Mr. Speaker, I hope you will indulge me for a few minutes. I would like to raise a point of order and seek your guidance on the absolutely outrageous actions of the Conservative majority on the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security yesterday evening. I am raising that first thing this morning, because I believe it is a question that has to be put to you for keen deliberation over the course of the weekend and to provide the House with some guidance on the matter.
Mr. Speaker, as you are well aware, the bible on which our democratic practice and procedure that has evolved over a century and a half in the House comes from House of Commons Procedure and Practice. This is the bible, or the guide to the Speaker's deliberations, that guides all of our deliberations as members of the House of Commons.
In House of Commons Procedure and Practice, on page 1057, is a very important regulation that guides our deliberations and guides the deliberations of committee structures in the House. It is a comment on the framing of the motion for the previous question. I will read for a moment how it is framed in House of Commons Procedure and Practice.
The motion that “The question be now put” is known as the previous question. In the House, the previous question is a debatable motion. When the debate ends, the motion for the previous question is put to a vote. If the motion is carried, the initial motion under consideration is immediately put to the vote in the House.
At committee, and this is on page 1057 of House of Commons Procedure and Practice, it says very clearly:
In committee, motions for the previous question are inadmissible.
That is black and white. There is no way of getting around what is a very clear regulation and very clear guidance that is given to committees. Motions for the previous question are inadmissible. I want to reference for a moment, as well, former Speaker Milliken's ruling on April 2, 2009, when he said:
...committees that overturn procedurally sound decisions by their chairs and choose to present procedurally unacceptable reports to the House will have them declared null and void.
Former Speaker Milliken was very clear that the guidelines, the procedure and practice rules we are governed by that are contained within House of Commons Procedure and Practice, that clearly say that motions for the previous question in committee are inadmissible, are very clear direction to committees. Committees that then overturn procedurally sound decisions by their chairs and choose to present procedurally unacceptable reports will have them declared null and void.
Last night, at the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security, exactly what I have just referenced happened. The Conservative majority on the committee threw out the rule book, threw out a century and a half of traditions that exist in our country and in this Parliament, and took matters into their own hands. The victims, of course, of this are all Canadians concerned about fundamental and sound principles of Canadian democracy and also the committee chair, who is the member for Prince Edward—Hastings.
Last night the majority on the committee simply told the chair that his intention to stick to the rule book was simply not going to be followed by the Conservative majority on the committee. They ignored the rules. They ignored the practice. They ignored all the precedents. They ignored the clear direction, and they overturned a procedurally sound ruling by the chair, showing profound disrespect to the member for Prince Edward—Hastings, even more profound disrespect to the rule book under which we are governed, and perhaps the greatest disrespect to Canadians as a whole. Conservatives threw out those democratic principles, and they threw out the rule book.
By ignoring the rules and forcing their majority will on the committee, the Conservatives have produced what is a real-life incarnation of the tyranny of the majority. The implications are pretty profound for our democracy. In the past, we have seen the government throw away the rule book. We have seen this with the Board of Internal Economy.
However, this was done in a public forum. I think it makes it even more outrageous that this took place in a public forum, in front of the public.
I am going to take a few minutes to recount what happened yesterday evening at the time the member for Northumberland—Quinte West stepped forward and moved a motion that was procedurally unacceptable.
As you know, Mr. Speaker, in the rule book, it is very clear that motions for the previous question are inadmissible. The member for Northumberland—Quinte West, perhaps because he was unaware of the rule book, perhaps because he had not read it, or perhaps because he does not think the rule book applied to him, moved that motion.
The chair, the member for Prince Edward—Hastings, made the following ruling. He said, “ The chair cannot support this motion...due to the fact...that...we have other speakers on the list yet and our practice has been to continue the debate until the speakers are exhausted, and at the time then the motion would be brought forward”.
Very clearly, the member for Prince Edward—Hastings, as the chair of the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security, was following the rule book, and he clearly ruled it out of order.
The member for Northumberland—Quinte West then threw out the rule book and challenged the chair.
Now, at that point, the member for St. John's East stepped up and said, “I don't think that the overruling of the chair makes a motion” which was clearly inadmissible, “in order”. You know that when one moves a motion that is inadmissible, one simply cannot just overrule the chair. They cannot throw out the rule book.
At that point, the chair, following interventions from the Conservative majority, pushed ahead just the same.
The member for Alfred-Pellan also intervened to request clarification. She asked the chair if there was no longer any right to debate the amendment to the amendment or the main motion between votes. The chair replied that that was indeed the case.
Mr. Speaker, what happened yesterday was that a clearly inadmissible motion, one that is clearly prohibited by the rule book, was ruled out of order, quite properly, by the chair, and the Conservative majority said, “The rules do not apply to us. We are just going to use our majority on this committee, and we are going to simply bulldoze through something that is clearly inadmissible, something that violates the principles, the democratic principles, under which we are governed and the rules that all of us, all members of Parliament, are supposed to follow”.
It is not just that they ruled what is inadmissible admissible, throwing out the rule book. They also eliminated any debate, as the member for Alfred-Pellan stated very clearly, after the Conservative majority tried to push through on this. It also eliminated any debate whatsoever on the amendment and on the main motion.
This is not some minor bill the Conservatives have brought forward. This is Bill C-51. This is a bill that has growing concern across the country about what it would mean to our democracy, what it would mean to democratic rights and freedoms. There have been questions raised in this House repeatedly. No answers have been forthcoming from the government.
This is a bill that, in many people's minds, including former prime ministers and Supreme Court justices, would be a danger to Canadian fundamental precepts of Canadian democracy.
To throw out the rule book on the debate on Bill C-51 and the extent to which, actually, Canadians would be consulted on the bill at the committee stage is no minor matter. This is a fundamental principle of Canadian democracy.
On this side of the House, as New Democrats, we believe that Canadians are entitled to add their voices on Bill C-51 and that the experts are entitled to come forward and provide their recommendations on Bill C-51. We believe that this is a fundamental bill that could, in a very dangerous way, impact fundamental rights and freedoms in Canada, and we believe that Canadians have the right to be heard on the bill. That is what we believe on this side of the House.
This is an important study. The freedom of committees, as you know, Mr. Speaker, is circumscribed by our rule book, House of Commons Procedure and Practice, which is what all of us, as members of Parliament, are supposed to follow,.
As you know, Mr. Speaker, Standing Order 116 says very clearly, as well:
In a standing, special or legislative committee, the Standing Orders shall apply so far as may be applicable, except the Standing Orders as to the election of a Speaker, seconding of motions, limiting the number of times of speaking and the length of speeches.
Since committees are regarded as creatures of the House, Standing Order 116 provides that the rules of the House have force in committees, so far as they are applicable. A member may speak on issues before a committee, and that is very clearly delineated in Standing Order 116.
However, it is also the precedents in the past. In the past, but perhaps not in events as outrageous as what we saw last night at the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security, we have had issues with conduct in committees that have been brought to the House, and Speakers have made rulings on them. As well, for the guidance you will be giving us in the coming days, Mr. Speaker, I want to restate some of the Speakers' rulings and some of the comments previous Speakers have made on committee actions.
First, Speaker Milliken, on March 29, 2007, said the following:
At the present time, the chair occupants, like our counterparts in House committees, daily face the challenge of dealing with the pressures of a minority government, but neither the political realities of the moment nor the sheer force of numbers should force us to set aside the values inherent in the parliamentary conventions and procedures by which we govern our deliberations.
Hon. members are all aware of situations in committees of this Parliament where, because decisions of the chair are subject to appeal, decisions that were procedurally sound have been overturned by the majority on a committee
.....All the more reason then for the Chair to exercise its awesome responsibility carefully and to ensure that the House does not, in the heat of the moment, veer dangerously off course.
Speaker Milliken also, on March 14, 2008, said:
The Speaker must remain ever mindful of the first principles of our parliamentary tradition which Bourinot described thus: “To protect the minority and restrain the improvidence and tyranny of the majority, to secure the transaction of public business in a decent and orderly manner—”
As well, Speaker Milliken, on April 2, 2009, as I mentioned earlier, said:
As explained in House of Commons Procedure and Practice at page 857, decisions of committee chairs may be appealed to the committee. However, as I noted in rulings on March 14, 2008 and May 15, 2008, committees that overturn procedurally sound decisions by their chairs and choose to present procedurally unacceptable reports to the House will have them declared null and void.
Finally, Speaker Fraser, on November 28, 1990, had this to say:
I have to say to hon. members and to the public that the workings of committees is very important to the working of the House of Commons. I do ask hon. colleagues to make every effort possible to come to whatever agreements and understandings among themselves which are necessary to make these committees work.
I do not want to state this too often, and I hope that I will not have to, but there is a general feeling across the country that somehow or other not only politicians, but maybe institutions, are letting down the country. This is why it is essential that everybody make an extra effort to try to make this system work.
I am not happy with this situation, obviously. But, I am also bound by rules here and if I am to intervene in committees, it has to be in a very severe and outrageous situation indeed.
I would submit that this is an absolutely outrageous situation, that the rules under which we are governed were clearly violated yesterday, and that the chair made a procedurally sound decision, based on the fact that motions for the previous question are inadmissible.
Even more so, motions for the previous question eliminate all questions at once. With a sleight of hand, it simply eliminates any ability for opposition members of Parliament to speak on that issue at all.
What could be next? If the tyranny of the majority means that at any time a procedurally sound decision made by a chair of a committee can be overturned by a Conservative majority, what is to stop Conservatives from saying that opposition members have no right to speak at all, or that opposition members have no right to appear at committee? At what point are they going to stop this tyranny of the majority?
There is absolutely no doubt that what happened last night was a travesty. It ripped up the rule book on a fundamental piece of law that Canadians are becoming increasingly concerned about. I have no doubt that the government does not want debate on this bill. The more there is debate, the more Canadians are calling into question how this bill was put together and the vague language and loopholes that can lead to dangerous precedents in our country. There is no doubt about that. However, they do not have the right to completely shut down debate. They do not have the right to move procedurally wrong motions, to overrule the chair when the chair is ruling, having followed the rule book in the interest of Canadian democracy, and they do not have the right to simply shut down debate.
Mr. Speaker, I am asking for guidance from you in the coming days. The House has an objective referee, and so should committees. When committee chairs make procedurally sound rulings following the rule book, they should be respected. Rules are there for a reason. The implications of allowing a wild west in committees in the final 11 weeks of Parliament are simply too serious to even contemplate at this point.
I ask for the Speaker's guidance on what was an outrageous action by the Conservative majority last night at the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security, and, as a member of the opposition, I also ask for his guidance as a Canadian. What happened last night was a travesty. It was outrageous, and it should not be permitted. We ask for the Speaker's wisdom and guidance so that these kinds of instances do not occur again.