That the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs be instructed to: (a) consider the election of committee chairs by means of a preferential ballot system by all the Members of the House of Commons, at the beginning of each session and prior to the establishment of the membership of the standing committees; (b) study the practices of other Westminster-style Parliaments in relation to the election of Committee Chairs; (c) propose any necessary modifications to the Standing Orders and practices of the House; and (d) report its findings to the House no later than six months following the adoption of this order.
Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure to speak to this motion today. Before I start I should thank the interpreters. I am probably one of the worst MPs when it comes to handing in my speeches ahead of time for their interpretation. They are going to have to work from my notes and show their rather extraordinary talents of translation today. My apologies.
The history and the background of this motion come from two basic sources. The first, and probably the most relevant to this place, is the debate that was held in 2002 on an opposition supply day. It was a very interesting day. Even though there was a majority Liberal government, the motion actually passed.
There were members of the Liberal government in caucus, and the Canadian Alliance, the Progressive Conservatives and the NDP, who worked together to get a motion through. The motion at that time was about the election of committee chairs directly by their committees. It was a fascinating day. It was interesting to read some of the motions and debates of that era, and to follow some of the remarks.
I used this quote the first time I spoke to this issue. It was from the former member for Pictou—Antigonish—Guysborough and former minister of defence, who is now Minister of Justice. He said:
An independently elected chair...would demystify and give greater credibility to the process. What we are talking about is not the election of opposition members to fill those important positions of chair, but government members.
Again, and I used this quote the last time I spoke on this matter, the former NDP member for Palliser, Mr. Dick Proctor, said:
Frankly we make it far too easy for the media to cover politics in a very partisan fashion. There is a high angle shot which highlights, maybe even exaggerates, the neutral zone between the government side and the opposition side.
That was the general tone of the debate that day. These were members getting together and talking about ways to enhance the credibility of committee chairmanships, their powers and election. The many members who were not here prior to 2002 may not understand that the appointment of committee chairs was done purely through the Prime Minister's office.
The second inspiration for this motion is what is known as the Wright report, a report by the British House of Commons. Several years ago, Great Britain was going through a bit of a crisis of democracy; that's one of those terms that political scientists use from time to time.
Great Britain had had some substantive issues with expense accounts. I know members are thinking about things that have been in the news here. However, it was much more widespread and encompassed members of all parties. More importantly, the members of the House of Commons were very deeply involved.
Great Britain began to look at a considerable number of reforms to make its House of Commons work. One of them, among other things, was to look at the election of committee chairs. In the last year it has looked at and revised the changes that were implemented by the Wright report, and by and large it has come to a very positive conclusion. It seems to be working, and it seems to be very substantive.
I will read a quote from the U.K. House of Commons political and constitutional reform committee from July 18, 2013.
The Wright Committee recommended a number of changes to the way the membership of select committees was decided, including most notably “an initial system of election by the whole House of Chairs of departmental and similarly select committees...”
That was the recommendation. Following up, it concluded that was one of the best recommendations that was made.There were several different positive results from this change. Some of those are the reasons I am proposing this change to the House of Commons.
The first reason, and the British found this to be the case in its experience, is the perception of independence. We are in a unique business in politics. Reality is not always reality in politics; perception is reality. That may seem strange, but I am getting some smiles from members in the House who understand what I am saying. What we do substantively does not often have the greatest impact, but what we are seen to do has an even greater impact. If we take steps to democratize and bring forward more independence, and more perception of independence, we enhance the reality of democracy.
That is not to imply any sort of criticism to current chairs. By and large, in my nine-plus years in the House of Commons I have dealt with excellent committee chairs. However sometimes in various situations, where they act based on their best judgment and in their own independent way, they are not always seen to have that. That is one of the reasons that this is an important and useful reform. It enhances the credibility of their position, the independence and understanding that they are acting—as they do, by and large—based on their own good judgment and not under anyone else's influence.
The second reason I am making this proposal is that members are more likely to be engaged. One of the areas where we do get engaged as members of Parliament, in a very deep and substantive way, is at our committees. We often do not have the time to become an expert on all aspects of debate here in the House. There are some members who are very widely read and who can cover a multitude of policy areas with extreme fluency. Unfortunately, that is not the reality for most of us, so we tend to engage and specialize in areas where we either have expertise or where we are appointed to committees. As members take responsibility at committees, through election, engagement and increasing independence, members will be more engaged and able to act.
The other thing I would like to point out is impartiality. In my experience, the committee chairs have been impartial, and vice-chairs as well. However, again, the perception is important, and it also helps with the reality. If my party were in opposition and I voted for someone for committee chair from whatever party in government, I have some stake in that. I have some responsibility in getting that person to that position. I am less likely to make the charge of partiality when I have had some responsibility for putting that person in the office. I think it would bring together a more collaborative and positive result.
In the first hour of debate on this motion, there were some questions put to me, and I have had questions when I have interacted with members throughout this process. I am going to deal with a few of them directly, to help members understand what we are talking about.
First of all, the motion would not change who would be eligible to run for the chair of a committee. In a situation with a minority Parliament, opposition members would not choose from their ranks to fill the committee chairs that are normally filled by the government. We have some committees that are chaired by opposition members, and government members would not be able to take over positions, such as public accounts, and a few other committee chairs. The eligibility for who would be able to stand for these positions would be same.
The second question I have had is why did I not put forward the same motion for vice-chairs, particularly first vice-chairs, as frequently second vice-chairs are from a party which has a very small representation. On principle that would be a very good step, to treat the first vice-chairs in the same way that we do the chairs of committees. However, I understand there are a couple of things. First of all, as one complicates a motion, the odds of its being successfully accepted go down. Second, I do not want to send the message that I, as a government member, from whose party most chairs are currently chosen, want to be seen as imposing something on the opposition.
I would suggest that opposition members who tend to agree with that on principle advocate and speak to their respective critics and members on the committee that will be handling this to include that concept, because it is consistent. However, I for one do not want to be seen to be imposing, as a Conservative, on opposition prerogatives.
Having said that, I should note this change is unlikely to affect this Parliament and would happen in the next Parliament. Therefore, members who are thinking about how it would affect their particular individual situation should maybe think of the broader principles involved because many of us may not be in the next Parliament. Frankly, what we are interested in most of all in this place is not what is best for me but what is best for this place and what is best for this country.
Then there is a fairly direct question. How would this change function?
In my motion, I have left the ultimate decision to the committee. It would have to come back through another motion for this to be implemented. However, this is the way that, in a general sense, the British Parliament has found and the way that I would envision it, on a very cursory preliminary glance. Again I would be open to the members of the committee to make suggestions.
I would envision after the election of a speaker we would go on in a way that most of us are very familiar with due to party nominations; that is, a large preferential ballot. If there is more than one candidate who has put his or her name forward to stand, we would very simply number off: one, two, three, four. Now, we could have one ballot with all the committees listed, which is, perhaps, unwieldy, or we could have a separate ballot. We would have our 20 ballot boxes, members would vote and then the various clerks of the House of Commons would tally the results and post them the next day. It is very simple to do, not very difficult and very easy to implement. Again, that is not a decision I am trying to make or impose. It is just something that I am suggesting and that is for the committee to decide.
Here is another very good question that was put to me. How would we actually ensure diversity among the people who are committee chairs?
One of the first things I would say is that this is a very political process. Everything we do here is political. I would think all members of the House would have some interest in seeing a diverse range of people taking the chairmanships of the committees. Therefore, there would be a pressure to vote for a variety of candidates to encourage people who we know may not fit the traditional image of a committee chair to step forward.
By and large, the way caucuses work, with the way representation is, I think if there was an election where committee chairs all came from one very narrow demographic, purely from one province, for example, very quickly in the next election that situation would be solved. Because as we all know, we very are much influenced and open to political pressures both in our caucus and in dealing with the general public.
It would probably be more difficult for rookies to get appointed or elected as committee chairs than it would be for veterans. That is normative now, as we see most committee chairs are people with experience. It does help to have some idea how this place runs before we get involved in a leadership post. Having said that, if someone is an energetic brand new member with a talent and an ability to communicate, they will be known by members in their caucus and the members of their caucus will vouch for that and will help them to get their candidacy put forward.
What I am asking from other members of the House? What am I looking for?
I am looking, in the committee and from other members, for concrete ideas as to how we can take this and make this very modest reform. The mechanics should be simple. However, they need to be thought out. They need to be looked into. Problems need to be delved into to see what can be done to improve this, to make this work.
The second thing I am looking for from members is to use this as a springboard to start to think about other ways and other places we need to have reforms done, both in committee and in caucus. This would be an opportunity for members to come together, to be collaborative, to be productive. I suggest this as a very modest, positive step to help make this place a more functioning, better democracy.