Mr. Speaker, first, I would appreciate the time today to allow me to offer a few additional comments on what I believe is an important issue for Parliament and an important issue for Canadians.
On March 26, the member for Langley rose to say that his rights as a member of Parliament had been infringed upon when he was prevented by the whip of his own party from delivering a statement in this House, a statement that, in parliamentary terms, we call an “S. O. 31”. Much like the terms “omnibus bill”, “prorogation” and “closure”, the Conservative Party continues to offer what I believe is an unintentional lesson in how parliamentary systems work and can sometimes be abused.
House of Commons Standing Order 31 says that a member may be recognized to make a statement for not more than one minute every day before question period. More commonly we refer to these as members' statements.
In the Chief Government Whip's response to the hon. member forLangley, he said that the Speaker of the House did not have to rule on this issue because it is a situation that has to be managed solely by the party whip.
I believe that two central questions face you, Mr. Speaker, and face this House. One concerns the difference between the Standing Orders, or the rules by which this place is guided, and conventions, or practices that have evolved over time to fit changing circumstances. One set is hard and fast rules we must abide by. The other, the conventions, are something we interpret from time to time, and they certainly change from time to time.
The second central question concerns your role as Speaker in trying to help ease the natural tension I believe exists between members and their political parties and an MP's right to speak in Parliament.
According to O'Brien and Bosc, on page 254, the Standing Orders are “[t]he permanent written rules under which the House regulates its proceedings”. They are the rules we are bound by, and they are there to protect Parliament and MPs.
However, O'Brien and Bosc also tell us, on the very next page, that “interpretations given to the older rules have been adapted over time to fit the modern context”. This is what we call convention, the practice of the House, which has always and must always continue to evolve and adapt to changing times and circumstances. The growing number of members of Parliament in the House of Commons, the fact that our proceedings have been televised for a certain number of decades, and streamed online recently, and the increasing use and importance of social media are just some of the realities Parliament attempts to adapt to. The associated expectations, the increased expectations, of citizens and the media that follow us is something we are all well aware of.
Because the Standing Orders are actually silent on the manner in which statements should be attributed to members, this House has had to interpret Standing Order 31. Convention has evolved, and some perhaps say ossified, over time. It is now the whips of each party who are responsible for providing the Chair with a list of members who will make statements before each question period. This practice is also explained in O'Brien and Bosc, on page 23:
In according Members the opportunity to participate in this period, the Chair is guided by lists provided by the Whips of the various parties
Every day, our whip goes through this exercise, which involves informing the Speaker of the list of NDP members who will make a statement.
Needless to say, the statements allotted to the NDP are reserved for members of the NDP. The New Democratic Party chose to use a simple rotation to attribute the vast majority of its statements, thus giving all New Democrat members an opportunity to speak in this House to local issues and various matters about which their constituents are concerned.
Here we must emphasize the original intent of members' statements. They are a key tool members of Parliament have to bring forward the matters of their constituents. They are often used to bring awareness to the efforts of local leaders in improving the lives of their communities. They are used to celebrate the achievements of their constituents and the work they do. They are used to honour significant milestones and to highlight important events going on in our ridings. They are also used to bring to the attention of the House serious local, national or international questions that require the attention of all Canadians.
Disturbingly, that original intent has almost been entirely lost on the Conservative side of this House.
The Conservatives have turned their statements by members into partisan attack ads, using their allotted statements before question period primarily to attack the New Democrats and our leader. They use S. O. 31 as a way to launch a coordinated, concentrated attack against the official opposition each and every day instead of talking about issues that really matter to the citizens who elected them.
Mr. Speaker, I would like to refer you to a very good analysis done by Glen McGregor, which appeared on March 26 in the Ottawa Citizen. This analysis of statements made by the government MPs in the House since the last election shows that the NDP and our leader are overwhelmingly the most popular topics for Conservatives to use in these statements. While we are certainly flattered by all the attention from the government members, it has obviously created some serious conflicts within the government caucus and has brought further harm to the reputation of Parliament.
This shows that the Conservatives are completely abusing this privilege to allow members to express their views and using it to wage petty attacks against the opposition, rather than discuss issues that are important to the Canadians who elected us.
Mr. Speaker, I am sure that like me, you will not fail to see the irony in comparing the current situation with some of the principles of the original Reform Party manifesto. In that document, the party stated:
We believe in accountability of elected representatives to the people who elect them, and that the duty of elected members to their constituents should supersede their obligations to their political parties.
Let me emphasize that at one point, many members opposite believed that the duty of elected members to their constituents should supersede their obligations to their political parties.
Not only is this an abuse of statements by members, but it creates a serious and growing tension between, on the one hand, the need of members of Parliament to represent their constituents and express themselves freely, and on the other hand, their responsibility to their political party. That is, of course, intensified if the party has no respect whatsoever for that member's individual rights.
Standing Order 31 tells us that “[t]he Speaker may order a Member to resume his or her seat if, in the opinion of the Speaker, improper use is made of this Standing Order”. I know that in the past, Mr. Speaker, you and your predecessors have been hesitant to impose too heavily when it comes to the proper and improper use of this Standing Order and the improper or proper use of statements, but the situation we are faced with here brings new light to the tensions I have just described.
Recently the Chief Government Whip used a hockey analogy, however poorly applied in this case, and equated his role as whip of the Conservative Party to that of a hockey coach deciding which player goes on the ice. He decided that the Speaker was basically a referee and that it is not your place as referee, Mr. Speaker, to interfere with his choices as coach. I simply offer this: If a coach insists on sending only so-called “goons” onto the ice to simply pick fights each and every day, there is no question that the referee will intervene to give some hope that an actual hockey game might be played.
However, the analogy should stop here, because what is happening in the House is not a game. This is the House of Commons, where we, as parliamentarians, must deal every day with complex matters that have a direct impact on the lives of the Canadians who have elected us and trust us to manage the affairs of this country. I believe that by changing the nature of statements and using them to mindlessly attack the official opposition, instead of using that time to raise the issues that matter to the people who have elected them, the Conservatives are clearly abusing this Standing Order.
Allow me to return to the assertion of the member for Langley that his rights and privileges as a member have been breached. It bears repeating and emphasizing that I do not agree with the attempt by the member for Langley to reopen the debate on abortion. The NDP will always promote and protect a woman's right to choose, period. We are clear in our conviction and present ourselves unapologetically and unambiguously to Canadians in that way each and every election. However, whether one agrees or disagrees with the member for Langley is not at issue here. The issue is the need for members of Parliament to speak freely on behalf of those whom we seek to represent.
We have two essential duties: holding the government to account; and speaking for those who have elected us to this place. O'Brien and Bosc, on page 89, explain that “[b]y far, the most important right afforded to Members of the House is the exercise of freedom of speech in parliamentary proceedings”.
The first report of the Special Committee on the Rights and Immunities of Members of the 30th Parliament carefully studied the issue of free expression.
In its 1977 report, the committee defined the right of members to free speech as follows:
...a fundamental right without which they [the members] would be hampered in the performance of their duties. It permits them to speak in the House without inhibition, to refer to any matter or express any opinion as they see fit, to say what they feel needs to be said in the furtherance of the national interest and the aspirations of their constituents.
In conclusion, without the right of members of Parliament to express themselves freely, our democratic institutions simply cannot function properly. The NDP recognizes this and has always allowed its members the opportunity to express themselves, arriving at a consensus through discussion, instead of imposing one through unilateral vision. There is always to be a natural tension in being part of any team, any party. The benefits of being in a party are weighed against the responsibility to that same party. That is our parliamentary Westminster system.
Mr. Speaker, you have a difficult task in judging this fine line, and I believe you will need the support and confidence of all parties in this place, whatever you decide. This is why I find this matter so important. I am looking forward to your ruling on this matter and on the matter of the protection of the freedom of speech of members of Parliament.