Mr. Speaker, I move that the 17th report of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, presented on Friday, October 20, be concurred in.
In essence, the report seeks to make permanent the Standing Orders of this House that were in effect on October 5, 2006, which include a series of provisional Standing Orders that were adopted in the last Parliament.
Members will note that the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs is permanently mandated with the review of Standing Orders, procedure and practice in the House of Commons and in its committees.
The Standing Orders are defined by Marleau and Montpetit's House of Commons Procedure and Practice as:
The permanent written rules under which the House regulates its proceedings are known as the Standing Orders.
I can certainly understand how most Canadians may find this topic boring and even foreign. I know you do not, Mr. Speaker, as you are a student of these Standing Orders. However, for a parliamentary system it is of the utmost importance.
According to John George Bourinot, Clerk of the House of Commons from 1890 to 1902, the rules that regulate our proceedings are essential for reasons that include the protection of the minority, the restraint of improvidence and tyranny of the majority.
These rules must allow the opposition in the House of Commons to hold the government to account and to answer for its actions. However, at the same time, these rules must not prevent the government from being able to govern. It is this balance that parliamentary procedure intends to ensure.
In addition to these permanent written rules, the House of Commons can adopt rules for a limited period of time. They are known as provisional Standing Orders. Provisional Standing Orders are adopted for a specific amount of time and are adopted on an experimental basis. They can be dropped, amended or made permanent if the House so wishes.
It is for that purpose that I move my motion today. I want the House to express itself on whether or not the provisional Standing Orders adopted in the last Parliament should be made permanent.
On February 18, 2005, the House adopted by unanimous consent a series of provisional Standing Orders that would expire 60 days into the 39th Parliament, which is our current Parliament. Before the 60 days, the House agreed to extend these provisional Standing Orders until November 21, 2006.
These provisional Standing Orders that are set to expire in a few weeks affect approximately 11 permanent Standing Orders. For example, under the provisional Standing Orders, all opposition motions on supply days are now votable. All speeches, including speeches by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition are now subject to a question and comment period. All parties can now be represented on the liaison committee. Committee reports have a greater chance of being voted on in this House. The government benefits greatly by the fact that there is now a 48 hour period of notice required for all opposition day motions. This replaces the previous 24 hour notice.
I would like to take a few minutes to review in greater detail some of the rule changes and, in my view, the positive effect these provisional Standing Orders have had on how we conduct business in this place.
First, I would like to quote the Hon. George Drew, leader of the opposition on June 4, 1956. In an edition of Hansard he said, “The word 'Commons' means the people. This is the House of the people”.
Drew's statement is as accurate now as it was then.
One of the primary functions of this chamber is to allow people to debate. Opinions must be allowed to be expressed, questions must be permitted to be asked and decisions must be made.
One of the rules affected by these provisional Standing Orders is that now all speeches in the House are subject to a question and comment period.
Members will note that even speeches by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition are now subject to a question and comment period. In the past, because their speeches were of unlimited time, members were not permitted to ask questions of either the Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition after they gave a speech.
If the provisional Standing Orders are not made permanent, members will give up their right to ask the Prime Minister and/or the Leader of the Opposition questions after speeches in the House of Commons.
Why would anyone not agree to allow members of this chamber to ask questions of the Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition. Must we shield the Prime Minister from taking questions from the members in the House of Commons? I think most would agree that all speeches should be subject to questioning. After all, is that not the true nature of debate?
Another rule that I believe was positively affected by the provisional Standing Orders is that all opposition motions debated on allotted days are now votable. On the issue of allotted days, I would like to quote Marleau and Montpetit's House of Commons Procedure and Practice at page 722 where it states:
The setting aside of a specified number of sitting days on which the opposition chooses the subject of debate derives from the tradition which holds that Parliament does not grant Supply until the opposition has had an opportunity to demonstrate why it should be refused.
On page 724 it goes on to say:
Members in opposition to the government may propose motions for debate on any matter falling within the jurisdiction of the Parliament of Canada, as well as on committee reports concerning Estimates.
Opposition parties put a lot of work into preparing their motions for debate on allotted days. In fact, these days are another tool that allows opposition parties as a whole to hold the government to account. Supply days allow the topic of discussion to be decided on by a party that is not the government.
However, it is thanks to the provisional Standing Orders that now all opposition motions on allotted days come to a vote. Reverting to the old Standing Orders would prevent opposition parties from having some of their motions come to a vote in the House of Commons.
I would like to turn now to the issue of committee reports. Most members of the House sit on standing committees and this is where a lot of the heavy lifting happens in the business of the House of Commons. Committees make their views, opinions and recommendations known to the House by way of reports. In fact, standing committees are permanently mandated with the power to report their findings to the House. It is essential to their role as microcosms and extensions of the House that they be allowed to do this.
I think all members would agree that standing committees work hard in preparing their reports on a variety of issues for presentation to the House. In the past, when a member would ask the House to concur in a given report, the government of the day would move a dilatory motion or debate on the report until an intervening item, such as question period or private members' business, would have the debate in the concurrence motion interrupted. It would then be up to the government to decide if debate would resume or not on the motion to concur in the committee report. The provisional Standing Orders adopted in the last Parliament increased the chances that committee reports will be voted on without any intervening items shelving them, as these debates are limited to three hours.
Therefore, the value of a committee's work is increased as it has the ability to continue meaningfully in the proceedings of the House. Its work is not ignored and committee members can bring important items to the attention of the entire House of Commons for debate and for a vote.
These small but important changes adopted on a provisional basis were recommended by the Conservatives in the last Parliament. The member, who is currently the chief government whip, and his party, then in opposition, championed these small changes to our rules. It was the Conservatives along with the Bloc and the NDP that proposed these provisional Standing Orders to the then governing Liberals.
The Conservatives believed that these rules would add to the fairness and the balance of our proceedings. They believed that because all opposition days would be votable and the committee reports would not so easily be ignored, individual member's work would be valued. We agreed with the then Conservative opposition when we were in government. In fact, on February 18, 2005, the government of the day asked the House to concur in the provisional Standing Orders as proposed by the Conservatives. By unanimous consent, they were adopted on a provisional basis.
It is true that on September 20, 2006 the House agreed to have the provisional Standing Orders remain in effect until November 21, 2006. Of course, after November 21, the old Standing Orders would come back into effect.
The Standing Orders, that would not include the provisional Standing Orders proposed by the Conservatives when they were in opposition, would in effect be over with unless something was done in the intervening time. That something is what my motion accomplishes today.
The House will express itself on whether or not the provisional Standing Orders should be made permanent, the same ones championed by the Conservatives. Some will argue that we should not adopt these provisional rules now as Standing Orders because they may need to be reviewed or amended.
It is true that other Standing Orders may need to be reviewed, however nothing prevents the House from adopting the rules that have been in effect since February of 2005. Did we say back then that the current provisional rules could not be adopted because other Standing Orders may need to be reviewed? Of course not.
The House of Commons Procedure and Practice reminds us that there have been countless reviews of Standing Orders. In fact, the first amendments to our written rules occurred only four months after the adoption of the very first Standing Orders after Confederation. I am sure our practice, procedure and privileges will always be subject to review and scrutiny, as well they should.
In conclusion, it is not my intention to hold up the business of the House with my motion today, however I do believe the House should permanently adopt the provisional rules as proposed by the Conservatives when they were in opposition, the same rules we have been following since February 2005, and that they be put into effect unanimously.