Mr. Speaker, I am delighted to join in the debate. I have chaired the senior committee of the House which has particular responsibility for the Standing Orders. If we read the annotated version of the Standing Orders, each of the subsections of the Standing Orders has a history. If we read that with care, those histories together are really a history of this place. The Standing Orders are very special. Therefore, although I know many of the people watching on television know relatively little about the Standing Orders, this debate is very important.
As a member, I believe it is extremely important from time to time to think about the Standing Orders and consider modernizing them. If we read those annotations since confederation, in fact some of the annotations go back before confederation, it shows that whenever we engage in this exercise we should proceed thoughtfully and with care. Every Standing Order in this place has evolved over a long period of time and has had the input of many members of Parliament like ourselves. We should respect those opinions, not to the point of doing nothing but of proceeding with care.
I would like to talk a bit about being careful, when we engage in this exercise, of not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. In other words, we must think very carefully about the place as a whole, not condemn it when we are concerned about one facet or another of these very important Standing Orders.
I would like to share some of my experience with the Ontario legislature at Queen's Park, where I was for three years. Like all the legislatures in Canada, it is a remarkably open place. However, I stress that in comparison to the openness that we have here, it is still very much a closed place.
I want to draw back a bit on some of the discussion of private members' business, the nature of question period, how committees operate and so on. I will give one example of that.
The Ontario legislature operates on a calendar which is determined by the premier of the province of Ontario, in other words by the leader of the government party. The legislature is called at the whim of the premier and is closed and prorogued at the whim of the premier. People might say so what. However think of the fundamental freedom and influence of members of Parliament. If our Prime Minister could close the House down now or could say that we would not meet for the next six months, or sometimes in the case of Ontario eight months, that would be control.
I am sure viewers have little idea of this, but we operate on a two year rolling calendar. The House of Commons functions in 10 months of the year. On working days, we work for nine or ten hours a day, including meal times. The House of Commons rolls on, but in a predetermined fashion. Our Prime Minister, I and my colleagues know that next April we will be here on certain days. We have a reasonable idea of the flow of business. Throughout the year we know what we will be doing, and our Prime Minister cannot stop that.
I would urge members to remember that, in a very real sense, the House of Commons controls its own calendar. Every year the two year rolling calendar is changed, I assume through discussion among the House leaders. In principle the forum throughout the year is controlled by the House itself. That is a very important power. Whether our legislature can be closed down by the Prime Minister is where members of Parliament have limited power.
I want to give another example from Queen's Park. We have what we call S.O. 31s. These are statements by members and we have 60 seconds. I do not know how it works among the opposition parties but on this side it is like a lottery. When a member has something he wants to say, perhaps it is about your constituency or about a political point, the statement is submitted and it is drawn out of a hat. Then there are 60 seconds in which the member can say whatever he or she likes.
Sixty seconds may not sound like very much to people watching this. However, when I was at Queen's Park I was supporting the idea that the Olympic games should be in southern Ontario and not in Greece. This is a pretty obscure thing. I am interested in sports and in southern Ontario, so I submitted what we would call an S. O. 31, a private member's statement, about this. Private members' statements are vetted at Queen's Park. In my statement was a line which I thought was a joke, and I am sure the House will think it is a joke. I said that if the people of Greece had really been interested in having the Olympic games, they would not have given them up 2000 years ago. Because of that sentence, my private member's statement was pulled from the list. To members opposite, and I do not know how theirs are chosen, that sort of thing does not happen here.
I also want to talk about the Standing Orders with respect to this debate. When we have debates, there is discussion among the House leaders and it is determined how long speeches will be and whether there will be questions and answers, and there usually are questions and answers. Typically in this case, if I manage to speak for 20 minutes, the Speaker will allow 10 minutes of questions and answers. If I speak for 10 minutes, typically members from all sides are allowed five minutes of questions and answers.
On my very first day in the House of Commons, when I was first elected in 1993, I came in and we went through the opening of the House and then we went on immediately to the predetermined calendar. I was on duty on this side. I had to be here. As a new member, I sat in my seat throughout.
I was in awe of being in this place. Gradually the light changed, the sun went down and the stained glass windows changed their hue, and I was impressed. It was my first day and I was not on the speaking list. Nor had not tried to be on the speaking list. However I noticed that when a member stopped speaking other members got up and asked them questions. When I was at Queen's Park that never happened.
After I have finished speaking here, members can get up and they will have either five or 10 minutes, depending on how long I speak, to ask questions.
However later that night, at seven or eight o'clock, I got up and made a comment. I asked one of the speakers a question just so that I could test the waters. As a result of that, the following day I received a phone call from a lady in Vancouver, who happened to have seen it, and she had a comment on what I had to say.
Those question and answer periods are in our Standing Orders, which they do not have at Queen's Park. People say that this is a whipped and highly controlled House of Commons. If a member can come in here and he or she has five minutes to get up make a comment and ask a question, how can the whips control that?
I know the member for Elk Island takes an extraordinary interest in this debate and in other debates. Let us say that he has come here today and he is seething with some problem in agriculture or something of that type. Even though this debate is on modernization, we all know that, if he wishes he can get up and speak for two or three minutes on the record about agriculture today, whether his whip wants him to or not. That is the sort of freedom we have in the House. That is what I mean about not throwing the baby away with the bathwater. We have to think of the strengths of the House of Commons as well as its weaknesses.
I mentioned question period. Question period is different in all the parliaments around the world. We often have had the Westminster model quoted to us during this debate from the other side of the House. In the Westminster model the members of parliament give notice of their questions. They say that they will ask this person or that person a specific question about health care.
In our House of Commons no notice is given. The Prime Minister and our ministers come in here and the members opposite can ask them anything they like. Not only that, the official opposition gets a question and then two supplementary questions on the first few rounds. The rules are not in the Standing Orders exactly, but I know the Speaker has developed them.
In addition to not having any notice, the Prime Minister answers a question and the official opposition can ask him another question on the same topic. It can probe through the question and two supplementaries. In many other parliaments this does not exist. That is a good example of the way the official opposition party, in this case the Canadian Alliance, is protected by our standing orders. It is given very special privileges in question period which it would not have in other parliaments.
Modernization is very important but we should proceed thoughtfully and carefully. I mentioned the official opposition. I am not demeaning other legislatures because they also have their particular strengths, but in every other parliament around the world which is modeled on Westminster, the standing orders are geared to nurture the official opposition party.
The idea is that if the official opposition, as members may recall was the case in New Brunswick recently, is reduced to one or as happened previously is reduced to zero, it has to think of some way of generating opposition at the same time. Even if the opposition party is reduced to one or two members, those members should be given all the strength possible.
We believe that through the standing orders the official opposition should be nurtured. It holds the government accountable and it trains future governments. That brings me to the comments made by the member for Elk Island regarding the secret ballot.
As I have mentioned, I am chair of the procedure committee which tabled the report on the secret vote. I function as chair of that committee as well as I can. I have to say to the hon. member that it is not the secrecy of the ballot itself or anything of that sort that concerns me, but I believe that change which was cobbled together very quickly is flawed. It is flawed in that it has weakened not only the present official opposition, but future official oppositions. One of the special roles of the standing orders is not to nurture the government because it does not need any nurturing, but it is to nurture the people in the opposition party.
The official opposition has already lost five vice-chairs of standing committees. We could conceive of that party losing all of them. If I were debating in a partisan way, I would say good, the Canadian Alliance has lost five vice-chairs. However as chair of the committee which is responsible for the standing orders, and as someone who is very conscious, when I am not engaged in partisan debate, of the preservation of the intrinsic strengths of this place, I hope there can be some modification in the future of the secret ballot so that the official opposition, not the opposition in general, but the official opposition and future official oppositions are not weakened by that change.
Those are my general baby in bath water comments. There are some things I am interested in that do not require changes to the standing orders but which I have promoted for a long time and wish to promote again. They are simple changes in the way committees operate which could be done by consensus by members here in this chamber.
One of these changes is the televising of committees. I have worked very hard not just as chair of the procedure and House affairs committee, but before that to see to it that committee work is televised whenever possible. People say that is just vanity and members just want to be on television and there is some truth to that statement. I believe that when committees are televised, people can see members working and they know what their members of Parliament are doing. Televising committees changes the way members operate. Members think very seriously and speak differently when they are on television.
There is a pilot project in the House whereby any committee can be televised. It will go until the end of the year and then the committee will look at it again. There are two official television rooms. If a commercial television station gives the chair of the committee notice, for example the night before, that it will be putting a camera in the committee room the following day, the camera can be put there and the event can be televised. There are some rules associated with that.
That exists but it has not been widely used by committees, and committee members could do something about that. It has not been widely used by the television companies either. I hope they start to use it. I think by that simple change, by more frequently getting committees on television, individual members of Parliament would be strengthened.
The other one is in the same vein. It is the matter of committee travel. When committees travel, it empowers the individual members of Parliament on the committees. They go to different parts of the country and come back here to report on what they heard. People listen to them more carefully as a result of their travel.
At the moment in theory all the committees can travel. However it is expensive when 16 or 18 people travel. We might have enough confidence, which is within the standing orders, to send seven or eight members of a committee rather than the whole lot. Again, the committee could decide on that itself and it could have a quorum for receiving witnesses which is in the standing orders. Then it would be easier for the committee to travel.
More significantly, in order to travel, the committee has to agree that it wants to travel. It has to submit a budget, which is as it should be. It has to come to the House to get unanimous consent to travel. An individual member in here can stop a committee from travelling and it happens.
Speaking here particularly about the two smallest parties which have 12 or 13 members, I know it is difficult for them to release one of their members to travel for three days to the west coast, to Nunavut and to the Maritimes. I would urge that individual members think seriously before stopping committees from travelling.
Individual members can say no, and a committee will not travel. A good example is the Standing Committee on Official Languages which has tried to travel numerous times and has never been able to travel to my knowledge, simply because of a voice that was heard in this place.
That would not be a change in the standing orders. It would be a change in attitude in the House of Commons and among the parties.
I will conclude on that point. Like my colleague previously, I compliment you, Mr. Speaker, on allowing us to conduct this very important debate on modernizing the House of Commons.