Mr. Speaker, I rise today to speak to the question of privilege raised by the hon. member for Langley, which I know you are considering. I wish to support the point of privilege by that member and I would like to explain why.
The question that has been raised is about House procedures and most specifically the allocation of statements under S. O. 31. However, the real principle is that all of our House procedures should empower members to represent the people who voted for us and indeed all of our constituents back home, no matter who they voted for.
It has been pointed out repeatedly in the House that S. O. 31 statements should be allocated directly to members rather than through their parties and party whips. I agree. No one knows better than I do of the undue control that increasingly, for decades, has been exerted by parties, leaders and whips.
Before the third reading vote on the long gun registry bill, for example, I was informed by the whip of my former party that if I did not vote as the party wished, then I would be “punished”. After that vote I was instantly punished: no questions, no statements, no foreign travel, no committee representation, no debating time other than asking brief questions of party debaters.
However, I was not really the one who was punished by the party and by our system here. It was the constituents of Thunder Bay—Superior North who were punished. Their voice in the House of Commons was muzzled. The person they had elected was no longer able to speak for them, to ask their questions and to raise their concerns and aspirations.
Tomorrow will be exactly one year to the day since I became an independent. I was scheduled that day to have my first S. O. 31 statement since my punishment had begun. Somehow the party found out that I would use my statement to announce my becoming independent. In the few minutes before my scheduled speaking time, they asked the Speaker to pull my statement, and the Speaker complied. However, now, as an independent, I and my constituents do get a reasonable and adequate number of questions and statements.
The similarities between my experience and that of the member for Langley are striking. We must all recognize that we have developed a problem in Parliament of excessive party control, and we must move to fix the problem before it erodes our democracy any further.
That system was originally set up to have House leaders and party whips facilitate statements and question period questions for the sake of efficiency, but that has been perverted. It is now used by the three main parties to tightly control members and what members say. This was not the original intention, and it is damaging the free representation of the people who gave us their trust in electing us to this chamber in the first place.
I agreed with the member for Wellington—Halton Hills when he said:
Speaking in the House of Commons is a fundamental right of members in this place. Today in the chamber, members of Parliament cannot ask questions of the government to hold it to account. They no longer have that fundamental right, whether they sit on that side of the aisle or on this side of the aisle.
I agreed with the member for South Surrey—White Rock—Cloverdale when he said:
...without the right of all members to speak freely, this institution simply cannot function properly; ...that the period of statements was originally intended to give members equal opportunities; ...[and that] it is the codified practice [of many Westminster legislatures] that the Speaker alone decides on the rotation of the speakers and not the various parties.
I agree with the member for Vegreville—Wainwright who said he believes the way we are doing things “is infringing on my right as an MP to freedom of speech” and the representation that my constituents really need.
I agree with the member for Langley, who rightly quoted O'Brien and Bosc's House of Commons Procedure and Practice, which notes:
...the privilege of freedom of speech is secured to Members not for their personal benefit, but to enable them to discharge their functions of representing their constituents....
I agree with the member for Saanich—Gulf Islands that “democracy is not a sport. We are not here as teams...[but] as representatives of our...constituents.
One solution for the backbenchers of big parties to be able to freely speak for their constituents is for them to join me on the independent benches. However, they should not have to take that drastic step. It should be possible in this place, as in the vast majority of the world's democracies, to balance the wishes of both constituents and parties.
It is possible that we could consider a system by which members statements and questions are rotated to all members of the House, with no influence or role for parties to play. Much like the “list for the consideration of private members' business” of all MPs is drawn up in random order at the beginning of each Parliament, similar lists could be made for question period questions and statements. This would give all MPs equal opportunity, with both questions and S. O. 31 statements still able to be traded, with the agreement of members of course.
Recently Gloria Galloway of the Globe and Mail did a good job of documenting and discussing how party discipline in Canada is one of the most draconian of any democracy on earth. I would agree, and I would like to address the root causes of this problem in Canada.
The abuses of the granting of statements and questions in the House are the symptoms of more fundamental problems. First, our first past the post electoral system frequently allows one party to get a false majority, where the difference between 100% of the power and none of the power can come down to a single seat or two.
The vast majority of the world's democracies have some version of proportional representation, which means that if a party gets 39% of the national vote, it gets 39% of the seats. Since majorities are rare, parties have learned to be civil, collaborative and even co-operative. This, as we know, will not be easy to fix.
However, the second problem could be fixed quickly. We simply need to go back to a system where members clearly work as individuals for their constituents.
For over a century, from 1867 until 1970, federal candidates ran under their own names and reputations. If they were members of a party, which they often were, the voters had to know who they were and what party they represented. However, more importantly, no national leader signed their nomination papers.
Since 1970, when party names were added to the ballot, the Canada Elections Act was amended to require that candidates could only run under a party banner if the national leader, not the riding association, signed their nomination papers. Starting then, a succession of leaders have turned the thumbscrews mercilessly on backbenchers. They then become what Pierre Elliott Trudeau referred to as mere trained seals.
To sum up, I definitely support the question raised by the hon. member for Langley. I support the right for every member of Parliament to effectively represent their constituents and their conscience by ensuring that every member, not just independents, receive their full quota of questions and statements.
We need to go further. We need to address the root causes of a system that is not allowing us to represent our constituents in as democratic a fashion as might be possible.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for allowing me this intervention.