Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure today to speak to Bill C-251.
Let me start by indicating that from the point of view of my party's caucus, we feel this ought to be a free vote for members of Parliament. Hopefully, other parties will adopt a similar attitude.
On the one hand, I want to congratulate my hon. colleague for trying to infuse some ethics into what he feels is a House where ethics are not as strong as they should be. However, I believe this is a misguided attempt. I am afraid I will be encouraging members to vote against this legislation.
I will lay out my arguments to explain a little about what I think is problematic with the bill, but let me start by giving an outline of the general problem that exists with the bill.
I think it is misguided in this case to try to regulate by law that which is governed largely by convention and largely by rules of the House within this chamber. The definition of parties within this House, as opposed to under the Canada Elections Act, is very much a matter that is governed not by legislation, not law but by the rules of this House which may be changed by this House. Therefore, it seems to me that trying to establish laws that govern the behaviour of members of Parliament within the House and starting to try to use legislation to determine how parties are defined within the House and what members may do within it is taking away the independence that the House, as a collegial body, needs in order to function properly is a step in the wrong direction.
I find the road it takes us down, as a practical matter, is one about which we ought to worry. In general, I oppose anything that increases party discipline or the control of the party leadership over individual members of Parliament. The bill, although it is not as severe in restriction as it could be, seems to have that general effect.
We are elected partly as representatives of our parties, but also partly as individuals. Were this not the case, I suspect there would be a great deal less constituency work done by members of Parliament. Members understand the importance of doing good constituency work in order to get themselves re-elected. That is part of the political goodwill or in the case of non-performing MPs part of the political baggage they take with them personally. We ought to be doing everything we can to strengthen that part of the political equation as a way of building up the independence of a member of Parliament.
As someone who has voted against my party on a number of occasions, for example on the Species at Risk Act and on the anti-terrorism law a few years ago, what I did was consult with my constituents. I asked them how I should vote. When they advised me to vote for or against a bill, regardless what my party did, that put me in opposition to my party. However, I was able to do so and do so freely, partly because that is the attitude my party takes toward allowing a great deal of freedom for individual members of Parliament. However, in doing that, I was establishing myself as a constituent's representative. That is a very valuable thing, something that is lost when one is simply a representative of one's party.
We elect individual MPs in individual districts in our country. There is discussion of changing this system. For example, there is discussion of introducing a list system in parallel to the system of individual MPs being elected in individual ridings, in which case the assumption is people are voting for the party exclusively. Many New Democrats support this. This is done in a number of countries, including New Zealand and Germany. It has some good aspects and some bad aspects. One of the bad aspects is that members of Parliament elected under this kind of system tend to simply be voting machines.
In New Zealand, in particular, a law called the anti-party jumping law, and that was not its formal name, its was popular name, was introduced and passed a few years ago for members elected on the party list system. The effect has been to introduce an ironclad discipline where the member of Parliament stands for nothing whatsoever. Each party gets a certain number of MPs, which are a certain number of points or automatic votes in the House. If the member tries at any point to leave the party, the member is removed from the House of Commons and the next person on the list is taken.
MPs from New Zealand understand very clearly that if they become a list member of Parliament, if they are subject to the anti-party jumping law as opposed to being constituency MPs, their freedom of action is greatly reduced. I know this from having met and chatted with a number of New Zealand members of Parliament about this when I was down there a few months ago.
However New Zealand has taken an additional step, which I pray will never occur here. The House of Representatives is allowing members to cast their vote even when they are absent. Those are all things we would not want to see in this House of Commons.
I want to add that there have been distinguished individuals who have crossed the floor on various occasions and have been re-elected, so there are cases where it is legitimate. Winston Churchill, who was first elected as a Conservative, crossed to the Liberals and served for over a decade as a Liberal member of Parliament. Indeed, he served as the first Sea Lord of the Admiralty during the first world war and then he re-crossed to the Conservative Party.
As members can see, there have occasions on which this has occurred and the individual member of Parliament was not punished by his or her constituents for doing so because they judged that it was the right thing to do.
These are very frequent occasions, more frequent than not, where someone crosses the floor and is punished by his or her constituents and loses his or her seat. Probably the most famous example of this is the example of Jack Horner who in 1977, as the member for Crowfoot in Alberta, crossed to the Liberal Party and joined the cabinet of Pierre Trudeau as a minister without portfolio and then became a minister of industry, trade and commerce. He went on in the 1979 election, despite having been prior to this an extraordinarily popular member of Parliament, to be defeated by more than 20,000 votes in his constituency. He attempted to come back in 1980 as a Liberal candidate but actually went down from his 1979 total. Punishment came for his action.
The option exists for the voters to deal with things in this way. It is possible one could design a system whereby there would be sort of a half-way house in between waiting for an election and the immediate byelection that would be proposed by my hon. colleague in this bill. One could, for example, say that we would allow, if there was genuine support for a byelection in the relevant riding, a byelection to occur and we could measure this by saying that if more than x % of the voters of that constituency sign a petition calling for a byelection to occur, that byelection will occur.
This idea was actually proposed about 10 years ago for Jag Bhaduria who had left the Liberal Party and was sitting as an independent. A petition was circulated in his riding and produced probably enough votes under any reasonable system to justify the byelection. However there was no system for allowing this and he wound up being defeated in the next election, which suggests that although justice was not as swiftly served in that case as it could have been, it was not unreasonable action.
The second concern I have is that I do not think this law would actually achieve its intended goal. I say this because parties are reasonably informal mechanisms. It is possible for an individual to sit as an independent but always vote with another party in the House of Commons providing all the de facto support necessary to ensure, for example, the survival of that government.
The hon. member for Newmarket—Aurora, for example, could have crossed, sat as an independent and voted nonetheless with the government on that critical vote a few months ago. As we all recall, there was an independent MP in the House, the late Chuck Cadman, who did not cross to the Liberals, but nonetheless had a vote that was just as effective in sustaining them in power, as was the vote of the member for Newmarket—Aurora. Therefore, the problem that is attempting to be addressed is not actually effectively addressed in the legislation.
I want to conclude by pointing out that I disagree with one characterization that the hon. member used in proposing his bill. He said that this House was not the no tell motel. Surely, when one crosses the floor this is not something done surreptitiously like checking into a motel room for a romantic liaison. It is something that happens very publicly. When someone makes the decision to cross the floor everyone knows about it. They will either reward the MP or punish the MP, as the case may be. As I have indicated, punishment occurs more frequently than reward, but it is certainly not something that happens in secret.
I believe the informal safeguards we have in place are the best ones and therefore I encourage members to vote against the bill when it comes up for a vote shortly.