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House of Commons Hansard #90 of the 38th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was rcmp.

Topics

Citizen EngagementGovernment Orders

7:35 p.m.

NDP

Joe Comartin NDP Windsor—Tecumseh, ON

Madam Chair, I have been a strong proponent of lowering the voting age. It was interesting that in a number of the meetings I attended across the country on electoral reform the issue always came up about how to engage young people. It did not come up in most cases by young people, but by other members of society who felt very strongly about the loss we suffered and the fact that it was becoming worse.

I think lowering the voting age would help. I say that because of my experience when I go into schools. I go into high schools in particular. These are students who because of the civic course, or the history course or sometimes the political science course they take are very knowledgeable. They are engaged in the course they are following. I would not say that it is universal but it is quite extensive. They ask probing, knowledgeable questions.

Two years or three years later when I have run into those people, oftentimes when canvassing during an election or at other times in their work places or at university, a great deal of that enthusiasm has been lost. I am not sure what happens in that process. However, I cannot help but think that if we get them voting at a somewhat earlier age, before they leave secondary schools, would they fall into a pattern that would follow on through their adult life, during the crucial period of time from 18 to 24. In the last two federal elections turnouts in that age category was 25% or under.

I will make another point with regard to this. When we travelled in Australia to look at its system, we discovered that it was compulsory to vote. However, its system is very complicated. People vote, and young people vote obviously as much as older members of the population, because they have had the experience of voting. They learn about the electoral system in high school and they continue to vote on through their adult lives. There does not seem to be any differentiation, even though they have to pay a small fine if they do not vote. The proportion of votes among the youth, the 18 to 24 age group, is roughly the same as in the rest of the population.

Citizen EngagementGovernment Orders

7:40 p.m.

Conservative

Scott Reid Conservative Lanark—Frontenac—Lennox and Addington, ON

Madam Chair, one of the concerns we are talking about is participation. I bring this up because of the fact that the committee on which both the hon. member for Windsor—Tecumseh and I sit in plans to report to the House. I am sure the minister would take notice that what we would be reporting deals with electoral reform.

One of the problems that can occur with electoral reform, which was mentioned to us in our travels, is that if the system is too complicated, that is if there is a difficulty in determining what the effect of one's vote is and how one is making a difference, then that seems to lower citizen engagement. I think it is a real problem.

On the other hand, the arguments in favour of electoral reform on the basis that we ought to have election results which in some way resemble the voting patterns of the population as opposed to reflecting the random results of the first past the post system also has the effect of lowering people's rates of participation. I suspect that when one talks about young people, and I increasingly find it harder to relate instinctively as some of my younger colleagues can, to the feelings of young people, I think part of what is driving them not to vote is the sense that it is not going to make a difference.

Does my colleague have any thoughts on how we reconcile the prospect of changing with the need for some kind of transparency to allow an electoral system that will hopefully have some effect in raising citizen participation not only among young people, but among others who do not participate. One could look at other groups that have low participation rates if that seems appropriate.

Citizen EngagementGovernment Orders

7:40 p.m.

NDP

Joe Comartin NDP Windsor—Tecumseh, ON

Madam Chair, if we are going to make a change to our electoral system, it is going to have to be done very carefully.

We were there primarily for active engagement. We were looking at some of the processes that both New Zealand and Australia had gone through in terms of engaging their people in various attempts to change their electoral system and/or their government system. It is absolutely crucial we get it right.

On one hand, we have to be careful not to look at it as a panacea. I do not believe that just by making a change in our electoral voting system will increase participation. We have to change a good deal of our system. We can look at other groups. Those who are less economically advantaged vote at a much lower rate because they have no vote.

On the other hand, some of the evolving democracies in South America are engaging individual communities that are oftentimes very poor. They are involving them in the process not only at election time, but during the whole period of governance on an annual basis, for instance, taking the budgetary process to them.

That has worked up to this point in time in Porto Alegre in Brazil. It is still novel, but it has been doing it for over a dozen years now. On an annual basis, it engages citizens from the barrios and the very poor parts of cities on how to spend the amount of money which has been allocated. That is what we have to do.

I do not think electoral reform by itself, even though how we do it is very important, will not increase participation in elections. We have to do other things.

Citizen EngagementGovernment Orders

7:45 p.m.

St. Paul's Ontario

Liberal

Carolyn Bennett LiberalMinister of State (Public Health)

Madam Chair, I thank the Minister responsible for Democratic Reform, since the debate this evening is very important.

Citizens are engaging in record numbers, but they are simply not engaging with politicians. They have written us off. Some are not even voting. Many believe it does not matter.

As an antidote we must ensure that the template or structure for citizen engagement at all levels is intelligent and genuine. Citizens are right to be cynical. Countless exercises in public consultation have been pro forma, a sort of occupational therapy for citizens. Governments have simply treated consultations as a box to check off, having already decided what to do anyway.

Citizens can tell the difference, particularly the savvy young ones who can sniff out manipulation and people wasting their time. We need at all times to keep our cynicism thermometer in full view and ensure that everything we do is driving the red mercury down. The legitimacy of a genuine process should be palpable. The process must utilize all the modern technology that all generations will use.

The case history is clear. Polling conducted by Earnscliffe years ago rated listening to Canadians as the third most important issue facing this country.

The signs and symptoms are clear. There is decreasing voter turnout, particularly among younger voters. Only 11% of Canadians have contacted their elected representatives, written a letter to the editor or anything like that. It is the decline of deference among Canadians as has been described by University of Toronto political scientist Neil Nevitte. The diagnosis has been the democratic deficit, but there is a treatment. The treatment is democratic reform.

Stephen Coleman, a professor of e-democracy at Oxford, talks about a two way accountability between citizens and their elected representatives. I see democratic reform in four ways: one, electoral reform; two, the necessity of party reform if electoral reform is entertained; three, parliamentary reform; and four, citizen engagement.

I will leave numbers one and two alone for now, but numbers three and four together are what Toronto Star columnist Carol Goar calls “democracy between elections”. Stephen Coleman has made it clear that it is this two way accountability and civic efficacy. “People don't want to govern”, he says, “they want to be heard”.

Being heard, however, means that those listening, the elected representatives, are themselves heard when they present their ideas to government. There is no point in citizens wasting their time talking to members of Parliament or parliamentary committees if the centre of government ignores them. If the view of the centre is that MPs are nobodies, the point of the exercise is defeated. When a deputy minister in this country was once called in Parliament “a minor process obstacle”, one has to say that we need some attitudinal change in this place.

Citizen engagement means absolutely nothing without the attitudinal shift that is at the heart of parliamentary reform. As former House of Commons Clerk Robert Marleau observed, “the problem is not the rules, it is the culture”. The culture is determined by attitude.

If Parliament matters, better people will run for office. Parliamentary reform is critical to improving the quality of those who run for public office, in that good people will not waste their time as rubber stamps for decisions predetermined by unelected officials. I thank the minister responsible for democratic reform for all of the changes and all of his proposals in making this a reality so that the new generation of parliamentarians will welcome the role of mediator between citizens and their government and be able to demonstrate their ability to truly make a difference.

Empowering MPs will strengthen democracy using all of the tools available in six ways. I see that we as parliamentarians operate in six ways.

One, we operate in our riding. Two, we operate in our non-geographic constituencies, for example, women, persons with disabilities, business, whoever sees the MP as their person on the Hill. Three, we operate in committees. Four, we operate sometimes in collaboration with government. I very much enjoyed the online consultation that was conducted years ago between MPs and the Department of Canadian Heritage on whether there is a Canadian way and what is the role of government in online chats. Five, we also operate as party members. Party policy development is also very much part of our role as members of Parliament. Six, we operate internationally sharing best practices with colleagues around the globe.

The collaboration between MPs and citizens can ultimately lead to better public policy, as unusual coalitions work together in presenting real solutions with real buy-in of those affected. It results in better legislation and better implementation.

Citizens help parliamentarians keep government accountable. Their input results in better questions, in better analysis of budgetary estimates, priorities and planning exercises. There is no question that the ongoing dialogue will result in better relationships between citizens and their elected representatives. Our ultimate goal is a democracy between elections that will not only persuade citizens that their voice really does matter and that they should vote, but that they may even decide to get involved in the political process and consider running for office or getting behind someone who will.

Parliamentary reform means taking up Dr. Coleman's challenge and asserting the emerging role of Parliament as a mediator between the public and government. It is about redefining representative democracy using the new tools and acknowledging that citizens have a lot more to offer than their voice every four years.

As a family physician it was clear to me that the patient had to be a partner in his or her care. Taking this patient as partner approach to the work in my riding has been one of the most rewarding aspects of being the member of Parliament for St. Paul's. From town hall meetings to neighbourhood checkups, to the grade five classroom, to the interactive website in my blog, to my Sunday night MSN chat with my young voters, I learn a great deal from the engaged citizens of St. Paul's.

We, as parliamentarians, must believe that we will indeed get better policy by consulting Canadians. The Prime Minister raised the bar as finance minister with the prebudget consultations. It was clear he respected that the expertise was in the trenches. The ideas would come from those who worked in those areas, unlike those who would dismiss engaged citizens as special interest groups.

As chair of the subcommittee on persons with disabilities, it was clear to me that the parents of children with disabilities were indeed experts. They could better delineate the gaps and duplication in supports and services than any policy analyst or academic. The Prime Minister demonstrated that respect and his ability to harvest the best ideas and solutions through these consultations.

The OECD wrote a document in 2001 called “Citizens as Partners” which identified three levels of citizen engagement. It is really important that whenever we engage citizens we let citizens know what level we are asking for. One, are the citizens simply being informed, a sort of transparency, the typical dad approach of government, decide, announce, defend? Or, are they being consulted? Do participants understand that the parameters include timing, budget constraints, federal-provincial realities? Or is it indeed a deliberative democracy exercise and is the government prepared to live with the results? Citizens, the OECD argues, must always be clear about the level in which they have been asked to participate.

Many of us realize that the third level of government may be a little bit more relevant, the municipal level. Carolyn Lukensmeyer demonstrated this in the replacement of the twin towers after 9/11. She used a fabulous process in which citizens actually rejected the first three architectural designs and sent them back to the drawing board in order to find a more therapeutic design which was the Libeskind model.

It was clear in the Romanow commission that the input of Canadians was essential. At no time did Canadians in that process feel like a process necessity. It was genuine. The title of the report “Building on Values” represented the might of thousands of Canadians. Canadians note that they are citizens of a community, a province and a country. It is only through putting citizens back at the centre of the debate that we will avoid the ridiculous jurisdictional squabbles that are so tiresome and counterproductive.

The 2003 success of the e-consultation on the future of CPP disability by the subcommittee on persons with disabilities set a benchmark for all parliamentary committees. The subcommittee's report recommended that all committees have an expanded information based website and consider e-consultation in much the same way as they consider travel, videoconferencing and other tools.

As a minister, I find that we are able to engage in this same wonderful process on the public health agency at www.healthycanadians.ca. I am very aware that the resources that I have as a minister of the crown in the government are way too big compared to that available to individual members of Parliament.

After tonight's debate I hope the minister will understand that there is huge support for basic websites and online chats as basic tools for a member of Parliament. The ability to host town hall meetings is imperative. The webcasting of committees is important, as is increased resources to the Library of Parliament so that we can have personnel to do the estimates on an annual basis, to create the content that is necessary in terms of citizen engagement in civic literacy, such that we can always know that the committees will get better and newer information than what is there as a government.

If I may, I just want to tell one tiny story about a constituent of mine, Lembi Buchanan, whose work as a truly engaged citizen was reflected in this year's budget. Lembi arrived in my office to tell me about the disability tax credit and how it was not fair to people with mental illness. We took that problem to the committee on status of persons with disabilities. We ended up with a unanimous report. When the government of the day did not do what the report said, we ended up with a unanimous vote in the House of Commons. We ended up with a technical advisory committee on which Lembi B sat.

All the recommendations of that technical advisory committee are now in the 2005 budget. It is huge to say that from riding to committee to the House to an advisory committee of government that this citizen and everything that she was working on worked.

The change consists not only in admitting the democratic deficit exists and in describing it, but also in showing how Canadians can work together with the members of Parliament to eliminate it by using all the tools available for this purpose.

I thank the minister for the opportunity to bring Parliament and citizen engagement into this century.

Citizen EngagementGovernment Orders

7:55 p.m.

Saint Boniface Manitoba

Liberal

Raymond Simard LiberalParliamentary Secretary to the Deputy Leader of the Government in the House of Commons

Madam Chair, I would like to ask my colleague a question based on one of my experiences as a new member of Parliament.

It will be three years that I have been a member of Parliament within the next couple of weeks. In my first year I am not sure if I was naive, but I said that I would do community consultations. I figured I would go right into the community centres and meet the people in their areas. I was extremely disappointed with the turnout. I literally invited thousands of people and dozens showed up. I think I was doing it for the right reasons. I wanted to engage people. I wanted their feedback on issues.

The hon. member spoke about cynicism and how citizens are cynical about things. Maybe she could tell us how we get beyond that. It is easy to get a full house at a town hall in times of crisis, but how do we engage people between the crises, when we want their feedback on day to day things and we want serious engagement from them?

Citizen EngagementGovernment Orders

7:55 p.m.

Liberal

Carolyn Bennett Liberal St. Paul's, ON

Madam Chair, there is a number of different things.

I have divided my riding into natural geographic neighbourhoods. We do a neighbourhood checkup on any topic that people want.

When we do the town halls we tend to have a very topical issue that has come out. I have to admit that the best meetings we have had have been the ones with real partners in the community who help get the people out as. The meetings we had on Sharon Carstairs, on end of life care and palliative care, the Hospice Association helped and cohosted them. Those seemed to work. I think it is about those sorts of partnerships.

Even with the ones where the turnout was small, I would begin them with the attitude that it was my briefing and that I had invited the three people whom I really adored and wanted to know what they thought of things or to debate issues. It was like a briefing for me. Even if nobody came, I still got the briefing from the panel in the same way.

Once in my office I ended up in this fabulous discussion. I thought that everybody else should be able to hear it. I would also love it if at some point we were able to webcast the town hall meetings. People who did not want to attend could quietly watch at home, in much the same way as my MSN chat on Sunday nights operates. There are what the kids call lurkers who are there listening to the chat, but do not feel quite comfortable participating in the chat.

It is a matter of our changing our ideas on how many it takes to have a good conversation. I think I have had over a hundred since I have been elected and I do not think there has been one in which I have not learned something.

Citizen EngagementGovernment Orders

8 p.m.

Conservative

Scott Reid Conservative Lanark—Frontenac—Lennox and Addington, ON

Madam Chair, early in the minister's comments she made reference to something just in passing, but I hope I will be able to encourage her to expand upon it.

She said that there is need for party reform if electoral reform occurs, which interests me. I think there is always a benefit to reforming and democratizing one's party even if there is no electoral reform. I got myself embroiled in a bit of a controversy over attempting to do some of this in my own party last month, although I still think that the policies I proposed are substantial improvements on the status quo. Some of them did actually get put through and I think they are a benefit to the democracy of our party.

However, leaving self-promotion aside, what I wanted to do was inquire about that, and because I am only going to get one shot at asking the minister of state a question, I am also going to ask her about her experience with her blog. I hear people starting to say that a blog is a useful tool. I would be interested in hearing from another person who has experienced it and might be able to add comments that would be of use to all of us.

Citizen EngagementGovernment Orders

8 p.m.

Liberal

Carolyn Bennett Liberal St. Paul's, ON

Madam Chair, on the first piece, I guess it is a sort of a chicken and egg thing. My feeling on going to electoral reform, and I think I probably got it backwards, is that we cannot really go to electoral reform until the parties are truly democratic. In order to put people on the list, it has to be done in a fair and transparent way. We need to know how that list would be arrived at. It would have to be something that one would feel comfortable with as a party. In France on the parity issue, they passed a bill saying that for every other person on the list it should run woman-man-woman-man or the parties would have to pay a fine. All of the parties paid the fine.

I think one needs to feel that there is a buy-in in terms of what one is trying to achieve, whether it is a parity law or whether it is proportional representation. I guess it is an interesting challenge now. I think the Globe and Mail editorial this morning was fabulous in terms of understanding the risk of some of the methods of proportional representation, which will not achieve the advent of more women and more of the under-represented people but will tend mainly to diminish the effect of political parties.

Second, the blog has been fabulous. What they talked about in the Congress Online project was a sort of anticipatory approach. For example, on same sex marriage, two summers ago at the Ontario Superior Court ruling, as soon as I had five letters on it I was able to put up what I thought, which people feel can deter other letters or can encourage letters from the people who disagree.

I found in the last election that the content I created for the website over those years of just writing what I think about things became a sort of documentation, which I actually then used in election brochures or certainly on the issues part of the site. It is not a formal blog, but I have been doing this now for three or four years, I think, and it is interesting.

In terms of the text messaging and cellphone piece as well, it is interesting in terms of how we have to be like Gretzky and skate to where the puck is going to be. I was at a blogging conference at Westminster a couple of summers ago when they changed the date, the time and the place of the meeting and everybody was there at the right place at the right time just because of text messaging. It is interesting. I have not figured out how to blog from my BlackBerry yet, but we are working on it. I find it very satisfying.

Also, even when I am being introduced as a speaker, quite often the introducer will remark on what I have blogged. I remember that when I got back from Israel Don Newman on Newsworld commented on comments about what I felt in Israel, comments that came straight from my blog, which beats the two year old biography that is on most of our websites.

There is no question about it, though, that when I became a minister the department and my staff were quite worried about me just blogging away. But I feel that one puts up what one believes in, along with comments linked to articles one has liked and all of that sort of thing. I do not have the formal blogging software that automatically makes the links. I have to make the links myself in an HTML format. By doing it myself, though, I have found out that no one on my staff can say they cannot do it.

Citizen EngagementGovernment Orders

8:05 p.m.

Conservative

Stockwell Day Conservative Okanagan—Coquihalla, BC

Madam Chair, the debate tonight is about engaging citizens and how we in fact engage citizens more effectively in the democratic process. It should be a compelling discussion. We do not reflect on the absence of members, but it is interesting to see how engaging it is in that in fact there are four of us in the House of Commons tonight in this engaging discussion.

Citizens will be engaged if they have a sense of something; I want to get to that in a minute. It is very positive that we are hearing about the techniques that various MPs use to engage citizens and to get information out to them. That is good and it is helpful. We can learn from each other in non-partisan ways.

Around my constituency, I use many of the techniques that I have heard about here tonight, such as holding small group meetings and town hall meetings. I go door-knocking in between election times, which shocks people. When we are at the door, their feeling is to wonder what we are selling. I send out surveys regularly to get feedback. I regularly set up a booth in local farmers' markets or malls and I advertise in the paper that I am going to be there. People can walk by. There are people who do not normally have the time to make an appointment or set something up, or maybe they are intimidated by going into an office. They can just walk right up and say whatever it is they want to say. We use the Internet and various techniques.

Techniques are important, but citizens will engage only if they feel they can actually influence the world around them. That may be just their neighbourhood or their own home, but if they do not feel they can influence those who purport to represent them, they are going to disengage no matter how many wonderful techniques we put in place to give the appearance of engagement and the appearance that they could make a difference. If they do not sense through their elected persons that they can make a difference, they are increasingly going to disengage. I would suggest that this is largely where we are today.

Some people point accusingly at people who are not engaged, as we call it, in the political process. Maybe they accuse them of being selfish or apathetic. Largely, I believe, many citizens have a sense that what they think and what they say really does not make that big a difference. Until it is something of a huge and major proportions, they are not going to rise up.

Was it not interesting to see one of the greatest movements of citizen involvement in terms of a spontaneous picking up of the telephone and citizens calling not their politicians but a government funded agency? I say this with all respect. It was the night that people thought Don Cherry's contract was not going to be renewed. Personally, I like Don Cherry. We were told that the CBC was flooded with thousands upon thousands of phone calls. Why? Because people at that moment felt that something they liked was being threatened. It was not orchestrated, but they felt that if enough of them got onto it they could make a difference. Apparently they did, yet other areas of social concern do not seem to get the same reaction.

I would like to read for the House a statement by a social commentator. Some of you would be familiar with H.L. Mencken. He said this 70 years ago, so he is not politically correct on the gender issue; the word “man” means man or woman. It is gender neutral. He said:

The average man...sees clearly that government is something lying outside him...that it is a separate, independent and often hostile power...capable of doing him great harm. [Government] is apprehended, not as a committee of citizens chosen to carry out the communal business of the whole population, but as a separate and autonomous corporation, mainly devoted to exploiting the population for the benefit of its own members.

That is a harsh critique, but I think it largely spells out how many of our citizens feel: that the government across the way and we as the opposition are an entity unto ourselves. And life goes on. We become engaged here in question period and the great debates. We get all fired up and call home and ask, “Did you hear me say this?” or “Did you hear my friend say that?” They are saying, “Huh?” No, our citizens are trying to make a living or taking their kids to soccer games. We are becoming increasingly irrelevant in the minds of our citizens.

If one does not feel that one can have an influence one is not going to engage. In a tyranny or a dictatorship, obviously, we see the greatest lack of citizen involvement, because there is a great cost to engagement. It could be death or imprisonment. There is virtually no engagement.

Or there is the fear of losing something. Nathan Sharansky talks about two types of societies. We like to think in terms of communist or capitalist or socialism or fascism. He breaks it all down to two societies: fear societies and free societies. In a free society people can speak up freely because they do not think they will be punished for it. They may run into vigorous debate, but they do not think there will be some sort of loss.

We say almost cynically at times that there is nothing wrong with a benevolent tyranny, a benevolent dictatorship. People have written about the present form of our government as a benevolent or a friendly dictatorship. In fact, the problem with a dictatorship is that power is concentrated in the hands of a very few people, or one of a few people. When that happens, Lord Acton's corollary kicks in: power tends to corrupt. It tends to corrupt, and of course ultimate power, supreme power, corrupts supremely.

It is for that reason that our society has to be broken down and we have to acknowledge the division of power. We have to keep power away from ourselves as individuals and as small groups, because the more power we have centralized within our own power, we will be corrupted.

We are hammering on the federal Liberals with the scandal situation and let us face it: in Conservative politics there has been scandal also. We can go right back to the start of our history with Sir John A. Macdonald and the famous scandal that brought his government down. This is not a partisan issue.

How can we break down that division of power and make people feel that they can make a difference? First of all, we must recognize that individuals are sovereign and that the very purpose of government is to recognize the fact that each one of us as individuals has God-given rights and the only purpose of government is to protect those rights and secure those rights for us. If I am representing my constituents, I am there to protect their rights and to make sure those rights are secure.

I am talking about federal politics now--but some of these would have similar relations to municipal or provincial politics--when I say that there is no greater sense of discouragement for one of my constituents than for him or her to think that I as their representative have absolutely no influence, that I cannot make a difference for my constituents. That would be ultimately discouraging for them. No matter what techniques I put in place they would not engage in the process, because they would say, “He can't do anything. He has no influence at all”.

Thus, I believe that this is one of the most important things that could happen to engage citizens. This government could do this. Members can determine how they want to qualify this person, but here is a great quote:

Unfortunately, the authority of the individual Member of Parliament has been allowed to erode, while the power of the executive has grown steadily.

I agree with that. Concentrating power in a small group of people will discourage citizens from being involved.

The quote goes on:

We must loosen the hold of party discipline over Members of Parliament--

I agree with that. It continues:

--so that they can more freely and more frequently employ their own judgment on individual matters...we must give new means to individual Members of Parliament to represent their consciences and their constituents.

The author of that quote is none other than our present Prime Minister.

Across the land today, whichever side people are on the issue of the same sex marriage legislation, there is one thing that all citizens in Canada understand. On this matter of conscience, many members of Parliament are not allowed to vote freely. That has more of a discouraging effect across the country because it spreads out from that particular issue. Let us leave that issue. It reinforces the sense that members of Parliament cannot vote freely.

It is not just all of the Liberal members to whom the Prime Minister has said “You will not vote your conscience”. He promised it here. He wants to see changes so that members can represent their consciences and their constituents, and yet he said, “No, you are not going to”.

I am just using examples and I am trying to keep this from being partisan. The leader of the NDP has said to his entire caucus, not just a big portion of the caucus, “You will not vote freely on this issue”. It reinforces the notion that across the country members of Parliament do not have the freedom to speak for their constituents.

Until we reverse that notion, all the techniques, all the blogs, all the Internets, and all the townhall meetings will have the same struggle of getting people engaged, so that they feel they have an influence. When there is a sense in the land that individuals do not have a say, that they will not be able to in any way get their way, then this characterization of government will ring true, that we are a separate autonomous group, largely removed from everyday life and becoming increasingly irrelevant.

That is a dangerous situation that any society should steer away. Restoring the freedom of vote to all members of Parliament will start to engage citizens again.

Citizen EngagementGovernment Orders

8:15 p.m.

Conservative

Ken Epp Conservative Edmonton—Sherwood Park, AB

Madam Chair, I enjoyed the presentation that my colleague just gave on this topic. I would like to ask him whether he has any comments with respect to the engagement of our citizens when it comes to petitions. He mentioned the marriage question which is now before the House and has been for some time. We have had literally thousands of petitions presented. I do not know how many names. I asked the clerk of petitions office for that information. It said that it has so many of them and it is so far behind in counting them that it could not provide me with a number. Yet all of those petitions are not presumably being listened to or being heeded by Parliament.

I would like to have my colleague comment on whether or not we should encourage our citizens to present petitions when they are so routinely ignored here.

Citizen EngagementGovernment Orders

8:20 p.m.

Conservative

Stockwell Day Conservative Okanagan—Coquihalla, BC

Madam Chair, I cannot emphasize the importance of that question.

There is a hierarchy of effectiveness of processes by which to influence government. Petitions are important, but let us be honest here. They are probably one of the least effective ways of affecting government. We all read petitions. When our citizens give us those petitions, we do not have the right to say we are not going to present them. As long as they are in order according to law, we present them in the House.

We do not have to agree with the premise of the petition. We send the petitioners a copy of what we did and that makes it look like we are onside with their issue. Let us face it. Petitions are somewhat useful. I am being very honest and we all have to agree that they are not that effective in turning government, otherwise government would move the way citizens want it to move far more often.

The next most effective way would be individual letters or emails from a constituent to his or her MP. Going up the ladder, the next step would be individual phone calls not in terms of mass organization because we can tell when that is going on but individual phone calls.

The one thing that will influence the heart of an MP is what may happen to his seat. I will use the marriage question as an example. When constituents phone their MPs and tell them that they will support them in the next election as long as that MP supports their side of the issue, whichever side that may be, that will have a compelling effect on an MP. A few of those phone calls will probably have more impact on a member of Parliament than petitions.

However, petitions should not be stopped; they are important. People need to understand that when someone signs a petition, they may feel absolved of the responsibility to do anything else. They feel they have taken great action on the part of their country. That is going to have a minimal effect.

Petitions should keep on coming, but people must realize the best thing they could do would be to appeal to the self-interest of an MP. James Buchanan won a Nobel prize for economics. He spent a lifetime researching economic freedoms. He said that one of the fundamental pillars for which his economic theory was awarded a Nobel prize was that public servants and politicians are just as self-interested as the rest of society, but most scholars and textbooks tell us otherwise. We sometimes walk around thinking we are far more altruistic than the rest of the population. We are not. Some of us are more altruistic than others. Some business people are more altruistic. Some teachers are more altruistic than others. As human beings we are all self-interested.

If constituents want any influence, they must appeal to the self-interest of their members of Parliament. They should tell them about the issue that means a lot to them and that they will work for them and support them if they support that issue. If they do not, they will support the candidate who will.

Citizen EngagementGovernment Orders

8:20 p.m.

Liberal

Mario Silva Liberal Davenport, ON

Madam Chair, it is often said, and I wholeheartedly agree, that we live in the greatest country in the world. One of the most profound treasures we as a nation cherish is a democratic system of government. It is a sacred trust bestowed upon us in which the people of our country choose those who will govern them. At face value it seems simple and perhaps we take it for granted, but in reality it is part of the soul of this country and it is most certainly a right that is woven into the fabric of our nation.

Pierre Trudeau, one of this country's greatest prime ministers, once said:

Democracy is superior to other political systems because it solicits the express agreement of the people and thus avoids the necessity of violent changes. At each election, in fact, the people assert their liberty by deciding what government they will consent to obey.

There are many who say that our democracy is in need of renewal. I agree it is important that we look at new approaches to governance. The steady decline in the number of eligible voters actually casting their ballots is perhaps a call to review our political system. While electoral reform may indeed encourage greater voter participation, there is no guarantee of this result. However, I believe it is incumbent upon us to seek renewal and welcome the changes this will bring to our system of government.

Indeed, if one were to question the belief that all across this country and around the world there is a desire for electoral reform, a brief survey of this issue at the provincial level would put the argument to rest. For example, British Columbia will soon have the opportunity to vote on a single transferable vote system chosen by the Citizens' Assembly. This vote comes on May 17, 2005. New Brunswick will review a report released in January 2005 recommending a mixed member proportional system. Ontario has created the democratic renewal secretariat to modernize Ontario's democratic institutions. Prince Edward Island has appointed an eight person commission to look at the province's electoral future. Quebec has a draft bill before it to be studied by a parliamentary committee through public consultations.

Indeed, it should be noted that this is only what is occurring in Canada. We see similar trends in democratic jurisdictions across the world.

Clearly, no matter where one lives, there is a prevailing mindset that states not so much that democracy is dysfunctional as much as there is need for renewal. We need to look at engaging citizens more directly in the political process and to do so we must look at changing the way governments are elected. Voters must clearly see that their system of electing representatives truly reflects their desired choice.

We should briefly review the statistics on how governments are elected and how this might support the case for change.

One of the main criticisms we often hear is that a party's political share of the national vote is rarely reflected in an accurate way in terms of results. For example, in only 134 of the 308 ridings in the 2004 general election were candidates elected with a majority of 50% of the vote or more. The actual voter turnout for those between the ages of 21 and 24 years was a mere 35.4%.

In four of the last five general elections between 1988 and 2004, the governing party received less than 50% of the popular vote, yet the leading party formed majority governments. Perhaps more blatantly, in the 1993 general election the Progress Conservative Party received 16% of the national vote but only two seats or .7% of the total seats. Clearly, not a representative reflection of voter support.

There are also significant discussions that continue to take place in relation to the role of members of Parliament. I am sure that any member of the House will readily attest to the fact that their offices are busy centres of activity dealing with the most diverse challenges from immigration files to pension issues.

The electorate clearly looks to their representatives for assistance, as they most certainly should. Do members have the resources to deal with these large caseloads and do we as members possess the influence over public policy that flows from the frontline experience we receive through our offices? These are legitimate questions worthy of consideration. Indeed, on the issue of members of Parliament we could have a debate lasting days just on this subject alone.

We may also ask if the roles of ministers within the government structure also require renewal. Is it practical to put into place a mechanism to ensure that there is a greater public input into the process by which public policy is developed and implemented? I believe the answer is in the affirmative. There is perhaps a greater role for members of Parliament in this regard.

I believe it is also essential that we work diligently to ensure that we teach our children from a very young age the most basic mechanism of government. It is incumbent upon us to make certain that our children, when they graduate from secondary school, have at least an understanding of our democratic system and the need for their participation and interest.

It should be noted that there is no shortage of studies making recommendations on how to change system, including the Pepin-Robarts task force in 1979 or the Macdonald commission in 1985.

What is clear to all who look objectively at our political system is that change is required. If we fail to act we risk further alienating the electorate from the people they choose to represent them in Ottawa or any other provincial capital or indeed in city halls across the country.

The example of British Columbia is one that deserves close scrutiny from those who support change at the federal level. Citizens must feel that they are part of the system that develops reform proposals in terms of the political system.

This month British Columbia will decide whether to accept or reject recommendations of its citizens' assembly. Regardless of the outcome, at least the matter has been discussed and at least they have been engaged in meaningful dialogue.

There is little doubt that voter apathy may indeed be a phenomenon more deeply rooted than simply changing the electoral system. The examples of Scotland and Wales come to mind where, despite changes in the manner in which representatives were elected, voter turnout remained less than enthusiastic.

However it is incumbent upon us as parliamentarians and citizens that we at least make the effort to consider alternatives to the political system we currently have in place. These can range from the preferential ballot system, proportional representation, the single transferable vote system or the mixed member proportional system. All possibilities should be considered.

Democratic reform may not solve all the pressing issues facing our political system or those around the world but it is clearly an opportunity to engage voters in a positive and constructive manner. It is imperative that time not be lost in making progress in this area for what is at stake may well be the democratic process that is one of the greatest gifts handed down to us by our ancestors.

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8:30 p.m.

Conservative

Ken Epp Conservative Edmonton—Sherwood Park, AB

Madam Chair, the member opposite was just talking about the fact that so many members are elected here without having a majority in their riding. I am one who happens to enjoy and have enjoyed every time in the last four elections a fairly healthy majority in my riding.

I must admit that it gives me a great deal more confidence to know that the policies I put forward during the election campaign, the things that I promoted, were supported by over half of the people. Therefore when I stand in the House to speak or to vote I know I am representing the majority of the people.

However if one assumes that the overall guiding principle of democracy is that the majority should rule, then we should have some way of recognizing that in those ridings where the member was elected with less than a majority that somehow the wishes of the constituents in that riding should be represented.

I wonder whether the member who brought this forward has any specific ideas on how that should be done. To me it seems like a bit of a problem because of the fact that a person who was elected because he had the most votes could end up having to represent most of the time ideas that are opposite to what he actually ran on. I think that would probably cause the greatest amount of consternation in his riding because he is displeasing the greatest number of people, namely those who voted for him.

It is a dilemma and I wonder whether the member has any specifics on it.

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8:30 p.m.

Liberal

Mario Silva Liberal Davenport, ON

Madam Chair, I have also wrestled with that issue but it is important to keep things in check, and that is in our democratic system of government and the Canadian system of government.

We recognize that some members are elected with more than 50% of the vote and some are elected with less than 50%. We know governments sometime form minority governments with less than 50%. However all those members and those governments are legitimate because the people and the Constitution states that they are legitimate. I would not want in any way to question the validity or undermine the legitimacy of those individuals and those governments. They are valid, they are legitimate and they have every right to represent, not the 30%, 40%, 50% or 60% of the people they were elected to represent in the House, but all the people of their ridings. We were elected to represent those who voted for us and also those who voted against us. That is the nature of our democracy and our representative system.

The point I was trying to make is that many forms across the world are being studied. A system I tend to like is the preferential ballot system that is advocated in some countries. Australia has that system where in fact the people can elect their first, second and third choices. If a candidate does not get 50% of the vote, then the other groups drop out and the people cast their votes for their first and second choices until the candidate gets 50%.

France has a similar system but operates differently. Where a candidate does not get 50% there is a second round of voting until those two individuals get 50%. That to me is much more in keeping with our system of allowing members to keep their existing constituency.

The big problem I find with the proportional representation system is that members have to be elected at large and therefore people do not know who their members of Parliament are. They also do not have constituencies that they have to answer to, and that is a system I think that is a little bit foreign to most people. I think the vast majority of Canadians like the system we have where we have one elected member of Parliament for a riding and that individual member of Parliament is answerable to the constituents and has constituency days. That system has worked very effectively and I do not think anyone wants to throw it out.

However I state once again that I am prepared to look at all systems across the world and at different examples provincially to see what is the best model for this country. I must state once again the we as members of Parliament who were elected with 30% or 60% or 70% are there to represent the people and are legitimately there constitutionally and with every right under the law.

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8:35 p.m.

Conservative

Ken Epp Conservative Edmonton—Sherwood Park, AB

Madam Chair, I feel absolutely guilty dominating the debate here but I am going to do it anyway because I have another follow up question.

Not many issues come across our desks or across the parliamentary agenda that engage many people but when those issues happen, even with the scheme that he suggests that there be a runoff ballot, it could still happen that a member of Parliament is elected where in the end he or she may have more than 50% of the votes on the last ballot, but still there would be a whole bunch of people who then voted for that member of Parliament and who given a choice would rather have sent their first choice there. Therefore it is still not a full representation.

When these issues come forward that engage the interest of Canadians to such a large degree, would it not be better to actually have some mechanism that would permit ballot questions to appear on a referendum? I am asking for his approach to it. I think it is something we should seriously explore in this country and come up with some kind of a mechanism that works and that would accurately engage the wishes of people on different issues.

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8:35 p.m.

Liberal

Mario Silva Liberal Davenport, ON

Madam Chair, the member is engaging in a complex question on the issue of electoral reform and what exactly is the best model. I do not think we will ever find the best model. Every country has a model that works best for its country. Some models work very effectively while others work less effectively.

In terms of having questions on the ballot, California in the U.S. has a similar system but it tends to have a lot of flaws. I would caution us from going in that direction where every question, every debate and every budget issue is up for a vote. What tends to happen is that the most organized groups, the ones that are more radically opposed or in favour as opposed to the middle, tend to be the ones who have the upper hand in putting forward their agenda.

I believe that people elect their representative. Their representative means that they are there to represent and advocate for the people and to bring forward the agenda of the party and of their constituency. If we are to subject everything to a referendum or to a question it would ties the hands of Parliament and, in many ways, it would probably lessen the democratic system that we have in place.

It may be the case that constituents have a given view on certain subjects today and a totally different view a year from now. However a member of Parliament may be here for three or four years depending on the length of that Parliament session. I would question and also be very cautious about that type of system. I would rather that we reform the system of how we get members elected.

I agree that many issues are at play. Our institutions need to be questioned. It is healthy to question our institutions. It is quite important and profound that we do that because our institutions need to be checked once in a while to see if this is the direction that we as a country need to see the institutions from the public's perspective and whether we are on the right course or not.

It is quite legitimate but I do not think we need to throw our institutions out. We have an incredible institution that has served Canada really well. We need to be cautious and diligent in our approach but it is important that we engage parliamentarians and of course the public in whatever role and whatever outcome there might be for this country.

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8:40 p.m.

Conservative

Tom Lukiwski Conservative Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre, SK

Madam Chair, it is a pleasure to stand in the assembly tonight to speak to the issue of citizen engagement. To me it is another euphemism for either voter connect or voter disconnect.

I would like to speak for the next few minutes on that, because it is, quite frankly, a serious problem with all political parties. It is a shame that we have a situation now in Canada where politicians are looked upon with such cynicism and such disrespect by the electorate that sometimes we are almost ashamed to go to public meetings. Certain folks figure that if one is a politician, one cannot be respected or trusted, and that is a pox on all of our houses. I will particularly focus on a pox on one house in my presentation tonight, and that is the house opposite.

I want to go back to 1993, the start of the government's regime. One of the main reasons, in my view, that the government was elected back in 1993 was the unpopularity of the incumbent government at the time, which was a Conservative government. There are two issues in particular that I believe really turned the election in favour of the Liberals. One was the free trade agreement, which the Liberals, the opposition of the day, campaigned against, and the other one in particular was the GST.

I recall the famous Liberal red book of the 1993 election where the opposition leader of the day, Jean Chrétien, was standing up with the red book in all of his television ads saying, “If elected, we will get rid of the GST, axe the GST”. We still have it. That was the first indication that the government was losing the connection with the voters. That was a fundamental and very key issue, because no one liked that tax. That was one of the most unpopular taxes this country had ever seen and the Liberal Party of Canada campaigned strongly on the fact that if elected, it would eliminate the GST. That was 1993. Today is 2005 and we have not even seen one effort by the government to get rid of it. That is not to say that the GST is an unfair tax. It is not to say that we should get rid of the GST. The fact of the matter is, however, that party, which is now the government of this country, campaigned that it would eliminate the GST and it has done nothing to do just that. Broken promises. That is the type of thing that makes all Canadians so suspicious, so cynical and so distrustful of politicians.

Beyond that, there are some other things we could be doing to try to regain some of that trust. At least our party on this side of the House is doing a few things which resonate well with the voters of this country. I want to highlight some of those things and perhaps illustrate why our party has a little different stance and a little different approach when it comes to dealing with the voters and how we plan to connect more with the general public and the voters.

The first thing of course is free votes. I am a firm believer in free votes because I honestly believe that members of Parliament are elected to represent those who vote for them, those who represent their constituency, the riding population. Whether or not, I should add, the people vote for me or against me, if I represent them in my riding, I think they are my bosses. I have to take my direction from them. Normally, that seems like an easy thing to do, but in this environment, it is a little different.

The members opposite have a different view of that. Of course, they are government and they might advance the argument that they cannot always represent the total view of their constituents, because if the party line is for the greater good of Canada, they have to follow that party line.

Perhaps my idealism is shining through and I have not been elected long enough to be a complete cynic about the political process, but honestly, the opposite is true. I believe that we have to represent our constituents first and foremost. I am pleased to say that a Conservative Party would honour that commitment.

We have seen this party and individual members within the House speak freely and frankly in opposition to the majority view of other members. However, on the opposite side of the House, I have seen members whom I know personally vote against the direct wishes of their constituents. I know that to be a fact. I want to give a couple of illustrations.

Obviously I am most familiar with Saskatchewan. In March of this year in the federal riding of Wascana there was a fairly comprehensive poll taken on the issue of same sex marriage. The overwhelming view of the respondents to that poll suggested that the majority of all the voters, of all the residents in that riding were opposed to the government's position on civil marriage. In other words, they were opposed to same sex marriage. However, the member representing those constituents, the Minister of Finance, has consistently voted in favour of the civil marriage act and in favour of same sex marriage.

My point is I know that is the government view, but it is one of the most controversial and divisive pieces of legislation that this country has seen. People are divided. They are divided to the point where some individuals are leaving their church. They are divided to the point where some people are fighting among themselves in community groups and religious organizations because they want their voice to be heard. They want their voice to be heard and through their voice, they want their elected representative, their member of Parliament to represent their views in this assembly. It is not being done. The case in point with the Minister of Finance, is he has consistently voted in favour of same sex marriage against the express wishes of his constituents.

Another example is what is probably one of the key election issues in Saskatchewan, the national gun registry. Again, without exception the vast majority of individuals, of all voters, of all residents in Saskatchewan, whether they be urban or rural, whether they be male or female, whether they be professional or blue collar, are adamantly opposed to the national firearms registry. Yet again, a Liberal member, the Minister of Finance, knowing the views of the majority wishes, has consistently voted in favour of the national gun registry.

I can absolutely assure the House that if a poll were taken in the finance minister's riding or any other riding in the province of Saskatchewan, we would find that at least 70% to 80% of the people would be against the national gun registry. What do they get from their elected representative? Someone comes to Ottawa and votes in favour of the national gun registry, something that is diametrically opposed to the majority wishes of the people of not only the minister's riding, but the entire province.

What we need to do here is allow all members to vote freely on issues such as that. I can certainly understand that if the government of the day wants to instruct its members of Parliament to vote in favour of major money bills or the budget, that has to be adhered to. Members must vote in favour of those key pieces of legislation. However, on almost every other issue, is it not the democratic way to allow members to represent their constituents so we have a full and complete knowledge of the feelings of all Canadians in this assembly? Should we not be here to represent the views of all of our constituents? I think we must. To do otherwise is not only unconscionable, it is undemocratic.

The party across the aisle does not see that as a priority. I think that is shameful. We have to start changing the way we do business in this assembly before any Canadian will start to view us as reputable and trustworthy.

Unless we do that, we will continue to be looked upon by the majority of people in this country as dishonest, disreputable politicians. The term politician will be looked upon as a dirty word and a slang word. That is something I cannot stand. I did not stand for election to be viewed in that light. We have to clean up our own house and it starts in this assembly.

In conclusion, in order for voters to become more connected to MPs, we have to start representing the views of our constituents on a regular and consistent basis with integrity and with honesty.

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8:50 p.m.

Saint Boniface Manitoba

Liberal

Raymond Simard LiberalParliamentary Secretary to the Deputy Leader of the Government in the House of Commons

Mr. Chair, I cannot help but feel that I am at a Conservative convention right now. It is a very interesting evening.

The hon. member mentioned free votes in the House of Commons. On this side of the House we have brought in the three line vote. It has worked extremely well. In fact, there is a lot more flexibility for members to vote the way they want to vote. I have not necessarily seen that on the other side of the House.

I would appreciate the member telling me how he figures that a Conservative government would bring that forward. Why would they not bring it forward immediately when they are in opposition?

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8:50 p.m.

Conservative

Tom Lukiwski Conservative Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre, SK

Mr. Chair, I am not exactly sure where the member is coming from. Our party does have a policy that we are allowed to vote freely. We have stated, our leader has stated, that if in government, when we form government, even cabinet ministers would be allowed to vote freely, with the exceptions that I gave, such as the budget and major money bills.

Consistently we have seen on this side of the House our members stand and vote according to the wishes of their constituents, sometimes frankly to the majority opposition. We have seen on the same sex marriage bill, as the member well knows, four or five of our members have opposed. I applaud the members opposite. The member is right in that many members of his caucus have stood and voted their free will, but beyond that, on critical bills I have seen nothing but whipped votes on that side of the House.

We need to encourage members to vote the wishes of their constituents, not discourage them. That is the only way we can truly represent our constituents in this assembly. What we are trying to do here is to be totally representative of all Canadians. How can we do that if we are voting against their wishes?

Again I will go back to the example where the Minister of Finance absolutely fundamentally knows that the majority of people in his riding are opposed to same sex marriage. They are opposed to the gun registry. Yet he has consistently voted against their wishes. What kind of democracy do we have here?

Perhaps this is just my sheer idealism but I have told my constituents very clearly, and I will continue to do so in the next campaign, that if I know the majority wishes of my constituents on a certain issue are to the left, and my personal views are to the right, I have basically two choices. I can either try and convince the majority of people in my riding that my viewpoint is correct and have them agree with me so that I can vote the way I wish to vote. If I cannot, and I know that they are fundamentally opposed to my personal conscience, my personal wishes, if I do not vote in favour of the majority wishes of my constituents, I should resign and I will resign, bottom line, pure and simple.

Perhaps that is not the most effective way of governing, but I will say one thing. I can sleep at night and I can look at myself in the mirror the next morning, because I know that I am being honest to the wishes of the people who elected me. That is the bottom line. That is what we need to do fundamentally in this House to ensure that there is true engagement and true connection between members of Parliament and their constituents.

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8:50 p.m.

Conservative

Scott Reid Conservative Lanark—Frontenac—Lennox and Addington, ON

Mr. Chair, I have a comment to make rather than a question, but it backs up what my hon. colleague has just said.

I have tried as a member of Parliament to vote with the wishes of my constituents and to do so in a way that to some degree would replicate the kind of citizen engagement there would be if there was a formal referendum process in this country. We do have the Referendum Act, but it is used very selectively. Over the course of the last 100 years it has been used three times. There have only been three referendums from 1896 to 1992.

We do have what we call constituent referendums where a postal ballot is mailed to all households. I have done this with respect to a number of laws. I explain in the mailing why I am consulting my constituents and why I regard an issue as important. I provide a non-partisan description of the bill as well.

I did this in the prior Parliament with respect to Bill C-5, the Species at Risk Act. I included the review that was done for members by the Library of Parliament and included it in the mailout. I included it so people would understand the general purpose of the bill in a non-partisan kind of way and also included arguments for and against the legislation.

In order to ensure that I provide fair and reasonable arguments, I took arguments from individuals who actually advocated for or against the legislation in debates in committee, in debates in the House or from newspaper editorials and so on. I tried to give a representative sample of the arguments for and against the legislation. Thanks to the magic of the Internet further documents and links could be put in to allow people to look at it and consult. This is particularly easy on something like same sex marriage where there are numerous websites that promote either side of the argument.

Having done this, I can say this produces a lot of citizen engagement as well as a lot of respect for an MP. I did it on two pieces of legislation in the last Parliament where I actually voted against my party based on the recommendations of my constituents. One was the most important piece of legislation that faced the 37th Parliament and that was the Anti-terrorism Act. When I asked my constituents whether I should vote in favour of the bill at third reading if no sunset clause was included in it, the majority told me not to vote in favour of it. I voted against it. Only four members of my party broke ranks and voted against that legislation. I was one of those four.

On another occasion I was the only member of the entire opposition to vote in favour of a law. It was a lonely experience, but it was what my constituents had instructed me to do.

The number of people who respond to these constituent referendums can be substantial. In one constituent referendum I asked whether I should opt in or out of the MP pay raise. I had over 3,000 responses.

This kind of mechanism, if used by MPs, can produce a lot of citizen engagement and involvement. It seems to me that it is a healthy antidote to the danger that worries many MPs on the government side. They think that we are just going to get anarchy and people going off in different directions. If we have to go through the process and the discipline of explaining in an objective way to our constituents what the nature of an argument is, we are unlikely to be led astray unless the government itself has wandered astray from where public opinion actually happens to be.

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8:55 p.m.

Conservative

Tom Lukiwski Conservative Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre, SK

Mr. Chair, I am a little torn on the issue of citizen referendums. In certain cases that is an excellent way to gauge the pulse of the nation. It certainly has its place. I cannot say that we should engage in citizen referendums on every issue. Parliament would be relatively ungovernable if we were to have a referendum on every single issue that came before this assembly.

However, this assembly should take an initiative and make a concerted effort to examine the whole concept of citizen referendums to see how it could be incorporated into some of the business that we do here. Let us all be honest, there are certain pieces of legislation that, while important, need not be whipped by any party.

What we are trying to accomplish as a Parliament is to ensure that the majority wishes of Canadians are heard. Some will argue and we have heard it before, particularly in the civil marriage debate, that the majority wishes cannot dictate the minority rights situation. Leaving that aside for a moment, I am suggesting there are many issues that have come before us as parliamentarians that are not perhaps that controversial and do not impact the personal religious views or morality issues.

We deserve to examine the possibility of how we can incorporate citizen referendums into the voting patterns of the House because in many cases we absolutely want to know what Canadians feel on issues. I am doing as much as my hon. colleague is doing in his riding in terms of surveys. I am doing it by Internet, by phone calls, by 10 percenters, and all of the various communication avenues that we have.

On almost every piece of legislation that comes down, I am trying to get that information out to my constituents and ask them a very simple question, “What do you think of this piece of legislation? Here are the pros, here are the cons. How do you wish me to proceed?” I cannot do it in every single case, but on the majority of pieces of legislation that this government has brought down, my constituents are aware of the legislation and are aware of my views. I encourage them to contact me if they want to express their thoughts. I do that. We should all be encouraged to do that and this assembly should be taking some very serious steps in making that a preferred method of voting.

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9 p.m.

Liberal

Ken Boshcoff Liberal Thunder Bay—Rainy River, ON

Madam Chair, I was really looking forward to this debate. I am so pleased that it has come forward as a take note debate because one of the major reasons that I ran was to involve more people in the democratic process, and citizens' engagement is truly a worthy endeavour for all parties in this House.

I believe that as parliamentarians we have the ultimate role to play in bringing people back into the parliamentary and democratic process. The best way we can do that is to set the highest possible standards for ourselves as members of Parliament. This implies respect, honesty, integrity, trust, accessibility and accountability. I will focus my time on the impressions that we convey to Canadians, especially young people and visitors to this House.

Reforms must start right here in the heart of it all. I find as a first term MP that the lack of decorum, civility and just good manners is generally very appalling. When I see the high school groups come here, and these are award-winning students in many cases representing a forum of young Canadians, Rotaries, youth scholars, Student Connections, and they watch the debates, they just leave shaking their heads. I watch them and they are very disappointed. If any one of them had ever behaved such as we might in this House, they would be booted right out of class and suspended.

That in itself should give each and every one of us in the House pause for concern because several hundred young people a week come to see the speeches here in the House, at question period in particular. For those of us who come from a municipal background, and I have spoken to members from all parties, they are generally astounded at the lack of civility and the type of antics that go on here, especially disruptions. When we talk about respect, this would never happen in any municipal forum anywhere in the country. That it goes on is really quite shocking, particularly to people who have already served in some sort of democratic process.

When we think about people who are involved, who are engaged, people who are close to local government, who appear as deputations and delegations, they see firsthand the mayor, the head of council, the reeve rule anyone with the least provocation starting to speak out of order or out of turn and immediately order is restored. Why we cannot do that here in this very impressive chamber is something that I have not yet come to understand.

Indeed, immunity applies somewhat in municipal spheres, but here it seems to have been stretched to its ultimate limits of abuse. The ultimate test should be that if someone truly had something to say that was honest and truthful, they would be able to say it outside in the hall. The fact that they never dare to do that, even when challenged, should give each and every one of us pause to think of what is really happening in this House.

Are people taking advantage of a process that protects them and impugns others? Once it is out, once the media in the gallery hears the statement, once it goes into Hansard , then it is there and it can be used, no, it can be abused far more greatly than anyone would ever want their own name to be impugned.

As I have been watching this for the past number of months, it occurred to me that perhaps something in the order of a private member's motion would be appropriate because when we talk about the engagement of citizens, they are not going to come back if they do not respect what we are doing. They are not going to participate in something that they cannot relate to, and if they are appalled and disgusted, then they are not going to project that to the young people or to other voters.

What I am proposing in my private member's bill is to restore civility and decorum to the House, particularly under Standing Orders 16 and 18. Standing Order 16 is that there will be no interruptions while someone is giving an answer or asking a question. Standing Order 18 is that people will act respectfully toward each other.

It will take all parties to agree to this. I know some people are smiling and saying “mission impossible”, but we have to agree that if it can be done in other orders of government, it certainly should be here in this Parliament.

As a student of this exercise, I undertook some light reading, House of Commons Procedure and Practice . I came across many interesting things. I have read it cover to cover. I am not going to say I just read it during opposition speeches. I read it while I was in the House doing my House duty. We know attempts have been made in the past by other parties to try to restore decorum and civility. In at least one case, historically, it came to third reading and someone was almost getting there.

As I enjoy my first term, I have met people from all parties who I feel share these values, who are cordial and respectful. Therefore, there is no one monopoly and there is no one guilty party in this exercise.

I guess we can use the adage of the mother asking the two children when did they start fighting and one says, “It started when he hit me back”. We know this is the kind of thing where there is no sense trying to say “You guys are the bad guys” or “You are the bad people”. We might as well just ask if there is a way that we can do this better for the people of our country. I believe very strongly that we have to do it.

We also get visitors from other countries. Some may think our rules or our procedures may be lax. I do not know. I have not seen many other houses. I am only concerned about this one.

I believe that if we are absolutely serious about citizen engagement, citizens will become engaged when they see us behave with respect, decorum, civility and when a question is asked, the person is allowed to ask it without being heckled and someone is allowed to answer without being chastised or commented upon.

This book of course has several interesting things. It does prohibit singing, except for the national anthem. When one reads some of the anecdotal history of some of the infractions, it is possible that perhaps there is a requirement for more enforcement by the Speaker, I do not know.

However, I know that among ourselves, as good parliamentarians who care about the country first and foremost, we are only here by the good graces of the people who elected us. The least we can do for them is to show them how much they mean to us. For me, it means that I can go back and say to them, “I asked your question. I got your answer”, and they can say to me, “I actually could hear you ask the question and get the answer”.

If we want to be closer to the people, it must start here. I look forward to presenting that. I thank the hon. members for allowing me to speak tonight. I am glad I stayed to hear the arguments put forth on all sides.

Citizen EngagementGovernment Orders

9:10 p.m.

Conservative

Ken Epp Conservative Edmonton—Sherwood Park, AB

Mr. Chair, after that speech, I feel like heckling. I really do not. I am trying to put a little levity into the debate tonight so we can stay alert and awake. The member talked about an intriguing concept, that we should be able to debate, engage in dialogue, ask questions and get answers without being heckled. I sit near the back and I always have. I have chosen a back seat and fortunately the whip in my party has always given it to me. I used to need it so I had a little more room to push my seat back. Now I do not really need the room, but I still like the bird's eye view. I can see everything. When question period takes place, frankly, even when I wear the earpiece, I cannot hear. It is despicable.

I was a high school teacher for 4 years and I taught at the college level for 27 years. I would never have tolerated that kind of behaviour in any of my classes. There were several occasions, when I was teaching at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, that I invited my students to go outside, as the Speaker does from time to time. He says that if we have something to talk about, we should go behind the curtain or into the lobby. I did that when I was an instructor at NAIT and some of my students took me up on it. I said that it was not right for them to interfere with other people's ability to concentrate.

When I was first elected in 1993 with a number of my colleagues in the then Reform Party, one of the things we tried to do was restore some dignity to Parliament. The member was not here then but some of the others were. They may recall that we sat here as respectfully as we possibly could and the media started putting out statements saying that we were a totally ineffective, unanimated, disengaged opposition.

I kept hearing the phrase “ineffective opposition”, and some people still believe it. I remember talking to someone, and I cannot divulge the name because the person is an apolitical House of Commons staffer. That person said that he thought it was the first time in many decades that Parliament had a real opposition because we had come here with some new, challenging ideas on how to do things differently. He said that this had not happened until then. It was a matter of the parties changing sides from time to time in terms of who was the government and who was the opposition.

There we were with that dilemma. We were getting the public persona that we were ineffective because we were not yelling and screaming like everybody else. Now I do not know. Maybe now we are being too effective. By that definition, perhaps we are. I personally do not like it.

I was telling some people in my riding the other day about the one thing I resisted, and I have several witnesses here. In all my years in Parliament, which is now a little over 11, with very few exceptions, I have not engaged in the heckling, yelling and so forth. I have to say with very few exceptions because sometimes I just could not help it. Now it is very commonplace. I wish we could do something about it. I appreciate what the member is saying.

Sometimes I have thought we should be running this place like the boardroom of a major corporation. It would never be tolerated there. We should be able to put out ideas. We have a dilemma. If a member puts out an idea, all of a sudden that member is accused of it being party policy. One has to be very careful what one thinks and says. It is very constricting.

I would like the member's comments on how we could achieve that and somehow sell to the public that we are now doing our jobs better than we did before.

Citizen EngagementGovernment Orders

9:15 p.m.

Liberal

Ken Boshcoff Liberal Thunder Bay—Rainy River, ON

Mr. Chair, I have talked to several of the member's colleagues from the 1993 class of several parties. I am aware of that exercise in an attempt to set a new standard to try and bring decorum and civility to the House. Members can see I am already crossing boundaries here in terms of understanding the historical nature of that.

The interesting thing in this “not for your daily reading journal” is there are several instances in which the Speaker of the day, when they asked for decorum and order, ruled in favour of the hecklers, saying that heckling was part of the bit here. From what I have seen in my short time, I believe the bit is now controlling the entire show. For us to have an intelligent discussion on this, and I wish everyone was as intelligent as the member sitting in the House tonight, we have to believe we have to start somewhere.

I am absolutely unmitigatedly convinced that the Canadian public wants us to behave differently in this House. No matter how good the show is between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m., I know they would rather something different.

Some of the councils I have served on have also been known as boring types of council, but they rolled up their sleeves and they got the job done. In a democracy, people would much rather see their elected representatives with their sleeves rolled up, producing good work, than someone rehearsing their lines and then coming in and acting indignant.

I would be willing to work with any member of any party who shares those ideas. I know several of the member's colleagues opposite have expressed that idea to me already.

Citizen EngagementGovernment Orders

9:15 p.m.

NDP

Joe Comartin NDP Windsor—Tecumseh, ON

Mr. Chair, I want to share with my colleague from across the way my experiences of observing and in fact studying some of the history and the reforms that have occurred in England, Australia and New Zealand. I have been in all of their parliaments now in my almost five years in the House. In those cases, they had a practice that was not dissimilar to the practice that goes on in this House, oftentimes a house that is basically out of control. It required a change in the corporate culture, but they did it.

Interestingly, England did it at the time when television was introduced. We did just the opposite. Our situation degenerated after we introduced television to this chamber. We know people play to the cameras. It is in fact worse I am told by parliamentarians who were here before cameras were.

I learned an example when I was observing the New Zealand house when I was there a few weeks ago. It has empowered its speaker to do greater things than we have empowered our Speaker to do. The example I will give, because it is a practice which it follows, almost was used the day I was there. One speaker pressed very close to the line and was almost disciplined by the speaker, and that is done. Our Speaker has very little authority to discipline.

It has adopted a rule from soccer. Its speaker cards, as a way of disciplinary action, an individual. That means a person has to leave the chamber for the question period. If they misbehave during question period, they are in effect required to leave for the whole question period. They cannot take part. It has proven a great authority on the part of the speaker and has been used regularly. I share that with members, and any comments the member may have in response.