Mr. Speaker, I move that the 35th report of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs presented on Friday, April 22 be concurred in.
Mr. Speaker, first, I would like to split my time today with the hon. member for Beauséjour.
We have before us the 35th report of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, concerning the Standing Orders. I am sure that most members will recall that what we were discussing in committee that day was whether or not the Standing Orders had provision for allotted days, which are commonly called opposition days or supply days.
As hon. members are well aware, government orders fall under the jurisdiction of the Government House Leader and not the other members. The government leader—at the moment the Deputy House Leader—determines the agenda for government orders.
As for the period allotted for private members' business, for example, for the backbenchers, the government will never interfere with that by trying unilaterally to change the order of the day or the time allocated to this type of debate.
For the same reason, and based on the same principle, I do not believe anyone has the right to try to change the hours for government orders, because that is the agenda of the government in the House of Commons.
The House will recognize that the government House leader designates under the Standing Orders a certain number of days to be allotted for supply. These days have to be allotted prior to the supply bill being debated.
Contrary to other legislation in the House, I am sure all hon. members will know that there is no debate on the supply bill per se. The debate is held ahead of time and then the supply bill is adopted without debate because we have already had that debate.
How does that debate take place? It takes place in the form of opposition days. We all recognize that it is the structure under which we operate.
When I was government House leader, and the House might remember this from some time ago, when we arrived at the 1997 Parliament with the five party system, the number of days allotted to the opposition did not function too well in terms of allotting them in a proportional way between parties. The government at that time offered unilaterally to increase the number of opposition days by adding one, which the House accepted unanimously. That was done in order to give more days for the opposition to reflect the proportionality.
I do not recall, when the party system descended to four after the last election, the government seeking to remove that additional day given to the opposition. In fact, we have more opposition days in this Parliament than the number would actually dictate should be the case pursuant to the conventions that we had for a number of years.
The government therefore decided to add, as I was saying, these opposition days.
I must also add that before 1997, the number of allotted days absolutely were not published in advance. Nothing was in writing. Historically, the leader of the government in the House of Commons indicated every Thursday in the House the projected order of business for the next five sitting days. Of course there have been variations in this practice. I too have sat on the opposition side. I recall very clearly a certain parliamentary leader at the time who would change the orders of the day at 9:55 a.m. just to provoke the opposition. I do not think such a thing ever happened when I or my two successors held this pleasant position in the House.
The fact remains that in 1997, a request on allotted days was submitted by the hon. member for Winnipeg—Birds Hill at the time, I believe. He had asked the leaders of the other parties if we could, out of courtesy and in a confidential manner, publish a type of schedule for a few weeks at a time. It was strictly agreed that it would be an approximation of what was to come, in order to indicate to the members of Parliament which days would be supply days and which days certain bills would be debated. This was done in the spirit of cooperation.
When I was the minister, I remember on many occasions colleagues on the other side of the House would ask not to put certain bills on a Friday because their critics would not be in the House, or to switch them to a Thursday. They would say that if I called it on Friday, they would talked it out. They wanted to wait until the critic returned because he or she had something important to say about the bill. That was fair game. We used that calendar for a long time in a practical way, such as the one I have described, to make the business of the House advance in a better way.
I think overall it has worked quite well in terms of modernizing the procedures around here. It was an innovation that I put in place in 1997, but was not my recommendation. It was a recommendation of my critic at the time from the New Democratic Party, but all other parties supported it.
The situation we have before us is the following one. The opposition has stated that their opposition day was taken away from them. An opposition day is not an opposition day until it is called that day. The Thursday before the government designates the day. I both designated and undesignated opposition days on a number of occasions when I was House leader.
The important thing is the principle, long established in parliamentary democracy, that the sovereign is not granted supply until the grievances of the people have been heard. Grievances of the people is the method by which members of Parliament can raise issues and with some of the modern day innovations vote on those grievances. That has been used, particularly in modern times, as a way of expressing confidence or the opposite in the government of the day.
If the Standing Orders provide that there is going to be seven opposition days before the granting of supply, I do not think the government has attempted to reduce that number. It is fixed. However, in exchange for the number being fixed, because it is an order of the day under government orders, the government designates which of the days it will be.
In the end, after the days have been exhausted, and only then, can the government bring in the supply bill, the one that I talked about at the beginning of my speech. The government is entitled to bring it in once the opposition days have been exhausted or from time to time, particularly when there is a shorter session of Parliament, when the parties have generally agreed among each, because that has been the general way, to reduce those number of days if deemed to be appropriate. That has not happened in any case over the last many years.
Following a decision by the government House leader to change a particular opposition day, the opposition, which outnumbers the government right now, has used the numbers in the committee I chair in order to change a Standing Order. It changes a Standing Order for only one day, but it still changes the Standing Orders of the House of Commons. That is essentially the report that we have with us.
I will not be here in the next Parliament, and I intend to give a speech in that regard tomorrow. Meanwhile, for my colleagues on all sides of the House, the government seldom changes Standing Orders without the consent of the opposition. The last time that happened was when the Conservatives were in power.
What I believe has never happened is for the opposition to change the Standing Orders without the consent of the government. The government has been recognized to be the party in power. That is a dangerous precedent. I alert the House to it. As I said, I will not be in the next Parliament, but I do not think that is a very worthwhile precedent.
I offer those words of caution to my colleagues. I know that the hon. member for Beauséjour, with whom I have split my time, will be speaking to this further.