Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to take part in today's debate on the modernization and improvement of the procedures of the House of Commons. This is an important issue. We want democracy to be more open for parliamentarians elected to the House of Commons. The public must not wonder what power its member of Parliament has if he or she is not a government member.
Government members who are sitting close to the curtains, backbenchers, are also saying that they do not have enough powers, and they want to have more of a say.
It is said that Parliament has been looking at modernizing and improving its procedures for 20 years, but it is as if it cannot go ahead with it. Committees are set up, but there is never any agreement. We can never bring the issue before the House and get an agreement on changes to the procedures of the House of Commons.
Recently, the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs decided to raise in the House the issue of electing all parliamentary committee chairs by secret ballot. The government's argument was “This will be done bit by bit”. Government officials were not pleased. The government House leader told us “Why not have another committee to look at the modernization and improvement of the procedures of the House?”
The committee felt strongly about its view. It made a recommendation on this issue and presented it to the House of Commons. The House supported that recommendation. My goodness. We are lucky that the Prime Minister and the former Minister of Finance are fighting, otherwise this never would have gone through. Let us face it: this would never have passed in the House of Commons.
The problem is that the government in office does not want to let go of its power, it does not want to let democracy make decisions. It is as simple as that. The Prime Minister himself said “It is not democratic to have a secret ballot”.
In visits to other countries throughout the world, we go around telling the developing countries they need to have more democratic procedures, with a secret vote, and here we have our Prime Minister telling the House that a secret vote is not democratic, that it is not democratic for his people to be able to act according to their wishes and those of the people they represent.
So we have mixed messages here. On the one hand, we want democracy, but on the other we are not prepared to respect it in our own House of Commons. I am troubled by this, I would even go so far as to say I was disgusted. I can understand that the government is defending itself, and wants to keep hold of the power, but it is a big jump from that to telling us that a secret vote is not democratic.
I will give another example, one I am not afraid to give. When it is reported that a labour union has held a strike vote, but not a secret vote, the reaction is that this was not democratic, not right, and that another, secret, vote must be held. Here, we have a Prime Minister who has just told us that a secret vote is undemocratic. Imagine that.
Yesterday in this House, the Leader of the Government in the House said the following:
Members, Liberal members at any rate, vote freely on all private members' bills.
I will tell a little story, a very interesting one, in hopes that a good many Canadians will hear it. When the Bloc Quebecois member introduced a private member's motion calling upon the Crown to acknowledge the wrongs done to the Acadians, little notes were found strewn all over the floor, notes from the Liberals telling their members how to vote.
As the member for Acadie—Bathurst, I asked the Minister of Canadian Heritage for financial assistance to help a singer in my riding who was going to Vietnam. I had been told she could get some assistance, so I went to see the Minister of Canadian Heritage to ask for it. The community rallied around this person and even the ambassador to Vietnam was happy to welcome a star. When Sandra Lecouteur went to Vietnam, she was given an incredible reception. Our little Acadian singer has also sung in Paris and at the Montreal Place des Arts, and everywhere she goes she gets a great reception.
When I asked the Minister of Canadian Heritage whether her department would be prepared to contribute $1,200—since the opposition does not hold the purse strings—I think I followed proper procedure. There did not seem to be any problem at all. Everything was OK. That was last May.
Since this was June and I had not heard anything further about my request, I tried again to contact the minister. This may seem strange, but it shows the pressure that they put on their members, at least that is what I think. When I met the minister, she told me “There is no problem, the public servants did not do their job”. It was the public servants who were to blame.
In July, I still had not received an answer. So, I phoned the department again and I was told “No problem, this will be done, it has been approved”.
In September, when the House resumed sitting, I once again met with the Minister of Canadian Heritage who said “I will talk to my officials and this will be settled soon”. I told myself “The issue will finally be settled. This is September and I have been waiting since May”.
Then, we voted on the motion tabled by the Bloc Quebecois member, asking the Crown to present an official apology to the Acadian people for the wrongs done to them. I voted in favour of the motion. After the vote, I went to see the minister again, but she angrily turned her back on me and left.
Finally, the next day I again met the minister and told her “Where is the $1,200?” She replied “Go see the Bloc Quebecois and ask them for the money, because you supported their motion”.
What I am saying is that there are ministers in the House who have an incredible and unacceptable power when the time comes to vote on motions or on private members' bills.
I object to the government House leader saying that Liberal members vote freely on all private members' business. The hon. member for Beauséjour—Petitcodiac was going around the House of Commons telling his colleagues how to vote, because the Minister of Canadian Heritage was watching how members were voting and she has the portfolio. I say that this is putting pressure on members and this is no longer a democratic process.
I will not ask the Bloc Quebecois to pay for the costs of a government program in New Brunswick, in the Acadian Peninsula, when there is a minister here who should do her job.
It is the same thing with motions presented by members. I have a hard time with that and I will explain why. We decided to produce a report on members' motions. All the parties involved unanimously proposed that some changes be made and that we vote on all motions and bills. The names of 30 different members are randomly selected, and these members must appear before a parliamentary committee to see if their motion or bill can be debated and become a votable item.
Out of a possible ten motions or bills that could be deemed votable, the parties only managed to reach consensus on four. Is this not a shame for the members who work so hard in preparing a bill? We have the opportunity to vote on ten motions or bills and we cannot even reach a consensus to vote.
This morning, one of the parliamentary secretaries rose and said that the House should be able to decide if a private member's motion or bill will be votable. Can you imagine how they have paralyzed the House of Commons? The government has no new business to bring before the House. For two days now we have been having a take note debate and there are no bills being considered. I do not think that the House should be spending its entire day like this. Normally, take note debates take place at night.
When there are 30 motions or bills before us and we cannot agree to choose at least ten that will be deemed votable—because there is room for 10—it seems to indicate to me that the House is not prepared to change Parliament, to modernize and improve it.
This morning, at a meeting of the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs, Northern Development and Natural Resources, the member for Windsor—St. Clair moved a motion. He debated the motion for four minutes when the committee chair interrupted him and said, “That is enough, we will now vote”.
We are all aware that the Liberals form a majority in committees. Once again, I find it completely unacceptable that someone was prevented from expressing themselves in committee. I have sat on committees where members were not able to express themselves. Some people take longer than others, and others are quicker. But a situation like that which took place this morning is unacceptable. Where is the democracy in that?
When we sit on a committee, it is the same thing. It is obvious. Committee hearings are recorded and televised, they are public. Members of the governing party say, “We Liberals are here to represent the government. We are here to govern”.
It was not my understanding that that was what committees were for. Parliamentary committees should allow Canadians to express their views and they should bring the suggestions and recommendations that Canadians have to Parliament. Then, it is up to the governing majority to decide whether or not they want to accept the recommendations made by the committee. However, that is not what happens in committee.
We are a long way from being able to say that there is a will to modernize or improve the way things are done. Improvements are required not only here, in the House of Commons, but throughout the system, both at the parliamentary and the committee levels.
I do not want to be pessimistic, but I know that things will not change. The only changes that we might see would be along the lines of the ones that took place a few weeks ago. This was a committee recommendation. There was a feud between the Prime Minister of Canada and the former Minister of Finance. The Liberals voted in favour of a motion for secret ballot elections in committee. This was the only time there had ever been changes. They are not proud of it and they feel humiliated because they lost their hold.
I am sure that, after the next Liberal leader has been selected, they will reunite to regain their hold. They will forget all about democracy. They will forget all about open-mindedness, not unlike the former Minister of Finance who is touring the country talking about changing our Parliament. The current Prime Minister is not the only to blame. When he was the Minister of Finance, he took money that belonged to the workers without so much as a by your leave and used it to balance his budget. He eliminated the deficit at the expense of those who are jobless. This is the kind of democracy he is advocating across the country. He will come back to the House pretending to be a new man. He claims to be open, telling people thins like “You will be welcome to express your views. You will get to vote along with us. We will not put any pressure on you”. Come on.
I am 47 years old. I was not born yesterday. That is fine Canadian politics, and that is all it is. The press is always after him, following him wherever he goes. He is the nicest and handsomest man in Canada, and he is going to save our country. This is the kind of democracy he stands for.
For example, yesterday, the House dealt with a really important motion. As if it was not bad enough to take the money of the workers who lost their jobs while it was enjoying a $40 billion surplus, the government decided to target persons with disabilities. It told them “You are not entitled to tax deductions. We will put you on the chopping block. If you cannot find a doctor or a specialist in the health system, you will have to fill out a form”. That form has to completed by answering yes or no. The specialist cannot even write comments on the form. He cannot say anything about the patient that consulted him. A yes or a no makes things so easy. If one can walk a distance of 150 feet, one is not eligible for the tax deduction.
I know a man in my riding who lost a leg. He uses a prosthesis and he was entitled to the tax deduction for 12 years. Now, under the new policy, if a person can walk 150 feet, that person is no longer entitled to the tax deduction. I asked that man if his leg had grown back. He said no. His foot did not grow back. Denis Boucher's foot and leg have not grown back.
Such measures show how cruel this government can be.
Now, the government is saying “We want to give Parliament power”. We will see if the government does that. Yesterday, Parliament made a unanimous decision. We are the elected members of Canada and the House decided to tell the government to leave persons with disabilities alone. This is what the House said. I am anxious to see if the government will act democratically in this regard. I am anxious to see what it will do.
In this morning's newspaper, it was reported that the Minister of Finance left because he did not want to vote on his own program. This is bad. The person who should change the act or the regulations because Parliament made a decision did not even want to take a stand on his own rules. I am afraid that nothing will change. Let us hope that the voice of parliamentarians will be listened to. Otherwise, all these discussions today are pointless. All the representations that parliamentarians have been making for the past 20 years are pointless.
When speaking of Parliament, we should also address our elections and the way we are elected in Canada. Canada ought to be a democratic country. The Speaker of the House is supposed to appoint certain persons, and now it is the ministers of the government who are doing so. I find that there is no longer any democracy when the party in power is the one in charge of commissions to look into changes in our elections. This is no longer democracy.
There is need for more openness and transparency. More transparency would, I believe, earn us more respect from Canadians. Polls show that only 14% or 17% of Canadians trust politicians. This is a problem. Canadian politics are dangerous. Canadians have lost confidence in us and we are at the bottom of the list.
Frankly, who can blame them? In 1989, the House of Commons passed a motion stating that child poverty would be eradicated. Now, 10 years later, there are still 1.4 million poor children in Canada. Every month, 300,000 children are forced to turn to food banks. How can Canadians have any confidence in their politicians?
I can only hope that this government will open up to Parliament and start listening to parliamentarians. We need democracy, true Canadian democracy.