Mr. Speaker, today, in this second hour of debate on Bill C-251, we are debating what is undoubtedly a very important issue for Parliament.
First, I certainly support fully the idea of strengthening the vitality of our democracy. This government has placed democratic renewal front and centre in its priorities, and it is also a matter that concerns us all, as members of this House.
There is a problem with this bill, however, in that the mechanism it proposes, namely forcing a member to vacate his or her seat upon crossing the floor of the House, leaves much to be desired. If passed, this bill will not strengthen democracy. I can only weaken it, by putting even more power in the hands of political parties at the expense of elected representatives.
The bill has been presented before, by the same hon. member for Sackville—Eastern Shore, and under the old rules in previous parliaments, it was not votable. As a result of the government's commitment to addressing democratic deficit, the Standing Orders were changed to make private members' business a more viable legislative tool. Today, as members know, most private members' bills and motions are votable and therefore have a real chance of becoming law.
The changes to how private members' business works make up just one of the changes made in this Parliament that have further empowered individual members of Parliament. Other changes initiated by our government include, for example, in our caucus, a three line whip system for votes, sending more bills to committee prior to second reading, encouraging members of Parliament to choose which committees they would like to sit on, and making government appointments available to committees for review. All of this has given members of Parliament more power in the House.
This bill, meanwhile, sends us in the opposite direction, taking the ultimate power away from individual members of Parliament and giving it, in many cases, to party leadership.
Bill C-251 overlooks the fact that, in order to play their role properly, members of Parliament have to do their best to represent their constituents well. If that means leaving their party, this is surely a decision individual members of Parliament may have to make, guided by their conscience and with the best interests of their people, their constituents, in mind.
Floor-crossing may be seen as a necessary last resort for members seeking better ways to represent their constituents. Over time, many parties have divided or transformed as they try to structure the best organization they believe will serve their voters. The creation of new parties to accommodate regional or grassroots interests is a prime example of democratic participation.
When the hon. member's bill was last being debated, it was a time of great transition for the far right of our political spectrum. The Reform Party was becoming the Alliance Party. That, in turn, lost some members to the democratic reform caucus. Later, the old Alliance Party came back together to join with some members of the previous Progressive Conservative Party to form the party that now makes up the official opposition.
If this bill had been in place over this transition period, during which there were no less than perhaps 76 party switches, the taxpayer would have had to pay over $14 million for various byelections, and arguably the transformation would never have taken place.
I find it ironic that the bill's own sponsor has been critical to some extent of a similar bill, Bill C-408, because he believes it strengthens the party structure at the expense of individual members of Parliament, while he would assert that Bill C-251 does not.
I have a different opinion than the member for Sackville—Eastern Shore. In the member's own speech in the first hour of debate, he might have in fact made an argument against his own bill. On the issue of sitting as an independent member, the member for Sackville--Eastern Shore said:
Sitting as an independent in this House sometimes is not the greatest thing...It is not the best representation for constituents in some cases.
Forcing an MP who is at odds with his or her party to sit as an independent in fact contributes to disempowering that member.
In the first hour of debate, the member again made a startling admission when he said that:
The bill would allow a leader of a party to deal with an individual member of a caucus who, for example, was being a bit of a rabble-rouser or detrimental to the caucus. The leader could make that person sit as an independent member....
I hope members will agree that this is somewhat surprising in suggesting as it does that we as members of the House support a bill that would force us to be silent when we disagree with the leadership of our party for fear of forcing a byelection or being made to sit as an independent.
The hon. member's party was perhaps attracted to the notion of strengthening its hold on dissenting members of the caucus, and even included, for example, a ban on floor crossing in its ethics package, but using legislative measures to limit dissent and the ultimate expression of dissent by members of a caucus does not seem, from my perspective, to form a very appropriate part of an ethics package.
Much has changed since this debate has taken place in previous Parliaments. Members have more power to influence governments than ever before. In this regard, Bill C-251 could be seen as a step backward.
Instead of consolidating partisan control, we should strengthen the ties between members of Parliament and their constituents, as well as their influence as representatives of these constituents. That is what the government is currently doing with its action plan for democratic renewal, while Bill C-251 would be a step backward.
It is with some regret that I must tell the hon. member for Sackville--Eastern Shore that I will not be supporting this private member's bill. I have great respect for the member for Sackville--Eastern Shore. He and I share similar views on many matters, certainly matters important in Atlantic Canada, such as the inshore fishery or regional development, for example, but with respect to democratic reform and taking power away from individual members of the House and consolidating it in the hands of party leadership, he and I will have to differ.