House of Commons Hansard #35 of the 41st Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was ukrainian.


Fort McMurray—AthabascaVacancy

11:05 a.m.


The Speaker Conservative Andrew Scheer

It is my duty to inform the House that a vacancy has occurred in the representation, namely Mr. Jean, member for the electoral district of Fort McMurray—Athabasca, by resignation effective Friday, January 17, 2014.

Pursuant to paragraph 25(1)(b) of the Parliament of Canada Act, I have addressed my warrant to the Chief Electoral Officer for the issue of a writ for the election of a member to fill this vacancy.

Board of Internal Economy

11:05 a.m.


The Speaker Conservative Andrew Scheer

I have the honour to inform the House that Mr. Toone, member for the electoral district of Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine, has been appointed as a member of the Board of Internal Economy in place of Mr. Cullen, member for the electoral district of Skeena—Bulkley Valley, for the purposes and under the provisions of section 50 of the Parliament of Canada Act.

The House resumed from October 28, 2013, consideration of the motion.

Electronic PetitionsPrivate Members' Business

11:05 a.m.


Charmaine Borg NDP Terrebonne—Blainville, QC

Mr. Speaker, since this is the first speech of this parliamentary session and the first of 2014, I would like to wish all members of the House a very happy new year. I hope this year will bring lots of interesting, relevant debate.

With this in mind, let us talk about the motion moved by my colleague, Motion No. 428. Several members, myself included, are of the opinion that it will improve parliamentary debate so that it more accurately reflects what really matters to Canadians.

As the NDP critic on digital issues, I am often asked to evaluate new technologies that will enhance communication with our constituents, with the hope that they will become more involved in the debates. For instance, the Internet is an excellent tool for sharing information and making people aware of important current issues.

At present, although Canadians can get information and learn more about an issue, they cannot take action by signing an online petition. In fact, their online signatures are absolutely worthless in this House. This is a serious flaw. In this digital age, the House does not reflect how the world works today. The fact that only paper petitions can be submitted is a flaw. Many people sign electronic petitions, but their voices will never be heard here.

It is our duty to modernize how we do things in order to better represent Canadians. These days, nearly everyone is on Facebook and other social networks. That is how we communicate. Accordingly, why not present issues in a way that reflects how the world works in the 21st century?

Everyone of my generation is on Facebook. We all use social networks to communicate. I very often receive online petitions from my constituents and even my friends. Unfortunately, as it stands, they are pointless. The legislatures in Quebec and the United Kingdom accept online petitions. Now it is our turn.

We need to do everything we possibly can to get young people involved in democracy. In 2011, only 39% of young people voted in the election. My colleague came up with the idea of moving a motion that would make it acceptable to present online petitions. I sincerely believe that this will ensure that youth are better represented in the House, that their voices are heard and that we are talking about things that are of interest to them.

I would like to point out that this is not the first time this idea has been discussed. The issue was raised as part of a committee study during the 38th Parliament. That was a long time ago and nothing has been done. It is clearly time to act.

I am hearing more and more that people are not interested in politics. Perhaps the issues we are talking about today and those we have talked about during this parliamentary session are not what matter to the people in my riding or their neighbours.

The motion moved by my colleague would allow Canadians to directly influence debate in the House. What could be better for democracy? Other ideas can certainly be proposed in the future; however, this first step is an essential one.

According to a 2012 study by Samara, only 55% of Canadians are satisfied or very satisfied with our democracy.

We have some work to do to achieve a better result. I think we can do better than 55%.

The purpose of this initiative is to have members debate an issue when 50,000 people have signed a petition that five members of Parliament have sponsored. This number is not in the wording of the motion, but that is something we can discuss with hon. members.

For 50,000 people to take the time to sign a petition suggests that the subject matter is very important to them. It is our duty to discuss that subject. This could be a way to encourage people to vote and to watch the debates in the House of Commons. A very small minority of people are watching this debate right now or watch the debates on a regular basis. When there is a proposal like Motion No. 428, we should act on it and support it. We should do everything possible to make the House relatable to people and help them see that it truly debates issues that matter to them. What my colleague is proposing just might do that.

I would like to mention some of the support my colleague has received for this motion. That support is coming from various sources: the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, Preston Manning, and OpenMedia, an agency that seeks to use new technologies to engage people in the democratic process.

It is time to modernize Parliament. This institution is old, but we have the means to improve democracy and to give our constituents a voice in the House. I congratulate my colleague on putting forward this proposal. I hope that on Wednesday, all the members of the House will support the motion.

Electronic PetitionsPrivate Members' Business

11:10 a.m.


Joe Preston Conservative Elgin—Middlesex—London, ON

Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to participate in today's debate on Motion No. 428, sponsored by the member for Burnaby—Douglas, which would create a new electronic petitions system. My colleague across the way has a keen interest in the role of Parliament and its members and has examined the experience of other jurisdictions with electronic petitions.

I want to emphasize the government's commitment to a strong Parliament. All members know that in 2006, the government's first act after forming government was to pass the Federal Accountability Act, which changed the way Ottawa does business for the better. Thanks to this unprecedented legislation, government accountability has been strengthened, including accountability to Parliament, and the government has further continued to promote democratic reform and open and transparent government.

Let me now turn to Motion No. 428. The first part of the motion would essentially require the procedure and House affairs committee to recommend changes to the Standing Orders and other conventions governing petitions so as to create and implement an electronic petitions system.

The second part of Motion No. 428 would require the committee to consider, among other things, the possibility of a debate in the House outside sitting hours when a petition has reached a certain threshold of signatures.

The motion goes on to state that the committee would have to table its report within 12 months of the motion being adopted. Under the terms of the motion, the committee would be required to include recommended changes to the Standing Orders and other conventions to implement an electronic petitions system. Basically, to summarize, the motion requires that the committee report lead to the implementation of an electronic petitions system for the House.

For the purposes of this debate, it is worth first examining our current paper-based petition system. Our current petition system is set out in Standing Order 36, which is based on principles of representative democracy and the fundamental role of an individual member of Parliament. As evidenced by the 2,000 petitions presented by members in 2012, the system works quite well.

The Standing Order requires that before petitions can be presented, they must be certified correct by the Clerk of Petitions. House rules specify that at least 25 Canadians must sign a petition, using the proper format, including a statement of the grievance, and that it be addressed to the House, the government, a minister, or a member of the House for a response.

It is a matter of routine practice that members table petitions on behalf of constituents, and it is understood that members may not always agree with the views of a specific petition. Following the presentation of the petition, the government must respond within 45 calendar days.

Our current petitions system functions efficiently. The system is transparent. Canadians are able to tune in and watch our proceedings to see what petitions are being presented, or they can view a list of petitions presented in House of Commons Debates or in Journals of the House.

As we debate Motion No. 428, it is useful to examine the experience of other jurisdictions.

Most jurisdictions have a petitions system similar to our current approach and appear to be satisfied with that approach. However, there are some jurisdictions that have recently implemented electronic petitions systems as part of their legislature or as part of the government's operations.

In 2011 the United Kingdom House of Commons authorized electronic petitions. Petitions with at least 100,000 signatures can have a debate in the House or in Westminster Hall, a parallel chamber to the House. To date, these debates have included national issues such as health care and pension increases as well as special interests, such as eliminating welfare benefits for the convicted 2011 London rioters, heart surgery at a local hospital, and the elimination of the badger cull.

I would contend that the experience of the United Kingdom suggests that while electronic petitions can increase the participation of citizens in the petition process, they can also be used by orchestrated special interests to force their agenda onto the parliamentary stage.

Similarly, the We the People electronic petitions system established by the White House in the United States, whereby petitions with at least 100,000 signatures are publicly recognized, has been used to advance topics such as the Star Wars-inspired Death Star and the deportation of a CNN journalist.

Some commentators in the United States have suggested that electronic petitions systems can undermine representative democracy by recognizing or debating divisive or frivolous issues. I would ask members whether they would want to create an electronic petitions system if that were to be the result.

In addition, at a time of fiscal restraint, the creation and implementation of a new electronic petition system, and potentially the addition of extra sitting hours for the House to debate petitions with a high number of signatures, could be quite costly. Further, the need to put in place a process to verify thousands of online signatures could prove to be quite an involved and onerous process. Do members believe that such an additional cost would be prudent at a time of global economic uncertainty and fiscal restraint?

The member for Burnaby—Douglas has said that the electronic petitions would “empower citizens to communicate their concerns with their elected representatives and to have the opportunity to set the agenda for debate in Ottawa”.

As all members know, every day of the year, whether in our ridings or here in Ottawa, Canadians have many options for contacting their individual members of Parliament or the government. Each of us is regularly back in his or her constituency. We all have staff in our constituency offices and in Ottawa to help constituents with questions and detailed requests, including through electronic means such as email and websites. I ask members whether creating an electronic petition system would really enhance our ability to engage and serve our constituents.

As mentioned at the beginning of my speech, Motion No. 428 presupposes a result for the work of the procedures and House affairs committee. By dictating the outcome, Motion No. 428 undermines the principle that committees are masters of their own affairs. It is one thing for the House to instruct the committee to undertake a study, but this motion goes too far and oversteps the principle that committees are masters of their own proceedings. I would ask members whether they want to support a motion that would diminish the independence of a House committee and the ability of members of committees to decide upon and manage their own affairs.

On the surface, the idea of creating an electronic petition system may have some appeal in terms of using new technologies to serve our constituents. However, the experience of other jurisdictions suggests that many countries have decided not to implement an electronic petition system and that such a system could become a popularity contest and be open to abuse by special interests. In addition, the cost of implementing a new electronic petition system is a concern during a time of budget constraints.

Finally, I take issue with the wording of the motion as it undermines the principle of House committees being masters of their own affairs.

For these reasons, I am not prepared to support the motion. However, I note that the procedure and House affairs committee will be examining our rules and procedures, and if its members were to agree, the committee could decide to review the effectiveness of our current petition system and whether changes are needed.

Electronic PetitionsPrivate Members' Business

11:20 a.m.


Kevin Lamoureux Liberal Winnipeg North, MB

Mr. Speaker, I must say at the beginning that I am somewhat surprised at the way the government members are responding to this motion. We see before us a motion that would enable Canadians to participate in our process and have the opportunity, through petitions, to express themselves. I am surprised by the arguments being brought forward.

For example, the member from the government who stood before me talked about a significant cost factor. I can assure the member that it would be a fraction of the potential cost of the increase, by the current government, in the number of members of Parliament. The Conservatives are increasing the size of the House of Commons, estimated to cost over $30 million a year. Interestingly, I have a petition on that issue. There has been an overwhelming response from the constituents I represent that we do not need to increase the number of MPs in the House of Commons. I can assure the member that it would cost Canadians a lot more to increase the number of politicians in this House, which is ultimately unnecessary, than it would to allow Canadians the opportunity to be engaged through petitions.

This is really where the government is off base. Why would the Conservatives oppose the opportunity for citizens from across Canada to provide their thoughts on a wide variety of issues that come before this House?

I was at a protest rally at the Manitoba legislature just two days ago. Individuals from Winnipeg, and I suspect from even outside of Winnipeg, came to the Manitoba legislature because they were concerned about what was happening in Ukraine. What is happening in Ukraine today is horrific. It is a slap at fundamental freedoms. The people of Ukraine want to be able to express themselves and to have the right to do so. Some of the actions we have seen in Ukraine go against some of the fundamental principles we often take for granted here. It was interesting that at the rally, one of the calls was to have people attending that rally sign petitions. In fact, I have already submitted, first thing this morning, the names of some of the individuals who signed that petition so that I would be able to stand in my place at some future time, hopefully soon, and express to the floor of the House of Commons the wishes of those individuals who took the time to go to the Manitoba legislature and sign a petition.

What are we asking for here? It is an opportunity for a committee of the House of Commons, on which I sit, to study the issue of electronic petitions. What is wrong with that? What do the Conservatives have against affording the public the ability to participate? On the issue of Ukraine, could members imagine the response if we were allowed to use electronic petitions through the Internet? Hundreds of thousands of Canadians from coast to coast to coast would be able to engage on this one issue alone.

The leader of the Liberal Party constantly talks about going out and meeting and connecting with Canadians and trying to get Canadians engaged. Unlike the Prime Minister of this country, the leader of the Liberal Party is constantly out meeting with Canadians and challenging the government to be more accountable.

This is one of the ways in which Canadians could, in fact, have the opportunity to send messages and participate in the process. Yet the government, for whatever reason, says no, not this time, or it does not want this to move forward. It does not want to provide answers to the types of petitions that might come through electronic means.

The member who spoke before me started off by speaking about accountability, as if the government is more accountable. He talked about his accountability legislation. I have not been here for that long, but with regard to the accountability within this chamber, I would challenge the member or any government member for the way in which the Conservative-Reform government has taken away accountability inside the chamber and limited debate. There are record high numbers of time allocation by the current majority government, unprecedented in Canadian history.

Budget implementation bills have multiplied by hundreds of pages, with numerous pieces of legislation all wrapped up in one bill. Liberals do not have to take any lessons from the current majority government in terms of accountability, because it lacks it in the chamber; and I am disappointed that it does not see the merit of at least allowing the debate of electronic petitioning. I, for one, use petitions a great deal. I afford the constituents of Winnipeg North the opportunity, as much as I can. Quite often in my mailings I encourage people to get engaged in the process by signing petitions.

I have presented petitions on issues such as housing co-ops, the Experimental Lakes Area, refugees, crime prevention, Canada Post, the environment, Elections Canada and robocalls, as well as ethical corporations in developing countries. Of course, one of my favourites was the petition with regard to the government's wanting to increase the age of retirement from 65 to 67. The constituents of Winnipeg North say no to that, and they have been signing petitions to that effect. They value our programs for pensions.

The health accord is going to expire in 2014 and the government has done nothing to support the renewal of a health care accord, which Paul Martin established, that has seen more money delivered to health care than ever before. The government likes to take credit for the amount of money that is going into federal transfers for health care, when it was actually former prime minister Paul Martin. I have a petition that calls on the government to deal with the health care issue.

I made reference to the number of members of Parliament. I talked about the signatures from the Manitoba legislature related to Ukraine. Over the last seven days, someone contacted me about a pet registry petition, which I look forward to presenting. These are petitions that Canadians have seen fit to sign because they believe in what is being reported in those petitions.

How does electronic petitioning hurt democracy here in Canada? We should at least allow it to continue in terms of debate. Let us bring it to the procedure and House affairs committee. I represent the Liberal Party on that committee, and I can say that the Liberal Party, in fact, is very supportive of the concept of electronic petitions. Liberals see it as a way for more Canadians to get involved in our democracy, and that is a good thing. We see that as a healthy thing.

We are asking the government and all members to open their eyes, as hopefully members of the Conservative Party will see the value of at least bringing it to the next step.

I appreciate the opportunity to share a few words with members.

Electronic PetitionsPrivate Members' Business

11:30 a.m.


Laurin Liu NDP Rivière-des-Mille-Îles, QC

Mr. Speaker, thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak to Motion No. 428 about e-petitions. This initiative was put forward by my NDP colleague from Burnaby—Douglas, a meticulous and effective parliamentarian, and a champion of democracy.

I would like to begin by pointing out that the Conservative government has a very poor record when it comes to democratic participation. First, the Conservatives tried to prevent citizens from participating in environmental assessments. Then they muzzled scientists and librarians. After that, they started a witch hunt against environmental organizations that oppose their policies.

The NDP believes that citizens should have the opportunity to participate in democracy, to intervene and to express their opinions about the government's policies. This motion, which encourages citizen involvement, is in line with our philosophy.

I would like to explain how the system works now. As we all know, petitions have always been a key part of our democratic system. People use petitions to draw Parliament's attention to a problem.

Right now, electronic petitions cannot be presented in the House of Commons by members because they do not comply with the Standing Orders. As a result, the government is not required to provide an official response to e-petitions the way it does to paper-based petitions.

Motion No. 428 recommends updating the rules governing the format of petitions and studying the possibility of letting e-petitions trigger a debate in the House of Commons once a certain number of signatures have been collected and if at least five members sponsor a petition.

Clearly, the Standing Orders need updating. The House of Commons has to get with the times and take into account what Canadians are thinking now that they are making increasing use of electronic means to communicate and join forces on political issues. We have to give people more ways to participate in their democracy; we have to adapt democracy to 21st-century realities. If we do not, Parliament will become more and more useless, perhaps even insignificant. Anyone who looks at the other chamber, the Senate, will see that is true.

Right now, thousands of Canadians feel left out and powerless when it comes to decisions made in the House. I happen to agree. The current rules have led to a growing divide between people and the government.

The numbers speak for themselves. According to an online survey of Canadians carried out by Samara in December 2012, only 55% of Canadians report being satisfied with the way democracy works in Canada. This number is going down, since it used to be 75% in 2004. To combat this democratic deficit, we need to start listening to Canadians again. They need to feel that their voices are being heard.

I will digress for a moment to point out that this is why we are calling for reform of the Elections Act. We need to give more powers to Elections Canada, so that it can more effectively combat election fraud.

We have been seeing the worst kinds of abuse from the Conservative Party in recent years. For example, there were the misleading phone calls to deny voters their right to vote; the bending of the rules on political party funding, which is known as the Conservative in and out scandal; and the election schemes of the former Conservative minister from Labrador, who failed to declare election expenses. Furthermore, the current member for Peterborough is facing four charges in court regarding overspending during the 2008 election campaign.

These despicable actions are alienating Canadians from politics, since they get the impression that they do not really have a say in the matter. They come to believe that the only things taken seriously are the interests of the Conservative Party's big contributors and their friends.

I could also talk about the need to change our voting system to make sure that every vote counts. Many changes need to be made to our electoral and parliamentary system, but I will save that for another day because my time is short.

More fundamentally, we need to fix the Elections Act to regain Canadians' trust. It is also important to change the rules governing how our parliamentary institutions operate so that we can better connect with Canadians. Petition reform is part of that overall plan. Unlike the Conservatives, we want more than ever to strengthen Canadian democracy and to do everything we can to get Canadians involved in the debates that affect them because, ultimately, this is their House of Commons. We want to give Canadians a chance to have a say in Parliament's agenda. That is why Motion No. 428, which was moved by the hon. member for Burnaby—Douglas, calls for the use of electronic petitions in the House. I wish to make it clear, however, that we do not want to do away with the current Standing Order with regard to paper petitions. Both paper and electronic petitions will be accepted.

I can attest to the fact that my colleague has done an excellent job of garnering support within all political parties. On the left, former NDP leader Ed Broadbent supported the initiative by saying:

Bringing electronic petitioning to the House of Commons is a 21st Century idea and one I fully endorse. Empowering Canadians to come together and help set the Parliamentary agenda will breathe fresh air into our democracy.

My colleague also had the support of Preston Manning, a well-known political figure in our country, who clearly stated:

To be able to petition one's elected representatives, and to have such petitions addressed, is one of the oldest and most basic of democratic rights. Affirming and re-establishing this right in the 21st century through electronic petitioning is an idea well worth pursuing.

Similarly, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation welcomes this motion:

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation applauds this worthy initiative from the member [for Burnaby—Douglas] to kick-start Parliament on accepting electronic signatures on petitions. When taxpayers get the opportunity to go online and sign an official petition to Parliament, they'll be able to get the attention of Ottawa politicians in a hurry. We also support the [member's] suggestion that 50,000 Canadians signing a petition and 5 MPs should be able to force a debate in Parliament. This would help restore some grassroots democracy and accountability on Parliament Hill.

According to an Angus Reid poll conducted in March 2013, Canadians, including my constituents, widely support the principles of Motion No. 418. The pollster found that 81% of Canadians either support or strongly support the use of electronic petitions as a way to present their concerns to the federal government. It is important to understand that this motion represents real progress towards improving Canadian democracy and the vitality of our participatory institutions.

Promoting and adopting this motion are one more step towards creating a healthier, more transparent democracy. This is a tangible step with clear and demonstrable repercussions on how important issues are represented in parliamentary debates. It will also allow us to productively channel the widespread discontent regarding Canadian democracy and many of its institutions, including the Senate, where the Conservatives are now showing their true colours. I think it is absolutely crucial that our constituents be included in the political process, and such a motion would be one of the best ways to encourage them to actively participate in our public debates.

I urge my colleagues to support this motion in order to lead off the debate on the future of electronic petitions in our country.

Electronic PetitionsPrivate Members' Business

11:40 a.m.


Robert Aubin NDP Trois-Rivières, QC

Mr. Speaker, this is the first time I have risen to speak in 2014. Allow me, respectfully, to wish you a good year, in the hope that our democratic institutions will increase in value, which has absolutely not been the case in previous years.

The motion we are discussing this morning could be an excellent way to get back on track.

I would also like to wish an excellent year to my fellow MPs and to all Canadians and Quebeckers, who I hope might once again be proud of their politicians because of the quality of the debates that we engage in throughout this new year.

When I was elected in 2011, I was determined to improve our democracy. I still am. The desire to change the way politics is done continues to drive my political involvement. It is not so easy to change things in this honourable institution, Canada's Parliament, but I am not one to give up on my goals so quickly.

The subject we are discussing this morning is quite the paradox between tradition and the need to modernize our political institution.

Hon. members also know that I am a teacher by profession and that engaging young people in public debate is one of my priorities. I, like many others, was disappointed to see that voter turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds in the 2011 federal election was 39%, which was well below the national voter turnout of 59%. That is not a spectacular number either, but it is far better.

There are likely a number of reasons for this that deserve our attention. In my riding, Trois-Rivières, I was surprised to learn that political debate seems undesirable at the university, where student associations—NDP, Conservative, Liberal, PQ, whatever the political stripe—do not seem to be welcome.

How are we supposed to engage young people and prepare a new generation of active citizens when political debate is considered suspect or dangerous? I must admit that I have a problem with that attitude and the fact that many public places are not open to political debate.

Now that the opportunity is here to explore this issue, I am very pleased to speak to Motion No. 428 on electronic petitions moved by my colleague, the member for Burnaby—Douglas.

Mr. Speaker, like the vast majority of us, you have a Facebook page, a Twitter account, a YouTube channel and a website. I know because I checked.

All of these digital tools are useful in helping us accomplish some of our work as parliamentarians. They allow us to share our ideas, our values and our vision for the Canada of tomorrow. Much of our work and that of our assistants is visible on social media.

I have, at times, had the pleasure of working with the longest-serving member of the House, the member for Bas-Richelieu—Nicolet—Bécancour. He told me that when he began his career, he did not have any of these tools, not even a cell phone. Today, politicians would be at a loss without these tools. As time moved on, we adapted to new technology and the purpose it can serve. I believe there is more to be done.

These platforms serve as more than just a means of spreading our political message and doing politics. We also need social media and the Internet to communicate with all of our constituents, all of the groups that wish to be in contact with us and those interested in the debates taking place in our democracy. We use digital media every day in order to speak with our constituents, no matter which party we belong to or what our ideas are.

In just a few short years, democracy has gone online. Long speeches in the public square are becoming increasingly rare. Even more rare is an entire town or community gathering together to listen to us. The relationship between parliamentarians and constituents has been transformed and there is no going back. The town square is virtual now, and we need to keep up with the times if we want to connect with the people we claim to serve.

My colleague's motion acknowledges that transformation and sheds some light on the issue. The idea is that if we, as parliamentarians, can make frequent use of digital tools to share our thoughts, why is the public not also able to use technology to connect with us?

In other words, we are constantly reaching out, trying to convince them of our ideas, but they cannot influence our debates or our agenda by taking advantage of progress in electronic communications.

It is almost hypocritical of us, and we need to try to change that. That is exactly what this motion is about. What my colleague is proposing in this motion is quite simple. He is proposing that the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs recommend changes to the Standing Orders so as to establish an electronic petitioning system in Canada, while maintaining the existing paper-based petition system. The committee would present a report to the House sometime in the next year. Among other things, the member's motion recommends that the committee consider the possibility of holding debates in the House of Commons, similar to take note debates, once a certain threshold of signatures is reached. For example, 50,000 signatures on an electronic petition is a considerable number. I think it is a rather serious problem if members do not feel that an issue with such support must be addressed. In addition, five members of Parliament would have to agree to sponsor or support the petition in question.

Electronic petitioning systems are nothing new. An increasing number of democracies are embracing this new way of doing things to revitalize the relationship between the work of parliamentarians and constituents. Need I remind members that our Parliament does not always have a good reputation and that our institution has been harshly criticized by Canadians? The Senate scandals and the Conservative government's inability to address the related issues are fueling people's cynicism about both chambers of Parliament. I am confident that any initiative that would reaffirm and restore Canadians' trust in our work is a step forward, a step in the right direction for our democracy.

As I was saying, electronic petitioning systems are nothing new. They are already in use in Quebec and the United Kingdom, and the results are quite promising. We would do well to take a closer look at them. In the British system, for example, petitions supported by at least 100,000 signatures trigger a debate. However, this new way of doing things has not made any significant changes to procedures or the rigour of the work. Members do not have to be concerned that our agenda will be disrupted by the tabling of a huge number of petitions. Although electronic petitions with over 50,000 signatures are not unheard of, they all draw attention to important issues.

According to an Angus Reid poll, this motion already has support from a wide range of stakeholder groups and 81% of the population. We are talking about 81%. In what survey will you find more than 80% of Canadians and Quebeckers agreeing on an issue? It is clear that Canadians and Quebeckers want to see our systems modernized. This reflects their growing expectation that the House of Commons pay more attention to movements of opinion across the entire country.

I have two examples. First, I want to talk about Marie-Hélène Dubé, a Quebec woman who decided to start a national petition after her third reoccurrence of thyroid cancer. Her petition calls on the federal government to amend section 12 of the Employment Insurance Act, which is 40 years old, to ensure that people with serious illnesses can receive more than 15 weeks of benefits, which is what they receive now. As we speak, this national petition has collected around 430,000 signatures.

I would also like to talk about Sylvie Therrien's online petition. Ms. Dubé developed a rather onerous technique that means people have to sign the paper version of the petition and print it, so that it can be submitted in the House. Ms. Therrien, who had a different experience, also has thousands of signatures on her petition, but unfortunately, it cannot be submitted to the House.

In conclusion, I want to quickly say that this is a tangible measure that will have a clear and demonstrable impact on the way issues that are important to Canadians are represented in parliamentary debates. This proposal would also be a proactive way to combat the widespread discontent with respect to Canadian democracy and many of its institutions, including the Senate.

Therefore, I fully support my colleague's motion. I hope that in 2014, the Canadian Parliament can join the 21st century and agree to hear from the people of this country through electronic petitions.

Electronic PetitionsPrivate Members' Business

11:50 a.m.


The Deputy Speaker NDP Joe Comartin

I would advise the hon. member that in order for the sponsor of this motion to exercise his five-minute right of reply, the member for Victoria will only have nine minutes of debate.

Electronic PetitionsPrivate Members' Business

11:50 a.m.


Murray Rankin NDP Victoria, BC

Mr. Speaker, I am delighted to be participating in this debate.

I want to congratulate my friend and colleague from Burnaby—Douglas for this initiative. In a former life he was a professor of public policy at Simon Fraser University, where he studied the very issues that are before us today. I commend him for bringing them to the House of Commons.

If ever there were a non-partisan issue, I would have thought it would be this one. It is trying to improve our democracy, trying to enhance the participation by people from all walks of life in Canada, and in particular the young people. I will come to that in a moment.

What I would like to do first today is to describe what I understand this motion to be, and what it is not, despite some people characterizing it as such, and to talk about, if I may, the objections that might be raised to an initiative like this. I hope we can persuade all colleagues to agree that this is an initiative that is long past due in our country.

The clear intent is to modernize our long-standing tradition of citizen petitioning of their government. That has been done to date only in paper form. What we have is a transformative technology called the Internet that has changed so many aspects of our lives. Young people come to me in my riding of Victoria and say “Well, why do you not use the Internet? Why do you have to sign the petitions? Why can I not just send an email?”

Young people basically cannot understand why this is not already in place. They particularly cannot understand when I advise them that it has been the case in other modern democracies, like Great Britain, where it is working well, and in Quebec, the Northwest Territories and other places. They look at me and ask, “What is wrong with you? Why do you not harness this communication tool that has been made available?”

Canadians are among the most plugged in people on the planet, and it is getting to be more and more the case that Canadians utilize the Internet. Why can we not use electronic petitions?

This motion does not do much more than say that we should get the relevant committee, the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs to examine this, not to replace paper petitions but to enhance the ability of citizens to participate by way of electronic petitions, and to consider a number of things as well, which I will come to.

This initiative comes within a broader context of parliamentary reform initiatives, such as the private member's bill introduced by the member of Parliament for Wellington—Halton Hills. His proposed reform act of 2013 was designed to reinforce the principles of responsible government by which the executive branch is accountable to the legislative branch of the government. This is just one manifestation of the hunger in our democracy for parliamentary reform and for bringing our institutions, of which Canadians should be very proud, into the 21st century to enhance and make our democracy more vibrant.

We hear people talking about other reform initiatives. The NDP has proudly been in favour of proportional representation for many years. I believe that will go some distance, along with the reform initiatives of the hon. member for Wellington—Halton Hills. This electronic petitions initiative must be understood in the broader context of that reality. People want this.

The recommendation in this motion is that the procedures committee consider the possibility of triggering a debate in the House, something like a take note debate, once a certain number of signatures, such as the proposed 50,000 that we have heard, have been obtained. What is a take note debate? For those watching, it may not be clear. Historically a minister moves a motion which includes the words “that the House take note” of something. It is designed to solicit the views of members on some aspects of government policy. It does not usually come to a vote. We have used it very effectively on issues such as peacekeeping commitments, NORAD, missile testings, and the war in Kosovo. These are all examples where this has been used.

A take note debate is all that would be triggered under this motion. It is not a direct democracy initiative. It enhances our parliamentary procedures.

The problem is that such online petitions cannot be tabled in the House of Commons under our rules. That is why we are debating this. The United Kingdom has a threshold of 100,000 signatures before a take note debate may be triggered.

Based on the population differential between Canada and the United Kingdom, 50,000 signatures has been proposed. That may well be the right number, but the committee should examine that and give us its response.

Many from every side of the political spectrum have validated this, ranging from Mr. Preston Manning to Mr. Ed Broadbent. We have heard from many equality-seeking groups, such as Egale Canada, which have strongly supported this, all the way to the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, a group that I often do not have a meeting of minds with at the finance committee. However, the federation is completely behind this as well, as are so many other groups.

In an effort to persuade all members to get onside with this reform initiative, I want to talk about what the objections to such an initiative might be.

The kind of objections that have been brought forward, and for which I am indebted to the member for Burnaby—Douglas, are as follows. Maybe the initiative will be costly. What is the experience in other countries? Will frivolous issues be generated as a consequence of these electronic petitions? Perhaps the wording of the motion is problematic.

I will examine those in the time available because we need to disabuse members of those concerns.

First, on the cost side, the member for Burnaby—Douglas has talked to a number of members of political science departments and has used the Library of Parliament, and there have been no cost concerns. In Quebec and the Northwest Territories existing resources are mostly used. There has been no concern of that kind.

Second, the experience in other countries has been uniformly positive. The Library of Parliament reported back that no jurisdiction has ever put an e-petition in place and then taken it out. Once enacted, it seems to have gone well. Indeed, a recent House of Commons committee in the U.K. studied it and reported back the following:

The system introduced by the Government has proven to be very popular and has already provided the subjects for a number of lively and illuminating debates.

That does not sound as if the U.K. government wants to get rid of it.

As for frivolous matters being a concern, the point is that five members of Parliament would have to look at the petition. It would also require a certain threshold of signatures. That should be an effective check of any abuse.

With respect to the question of the wording being too prescriptive, as some say, that does not seem to be the case if we examine similar motions.

Therefore, by way of conclusion, I would urge all members of the House to reform our parliamentary institutions to allow a more vibrant, participatory democracy and to take advantage of the technology of the Internet to enhance all of our parliamentary traditions.

Electronic PetitionsPrivate Members' Business

11:55 a.m.


Kennedy Stewart NDP Burnaby—Douglas, BC

Mr. Speaker, it is a great pleasure to speak here in the early days of the new year.

Let me begin by thanking all hon. members for participating in this debate on my motion to bring electronic petitions to Parliament. I think the spirit of the debate has been respectful. What I will try to do in my five minutes is to give some more information that might help members decide to support this.

I believe that we all want to find practical ways to make Parliament more accessible for our constituents. My motion is in the spirit of what I see as an emerging trend of cross-partisan efforts to reform Canadian politics.

Next week, we will vote on a measure by the member for Saskatoon—Humboldt regarding committee reform. We will also soon consider Bill C-599, the reform act, put forward by the hon. member for Wellington—Halton Hills. I am proud to say that I have jointly seconded both of these efforts. In fact, I view these three proposals as somewhat of a package that would bring real change to how we do business in this place.

It appears that this cross-partisan spirit is infectious. Former reform party leader Preston Manning and former NDP leader Ed Broadbent have endorsed my e-petitions motion, as have the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Moreover, as my colleagues mentioned, Canadians want electronic petitions. An Angus Reid poll shows that over 80% of Canadians support bringing electronic petitioning to Parliament.

Again, though, my motion is just one step in the larger process. I would like to say that what I am proposing here is only a study. This is not a motion to bring e-petitions to Parliament; it is a motion to study this before we move to bringing e-petitions to Parliament. It is a study on how we might implement electronic petitioning only to supplement our current paper-based system.

If it is the will of the House to modernize our democracy in this simple way, then it would be the responsibility of the procedure and House affairs committee to conduct this study and make recommendations as to how we would best accomplish this goal.

It has been suggested that perhaps I should have introduced a bill rather than a motion. However, the respective procedures of this House are such that that Standing Orders are usually amended using motions. That is why I used this method. More important, the best laws and rules are often only reached after careful consideration and consultation. An in-depth committee study would allow us to hear from experts in civil society to ensure that we get this right. That is important.

The issue of costs has been brought up a number of times. I have asked the Library of Parliament to look into how much it would cost if we decided to move ahead with these reforms. These costs would not be onerous at all.

As my colleague said, the National Assembly in Quebec has looked at this. It reports that their e-petition system was developed and is maintained through existing resources. So there are no extra costs.

In the Northwest Territories, the initial start-up cost was $8,000. However, the year-to-year cost is only $800. So it is a very low-cost way to bring thousands, if not millions, of people into this process.

It might actually save money as well, because it might reduce the burden upon MPs who are now inundated with hundreds of electronic petitions that we cannot present here in the House but that we have to sift through and reply to.

In the U.K. and in the U.S., citizens can create an account, and once their identity is verified they can sign on to whatever petitions they choose. That might be something we would choose to do here. Again, it would give people an official way to get into the process and, once registered, they could do it over and over again.

Some members have expressed to me their concerns about my idea of building in a safeguard of having five MPs sign on to any petition receiving sufficient signatures to trigger a take-note-style debate. They think perhaps five members is not enough. However, the procedure and House affairs committee could certainly sort that out and might conclude that maybe 10 MPs would be the proper number.

Electronic PetitionsPrivate Members' Business

11:55 a.m.

An hon. member

Why not?

Electronic PetitionsPrivate Members' Business



Kennedy Stewart NDP Burnaby—Douglas, BC

Why not? This is what a committee does. Again, if it wants to safeguard the House of Commons through this debate, that is a very good way to do it.

In conclusion, a lot of countries use electronic petitions. I feel that Canada is behind. No country has ever shut down an e-petitioning system once it has been installed. Every single legislature that has adopted this innovation has been sufficiently satisfied to keep it.

If we went ahead with the study and implemented this initiative, it would better our democracy, I feel. It would allow northern and rural Canadians to overcome geographic challenges to better access their legislature.

I ask all reform-minded MPs to join me in taking this small practical step to improve our democracy by supporting the motion.

Electronic PetitionsPrivate Members' Business



The Deputy Speaker NDP Joe Comartin

That brings to a conclusion the debate on this motion.

The question is on the motion. Is it the pleasure of the House to adopt the motion?

Electronic PetitionsPrivate Members' Business

12:05 p.m.

Some hon. members



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12:05 p.m.


The Deputy Speaker NDP Joe Comartin

All those in favour of the motion will please say yea.

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12:05 p.m.

Some hon. members


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12:05 p.m.


The Deputy Speaker NDP Joe Comartin

All those opposed will please say nay.

Electronic PetitionsPrivate Members' Business

12:05 p.m.

Some hon. members


Electronic PetitionsPrivate Members' Business

12:05 p.m.


The Deputy Speaker NDP Joe Comartin

In my opinion the yeas have it.

And five or more members having risen:

Pursuant to Standing Order 93 the division stands deferred until Wednesday, January 29, immediately before the time provided for private members' business.

Votes on Bills C-475 and C-513Electronic PetitionsPrivate Members' Business

12:05 p.m.


The Deputy Speaker NDP Joe Comartin

I would like to inform the House that, pursuant to Standing Order 94, the divisions on Bill C-475, An Act to amend the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (order-making power), and Bill C-513, An Act to promote and strengthen the Canadian retirement income system, stand deferred until Wednesday, January 29, 2014, immediately before the time provided for private members' business.

The House resumed from November 28 consideration of the motion that Bill C-2, an act to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, be read the second time and referred to a committee, and of the motion that this question be now put.

Respect for Communities ActGovernment Orders

12:05 p.m.


Nathan Cullen NDP Skeena—Bulkley Valley, BC

Mr. Speaker, before I begin my comments on Bill C-2, I would like to welcome you and all my colleagues back to the House of Commons from the weeks we had with our constituents and families. I hope everyone had an informative and restful time away from the House, because the debate about the future of the country begins again.

One always hopes, coming out of a time when politicians are separated by great distances and surrounded by friends and family, that we would return to find a new spirit from the government, a spirit in which we could start to renew and rebuild Canada and perhaps find some common ground in order to make our country a better place, which I believe we all begin our political careers hoping for.

Unfortunately, after a very productive debate we just had on a democratic motion from one of the New Democratic members about e-petitions and restoring and enhancing democracy in our Parliament, for which we hope to see some Conservative support, we now move over to an incredibly offensive piece of legislation. This is the first one the Conservatives felt they needed to call. They often have trouble naming their pieces of legislation accurately. We have seen them time and time again borrow from the worst aspects of our neighbours in the south, particularly the Republican Party, which uses the naming of bills to inappropriately stir up feelings and emotions within the public and inaccurately reflect what is actually being proposed in the legislation. We have that here with Bill C-2. An appropriate name for the bill would be “Bill C-2, shutting down InSite”. This is essentially what the bill is meant to do.

For those who are not familiar with InSite, it has become something that the Conservatives constantly and almost vehemently oppose. It is a program run out of the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, one of the most troubled communities in the entire country but also one of our most resilient communities. I spent some time working with people who have been positively affected by InSite, a program started a number of years ago in the nineties. It is a safe injection site and the only safe injection site in Canada.

I know some of my Conservative colleagues who choose ignorance over the facts will use this as some sort of culture war rallying cry, raising money and potentially securing votes by misinforming the people they represent. However, they cannot misinform themselves during the course of this debate, because the facts sit before us. They can choose to have their own opinions, but they cannot choose to have their own facts. What we see in this piece of legislation directly goes against science. It goes against the facts of the matter and the principles that we, at least in the New Democratic Party, think are important. Therefore, I am disappointed that this legislation continues to receive support from the Prime Minister and the Conservative Party. I am not surprised, unfortunately.

However, I am also encouraged because it allows us to talk about such important things as public safety and the health of Canadians. InSite was at the time, and remains, a cutting-edge program, a bold initiative to try to tackle a problem that has been plaguing a community for many years. It is one that has received support, at least in British Columbia and Vancouver, from both ends of the political spectrum. Very conservative mayors and more progressive mayors, like Mayor Robertson, have supported this initiative over the years. It forms one pillar of the four-pillar approach in Vancouver, which has taken on a challenge.

As you know, Mr. Speaker, being from Windsor and having spent some time in Toronto and other Canadian cities, within some of our neighbourhoods there can be a cycle in which crime leads to more crime, open drug use leads to more open drug use, and people stop fighting for their neighbourhoods. They leave. The people we want to move into the community will not do so because they do not feel safe, and communities spin almost out of control. The police are unable to regain a certain amount of public security, and the community ends up looking like one of those communities we fear.

Perhaps there are better examples across the border from your home, Mr. Speaker, in Detroit, where because of economics and social malaise, entire neighbourhoods are essentially being bulldozed because no one wants to live there.

It costs communities not only the hardship, but many millions and billions of dollars in the end. The Downtown Eastside has seen a renewal and revitalization owing not just in part to InSite and the good work the people there do, but also because of many programs that progressive governments have brought to bear in dealing with issues like housing. The Conservative government would perhaps take note that housing is one of the most affordable and most essential components. The renewal has not been complete, but there is certainly an incredible difference from even 15 years ago when I spent some time working in the Downtown Eastside. It is quite amazing.

Let us deal with the bill, because in Bill C-2 the government has found a new love for public consultation and community input. I look to my colleagues to see if they can think of anything else the government has ever done on which the public's opinion has actually mattered. Those of us dealing with the pipeline politics in northern B.C. and the Enbridge northern gateway would love to hear the Conservative government suddenly have some feeling and concern for the opinion of the public.

For those dealing in the Toronto waterfront, such as my friend from Trinity—Spadina, to hear that the Conservative government actually cares what the public thinks would be remarkable. Right across the country we have seen the government time and time again simply invoke measures, as happened when the Prime Minister changed the age of retirement from 65 to 67. I do not remember that he consulted with Canadians and asked for their opinion, but suddenly, when it comes to a safe injection site, the Conservatives ideologically oppose it. Their opposition is not based on any facts or evidence, even though Conservatives say from time to time they have a new-found love for science.

We asked them to help review with us the 30 peer-reviewed articles and medical journals that have studied the effectiveness of InSite. InSite is supported by the Police Association, by the Chiefs of Police, by the Nurses Association, and by the Canadian Medical Association. These must be some of those foreign-funded radical groups the Conservatives are always crying about, these well-respected institutions of our health and public safety in Canada, but each of these studies has shown time and again that this harm reduction strategy has lowered fatalities due to overdose by 35% since its inception.

A caring Conservative would say there are fewer people dying of drug overdose, and it seems like a good thing. A Conservative who is concerned about public safety would also note that crime has dropped precipitously in the same region over the same time. Therefore, the whole idea that safe injection sites in communities cause the crime rate to go through the roof has proven to be the opposite; in fact, the spread of communicable diseases in that community, a serious public safety and public health issue, has also dropped in that same community in which InSite exists.

Not only must we consider the pain and hardship of those who contract these communicable diseases, we must also consider the public purse and what it costs the already strained public system. It should be every government's intention and work to lower the amount of disease spreading in our communities, and drug relapse for those who have participated in this program is significantly lower than it is in any other program in this country. The addicts who go through the InSite program tend not to get back on drugs nearly as frequently as they do after any other detox or remediation program we have.

All those facts together—public safety, the lowering of crime, the lowering of health costs, the encouragement and support of people in Vancouver and British Columbia of all political persuasions for such a program—should open the eyes of the Conservatives just a little bit.

The medical doctors of Canada support this program, the nurses of Canada support this program, and the police in the city and the province support this program. One would think one of those groups would be of interest to Conservatives, but no, that is not the case. What is of interest is fundraising and ideological warfare. We know that when they introduced the bill, it had not even been debated for a minute in the House of Commons before the Conservative Party sent out a fundraiser to its membership asking them to send money for this great bill.

I remember that when the Prime Minister ran for election after being in a position of minority government, he said to give him a majority and not to worry about any agenda he had, because he would be restrained by the courts. In the case of the Supreme Court of Canada, after three trials at the B.C. Supreme Court, the government took the case to the B.C. Court of Appeal and finally to the Supreme Court. What was the cost to taxpayers? I do not know, but it was millions.

Even after the Supreme Court said that this bill violates charter rights, that it may well be unconstitutional, and that the government is arbitrarily undermining the very purposes of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, which includes public health and safety, that is what the government is doing.

It is not a free and conscious clear-thinking government. It is one driven only by ideology, only by fundraising initiatives, and only by blind faith in some sort of world view that absolutely contradicts the facts in front of us.

We will be opposing this legislation at every step of the way.

Respect for Communities ActGovernment Orders

12:15 p.m.

Calgary Centre-North Alberta


Michelle Rempel ConservativeMinister of State (Western Economic Diversification)

Mr. Speaker, welcome back to all of my colleagues. Happy new year—

Respect for Communities ActGovernment Orders

12:15 p.m.

An hon. member

It is Groundhog Day.