Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to speak to Bill S-34, an act respecting royal assent to bills passed by the Houses of Parliament.
I will be speaking against the bill but, for the sake of clarification, I will be speaking against it on my own behalf and not on behalf of the Canadian Alliance as a whole.
I want to begin my comments by congratulating the government House leader for resuming his role. I know he has a deep appreciation for this place and its traditions. In our discussions prior to this debate, we reviewed together some of the provisions of the bill, which he supports and I do not, but I do know that he has a deep appreciation for the history and traditions of the House, and I can appreciate that.
I want to now turn to the three points I want to make about the bill. First, I will give a brief review of the contents of the bill. Second, I will talk a little bit about the role of tradition and of state ceremonial in our system and indeed in all systems. Third, I will talk to the broader question of the reform of this place and some of the dysfunctions that have crept into it.
Bill S-34 would provide an alternative to the formal royal assent procedure currently used in the Canadian parliament. It would provide that royal assent can be given by a written declaration similar to that which is used in Canadian provinces, in Australia and in the United Kingdom, and which has been used in some of those jurisdictions for a number of years.
The provisions of the bill allow for one traditional royal assent ceremony to be held per year. However, the bill carefully states that should such a traditional ceremony not take place there would be no consequences. I think that is definitely a mistake. If the bill had gone through committee and through report stage in this Chamber where amendments could have been made, I would have proposed an amendment to that effect.
Those procedures would take place during the parliamentary session in which both Houses passed the bill.
Those are the general outlines of the legislation. The formal ceremony for royal assent, of which many Canadians may not be aware, occurs, at most, once per session and perhaps not at all.
The way it works now is that when a bill is assented to, the Governor General, or the Queen if she is present in Canada, takes the throne in the Senate, members of the Senate are assembled, the Usher of the Black Rod comes down to the House of Commons and invites all members present to join in the ceremony of royal assent. A parade of members walk over to the Senate and the Governor General or the monarch, as the case may be, gives formal assent to the legislation in question.
I want to talk a bit about the value of this kind of tradition and indicate why this is a key part of my opposition to this bill. I oppose the bill because it represents one small part of the steady erosion in Canada, which has been going on for a number of decades, of the traditional state ceremonial that exists and the respect for the traditional forums in which we enact our laws, carry out our daily lives and carry out the functions that make us part of a body politic, a polity, a community that is not simply a state but something that has an organic existence of its own. Those organic relationships develop slowly. They maintain the value in bringing a solemnity to what we do.
The institution we see eroding bit by bit as these changes take place tends to be the monarchy which is the capstone of the Canadian constitution. Under our constitution and traditions, this is a central part of the parliamentary system. In fact, parliament is not composed under our system of two houses, the Commons and Senate, but rather of three parts: the Commons, the Senate and the Queen. That is why we refer to the Queen in our formal documents and pronouncements in parliament.
We are intended under our original constitution to be a republic in the classical sense. A republic is not in the trite modern sense a state without a monarch. Rather a republic is a mixed government which consists of elements of a monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. It seems to me that the erosion of the traditional monarchial element is a very dangerous process, particularly when the natural form, and this goes back to ancient philosophy, of all institutions is to develop elements of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. However when one is taken and shaken from its traditional foundations the danger is that it will shift to a caricature of itself. When we replace the traditional monarch with another institution, another person who starts to fill that role unofficially, the danger is that the person can become a kind of caricature of the monarch, filling that monarch's proper role.
All great and stable democracies have understood this and have been very careful to move and change those institutions with extreme care and caution, or perhaps not to change them at all but rather to put the necessary time and effort into ensuring that those institutions will be resuscitated, revived and made a part of the daily lives of citizens, particularly of our young citizens. We see that pattern we see in the United Kingdom of course which as long ago as the 1860s, was referred to by the great writer Walter Bagehot in his book, The English Constitution , as a republic, meaning a republic in the classical, traditional sense.
It is the tradition that was followed in the United States when it was founding its constitution. The Americans were very careful to give a role not only to the democratic element but to the aristocratic element which they embodied in their senate, and to the monarchy. They very much understood that their monarch, which they referred to as their executive, would have a power placed and formalized in the president and also limited in the president.
We have not done that. We left the form of the monarchy surrounding the monarch herself. We have steadily eroded the pomp and circumstance around that office and gradually moved it to the real executive, who of course is the Prime Minister, and we are gradually putting more and more pomp and ceremony around that individual.
I believe that leads to a corrosion of not only our respect for the monarchy itself but our respect for other institutions of our system of government and that includes this place. I have said on previous occasions, the House functions not as a legislative body but as a parliamentary body which considers all bills, debates them and proposes amendments and sends them to committee. We are not doing that on this bill.
In so eroding this institution we have turned into effectively an electoral college which sits in perpetual session and which is repeatedly called upon to renew its vote of confidence in the Prime Minister. That was not the original purpose of this House. I think that is a dangerous trend which has deprived us of the great wisdom that was read into our original constitution and that we inherited from our ancestors, our forebearers, in the parliament in Westminster.
This bill is a very tiny step in that direction but I think again any step in that direction ought to be avoided and we ought as much as possible to reverse that trend.
The value of ceremonial in a broader sense throughout our society is emphasized by any number of scholars. The one who comes to my mind most easily is Joseph Campbell, the great explorer of traditions and comparative sociologies. He made the observation that in each society the glue that holds it together is always the least tangible, the least touchable and the most formalized part of that society. When that is eroded and stripped away, it is formalized but formalized without law and formalized in the minds of the people.
When that is eroded, it always leads to deleterious effects for that culture. He looked at cultures that had largely been untouched by western society that were just, as he wrote in the mid 20th century, coming into contact with western society and western civilization and which saw a rapid erosion of their traditions and forms. He saw tremendous damage being caused to them. It seems to me that in a much lesser degree the same sort of thing can occur here.
In the third part of my remarks I want to address some of the objections that were raised in support of the bill by the government House leader and by others who have spoken in the other place about this bill.
First, the observation was made that many countries with a Westminster style government had abandoned the royal assent ceremony and that Canada was now unique among the parliamentary democracies on the Westminster model, or at least among the more populous ones, in retaining this ceremony in its tradition form. As long ago as 1958, it was observed that “the Canadian ceremony seems to be that which most closely resembles the original”.
This has been presented in the House as being something of a negative. I would say this is actually a very positive thing, that our retention of the ceremony in its original form is something we ought to rejoice in, in the very same way that we place a great deal of value in some of the other symbols in the House.
Of course the symbol of the mace and the power it represents is taken very seriously. We have a parade every day in which the Speaker, accompanied by the Sergeant-at-Arms, brings the mace into the House. The various officers of the House come in wearing either their three cornered or two cornered hats, as the case may be. These are ancient traditional robes of office. They do not serve any practical purpose in making the Speaker, the Clerk or other officers of the House more effective. They serve to remind us of the great and ancient traditions that we have established in this place.
They are the glue that holds us together. They are the glue that in our constitution holds us together. That is why we always have to read our constitution with the understanding that many of the most important aspects of the constitution are not written anywhere. They are understood and held in our hearts.
The very office of the Prime Minister or the institution of cabinet responsibility to parliament, neither of these things are in the constitution itself. They are understood. They are conventional in the same way that the form of the traditional royal assent ceremony is conventional. It is only now in this law being written down, changed and limited.
Without those conventional aspects to our constitution, we would not merely be a much inferior place. If we took our constitution seriously, we would be a virtual dictatorship written as it is without looking at any of the conventions that give it its depth, its breadth, its heterogeneity, its compassion and its flexibility which make it, when taken as a whole, one of the finest in the world, an example to so much of the world.
The preamble of the bill reads as follows:
And whereas it is desirable to facilitate the work of Parliament and the process of enactment by enabling royal assent to be signified by written declaration;
Then it goes on to state some other things. It talks about the need to facilitate the work of parliament by stripping away a bit of ceremony and by enabling royal assent to be given without this ceremonial. This bit of ceremonial, which is supposed to be an intrusion on the effectiveness of our operations here, is something which is no more elaborate than the ceremony that takes place here everyday, and it took place less than an hour ago. It seems to me that rather than stripping this away we ought to consider doing something which is very much the opposite.
Let me suggest that we could, for example, have the current ceremony and whenever a bill is assented to bring in Canadians to see it. We could announce in advance when the ceremony would take place. We could contact local schools and invite school groups to come to the Senate Chamber to see royal assent being given. I think that would be a valuable exercise.
As someone who grew up in this area and could have been brought to such a ceremony as a youngster, it is a great shame that this was never done and that we were not investing this traditional ceremony with the public attention it deserved.
To make this much clearer, I would like to point to another ceremony that occurred 20 years ago on the Hill when the Queen came to sign our constitution, our new charter of rights and amending formula into law.
I was then a high school student. I came down on my own with a friend that day. I took the bus to the Hill. Only a small crowd gathered to see the event. I still have those memories which are a very precious part to my personal attachment to our system and our constitution.
No effort was made to have school groups go to that event. We have all kinds of excuses when we talk about the lack of national feeling that exists in Canada and the lack of natural attachment Canadians have to their country. We are a federal state. We are a continent sized country. How can we expect it? There is the draw of the United States which is so much larger than us. There are two languages in this country. How can we expect Canadians to feel this kind of loyalty to their country?
I would argue that I can find counter examples for everyone of those excuses. We are the size of a continent and we have no sense of loyalty to our country. The Australians are the size of a continent and they have an intense sense of loyalty to their country, as do the Americans. We have more than one language. So do the Swiss and they have an intense sense of loyalty to their country. We are faced with a larger and culturally powerful neighbour which steals away the affections and emotions of our people which is a more exciting place. Look at Switzerland. It is surrounded by three of the most dynamic and exciting cultures in Europe: the Italians, the French and the Germans. Again, the Swiss feel a greater loyalty to their country than do probably any people in the world. I believe this is largely because of the tremendous respect that they show for the traditions and forms of their constitution and of their many cantonal constitutions of all the ceremonial of their state. Some of these ceremonies go back many centuries before the discovery of the continent but they are treated with tremendous respect even when they are slow moving and inconvenient. That is something we need to appreciate and respect.
I have only been to one traditional ceremony for royal assent. With regard to the question of whether this is an inconvenient matter, this ceremony was for Bill C-36, the anti-terrorism act, a law I voted against. However the ceremony was to take place and I thought it was a wonderful opportunity to attend. I was in my office, which is in this building. I saw that something was going on so I went in. There was no inconvenience involved. Parliament was not sitting at the time. It was after the House had risen for the Christmas recess. I, the acting Speaker and the member for Yukon were present.
There was no inconvenience involved at all. If the member for Yukon and I had not been there, the procedure and ceremony would have gone ahead. There was no inconvenience to the House. This ceremony does not slow down the business of the House if we do not want it to. It can be dealt with at a time that is convenient and it is a simple matter with which to deal.
Again, there was something fundamentally wrong with the idea that the putting into effect of this law, probably the most important piece of legislation on which members of the House in this parliament will get a chance to vote prior to the next election, would be done with very little notice on a day during the Christmas holidays when no attention was given to it. If it is as important as we say it is, we ought to treat it with the appropriate respect. We should have treated that law with the appropriate respect. We should have treated the ceremony by which it was enacted with the appropriate respect.
Her Majesty's loyal opposition supports parliamentary reform. We believe in reforming private members' business. We believe in allowing parliament to have greater freedom by giving greater powers to standing committees, greater powers to special committees, allowing an ethics commissioner to be appointed who would report to the House as opposed to reporting to the Prime Minister, having standards of ethical behaviour written down and available so that parliamentarians know what they are. We do not have to guess at what binds the cabinet.
We would like the Prime Minister to enact some of the rules that he promised to enact nine years ago when he was elected. It has been left to the opposition to push the government to bring forward the red book promises which it made almost a decade ago. That is very unfortunate.
We have seen promises recently that some kind of parliamentary reform will be forthcoming. This measure today is presented as an example of parliamentary reform and from one perspective perhaps it is. But it is not a parliamentary reform which empowers this House or which allows us to be more effective representatives of the people who voted for us and sent us here, or which allows us to resume our proper and constitutional role as the democratic arm of our country.
Our country deserves to have a legislature which is genuinely independent and in which genuine debate takes place. Our country deserves to have a legislature in which a variety of points of view are expressed and in which legislation changes as members present their points of view in order to reflect not only their own views but the views of the various communities they represent. None of that occurs because of this measure or because of the other watered down measures the government has been bringing forward.
Last June it was left to the official opposition to put forward a motion instructing a committee to come up with proposals to reform private members' business. On that occasion the government supported the motion, but at committee the government majority voted not to comply with the wishes of the House.
While Bill S-34 does represent parliamentary reform of a sort, watered down and a decade late, it is not enough. Canadians deserve better.