Madam Speaker, I would like to say a few words in support of the proposition before the House today. The proposition is one that is worthy of support by all members of the House and I hope all members support it.
It deals with the most fundamental part of a parliamentary democracy, namely the granting of supply. The granting of supply means the approval of funds, the approval of money, money paid by the taxpayers for the various programs, for the $150 billion or $160 billion that we approve in terms of expenditures every year.
It is quite shameful, if the Canadian people knew how quickly we approve the spending of billions and billions of dollars with very little scrutiny. Madam Speaker, you are a very credible intelligent person and I imagine even you could not explain all the billions of dollars that we vote and spend and approve without even knowing the details of what is going on in many cases.
I first came to the House in 1968 when I was 22 years old. I remember a great debate in the summer of 1969 when there were major rule changes made in the House. Pierre Trudeau was the prime minister. Bob Stanfield was the leader of the opposition. Tommy Douglas was the leader of the NDP and Réal Caouette was the leader of the Créditistes.
One of the things that was debated was the moving of the estimates out of the House into the committees. In those days estimates were dealt with by the committee of the whole. In 1969 as part of streamlining parliament the plan was to make sure that committees had more power and by moving the estimates to the committees, the estimates could be scrutinized more carefully in a smaller body with fewer MPs taking more time and therefore doing a better job on behalf of the Canadian public.
That debate went on for a long, long time. It was my first summer in Ottawa and it was a hot July. My recollection is the debate went on until the 29th or 30th of July. It went on day after day. It was a controversial debate as to whether or not we should move the estimates out of the House of Commons in terms of the committee of the whole to the various parliamentary committees.
I remember sitting in the back row. Once during a recess Réal Caouette, Bob Stanfield and other members of the Conservative Party walked over to our House leader, Stanley Knowles, and asked “What do we do next, Stanley? We are worried about the process, about taking the estimates out of the House”. For a while it seemed to be a pretty exciting thing to do. But after 1969 as time went on, it became more and more of a formality. As time went on the government whips, regardless of which party was in power, would crack the whip and steamroll the estimates through the various committees. There is very little scrutiny of the estimates and expenses in committees, to the point where I think this is one of the big problems in our parliamentary system.
I support the motion before the House. We are in need of serious parliamentary reform. We have to devise a system. Whether it is a special committee on the estimates or bringing more estimates before the House as my friend from the PC/DR Coalition has suggested, we have to do something to make sure there is better scrutiny of the estimates here.
Every year we approve spending for fisheries, agriculture and national defence. We approve $60 million for the other place, the Senate. At least when we get to most estimates in the committees, we call witnesses from the various agencies and government departments to justify what they are spending. It may be happening very quickly and it may be very superficial but in the case of the Senate, it refuses to appear before the appropriate House of Commons committee to justify the roughly $60 million it spends every year. Liberal members of the House of Commons have invited the relevant people from the Senate and they refuse to appear. Where is the accountability? Where is the scrutiny of the money that is spent here that is collected from each and every single Canadian taxpayer?
We should be moving toward more parliamentary reform, more openness, more accountability, more independence for individual members. There should be less control by the whips particularly on the government side of the House of Commons. There should eventually be more free votes, fewer confidence votes, more power for parliamentary committees and more independence for parliamentary committees.
My goodness, we cannot even elect a committee chair by a secret ballot even though we elect the Speaker of the House of the Commons by a secret ballot. That is how centralized and controlled we are.
There are some new cabinet ministers, like the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Hopefully he will bring some reforming zeal to the inner sanctums of government across the way. I hope in a year or two he will not become like most of the others and isolate himself because of all the awesome power or be intimidated by the Prime Minister and some of his advisers like Eddie Goldenberg.
We have to change our system. We have to reform it. No matter who sits on the other side, people elect members of parliament to scrutinize supply, to scrutinize the estimates, to suggest ideas, to make changes, to make laws, to vote freely in accordance with their conscience and in accordance with the wishes of their constituents. That really has not been happening in the House of Commons.
We are probably the most handcuffed parliament of any country in the democratic world in terms of the lack of freedom to speak one's mind and to vote one's mind. Even in Britain which we model our own system after, often the government will lose a bill in the British House of Commons despite the fact there is a majority parliament. When Margaret Thatcher was prime minister and at the height of her popularity I recall several times when Conservative backbenchers rebelled and defeated a government bill. The same thing has happened to Tony Blair, who is a very popular prime minister, especially in his first term. There were a number of cases when the Labour government in Britain lost a proposal in the House of Commons because members of the prime minister's own party stood up and said no.
If that were to happen here on even the most timid little measure, it would become a great parliamentary crisis. It would be a great issue of confidence. The Prime Minister talks about going to the country and having a brand new election. That is really a farce. We are shortchanging Canadians if we cannot organize our most powerful democratic institution to be truly democratic and representative of the people of Canada.
This motion is a very timid little step toward making this place more relevant to each and every Canadian citizen. I urge all members of the House to support the idea before us.
I urge the Minister of Foreign Affairs, being a progressive, bright, refreshing, young voice at the cabinet table compared to the seniority in the House, to take the bull by the horns and make sure he helps organize the government benches to accept this very worthwhile and credible idea. I look forward to hearing the remarks of the Minister of Foreign Affairs and I will cede the floor to him.