership participating in it, but others like caucus chairs, or other people should they not be available, would be a useful addition to the process. Since procedural changes affect all members, it makes sense to do it that way.
I want to take just a couple of moments and give the House a few ideas of the changes as I see them, respectfully. Other members will contribute and I hope that at the end, as we did last time when we came back for a second round of debate about changes in the House of Commons, we will do that again once we have consulted our caucuses and once we have worked on this for some time.
I want to suggest to my colleagues that the U.K. and Australia have made a number of useful changes and we should inform ourselves of what those two jurisdictions have done and inspire ourselves with what they have done.
The U.K. has finished the second phase of its modernization. It has moved the time for question period. I am not sure we should do that, but we should at least consider what it is doing to see what the benefits are. The U.K. has agreed to the programming of legislative stages of bills. It has a process by which to agree on the overall time for when a bill starts and when it ends. If it spends more time in committee, it spends less time at report stage and so on. We would ascribe an overall time and then we would decide whether we want a lot of House debate, a lot of committee debate and so on, within that set timeframe. Is that something that would interest us? I think we should at least look at it.
The U.K. and Australia have adopted a chamber parallel to the House of Commons. Westminster Hall in the U.K., for instance, debates issues of local concern. Australia has what it calls the main committee, which considers legislation later on in the process. To what extent, for instance, could this kind of chamber be used to debate committee reports, concurrences and other things like that? I do not know. There are a number of things that perhaps should be done in this kind of forum, which would be something superior to a committee but a little less than what the House is. Perhaps it could be televised all the time when it sits, a little like we have for some committees.
Anyway, these are ideas.
I want to raise the issue of reinstatement of government bills after prorogation. We do that for private members' bills. The Quebec National Assembly does this already. Phase two of the U.K. modernization committee has recommended it. Why are we not doing that here? It seems a little inconsistent to go through a procedural motion and two days of debate and closure to do that which we should do on the very first day. Why do we not just do it? We do it for private members' bills, so we have established that it is a good process.
What about committee review and the ability of whips to apply a previous vote to a successive vote, structuring what we do most of the time anyway in a way that would enable whips to work more closely together? Why not do that or why not at least explore doing that?
What about this idea of concurrence in committee reports and ways in which we could deal with this? We have reports where no concurrence is sought by the committee and concurrence is moved in the House, or we ask the government to comment but we move concurrence before the government has. Surely there is something wrong with that procedure. It seems to me that it needs modernization.
How about changing Standing Order 104, which requires committee memberships to be re-established and start all over again every September? I have been in a whip position. I have been deputy whip, as it were, in opposition and deputy and chief whip in government. I have never yet figured out what this is supposed to do except give a giant headache for about one month in September of every year to anybody who is a whip. Perhaps we should look at this and instead have membership expire only when there is a new session. Anyway, it is a theme that the committee should look at.
How about reviewing Standing Order 43 to allow a process to move to 10 minute speeches for a government motion? There is an anomaly here between government bills and government motions. Government bills fall to 10 minutes after a certain period of debate while government motions remain at 20. Perhaps that is just an oversight, but it does not look right and I am sure it is not right. Of course, as I said, I am sure that it is accidental.
What about modern technology to be used for members of Parliament? We do not even have electronic voting in here. Electronic voting is one issue, but it is not the only one involving technology, and I do not want to make it look like the be-all and end-all.
What about encouraging our colleagues to have more functional websites? We have a greater use of technology with which to consult Canadians, for instance. What about the webcast of House of Commons committees proceedings? What about electronic filing of motions? Why do we have to physically send a written motion to the office in 2002, in the most technologically advanced nation on earth, which I think we are? Surely there is something wrong with that. We could advance those processes and make them more modern.
Some would argue that some drafting initiatives regarding plainer language should be looked at. I am a little nervous about that one, but it is still something that we should explore to see what others do. I would like to move perhaps a little more slowly than others in that area, but still, I do not think it would be a modernization debate without at least raising this.
The purpose of this debate, today and tomorrow, is to consult our colleagues on this initiative. I am looking forward to hearing the advice of my colleagues from both sides of the House. I welcome this opportunity to work with the other House leaders on this initiative, as we have done previously. Of course, this time, it will be with the leaders and other representatives who will be sitting with them.
I must say, to conclude, that as the sole member of the group of leaders and ministers, my duties will force me to leave momentarily to chair a cabinet meeting. I may therefore miss some of what my hon. colleagues will say. I will come back to the House later. There is no lack of respect intended. I have already indicated to the Leader of the Opposition in the House that I may not be able to catch all of his presentation.
I will be back later, however, and I will also be following the debates in the House tomorrow. I look forward to working with my colleagues, and you too, Mr. Speaker, I hope, if you agree to chair this committee, once it has been formally established.
If I assess the modernization work done so far, that is phase I, it has been greatly successful, well run and well managed. There has been excellent participation by parliamentarians from all parties, without any partisanship, so that together, we can make this great institution for which we all have respect grow.
I thank my hon. colleagues. Later, when I have a chance to come back to the House, I will listen with interest to their remarks, which I hope will be constructive ones. I hope that mine were. I urge members, today and tomorrow, to express their concerns about the rules and about how we could improve this House of Commons, which is so dear to us.