Mr. Speaker, I rise to respond to the point of order that was raised this morning by the opposition House leader. At the outset, I want to reserve the right to come back and provide some further submissions. I have had a little more than an hour to prepare a response. Most of that time I have actually spent in the chamber for statements by members, question period and now routine proceedings. Therefore, I may wish to come back.
However, I want to provide you with an initial response, Mr. Speaker. What you are being asked to do is to interfere in the affairs of a committee and as we all know, committees are masters of their own process.
However, the real issue is whether MPs will be allowed to study and consider the anti-terrorism bill that is before the House, Bill C-51, or can the opposition, by endless speeches and obstruction, obstruct such a bill and prevent it from ever being studied or passed. Let us call it a tyranny of the minority.
There is a paradox here. The opposition members say that they want to have extensive study of the bill, yet at the same time they will not let it happen. The real objective is to filibuster and to block the bill. We on the government side think the bill is important. We are very open to discussion. We are open to study, but we do want to see the bill become law in this Parliament.
Every week we have stories of new attacks that are taking place and that are inspired or called upon, or actually undertaken, by ISIS, the Islamic State. It continues to increase the tempo of that. That is after the specific ISIL inspired attacks in Canada on October 20 and 22. We also have recent reports, with increasing tempo again, of foreign fighters, people leaving our country to join ISIL. Also alarming, we have again had recent reports of other jihadist groups, al Shabaab being the most recent one, making public calls for terrorist attacks on Canadian civilians on Canadian soil.
Needless to say, in that context, there is a need for government and for this Parliament to take action. Having identified that there are gaps and additional things we could do to protect Canadians, there really is a duty upon us to do that and to allow that to happen. That speaks to the need to take action and to provide Canadians with those additional protections we have identified.
We are in a situation where time actually does matter. Endless delay and obstruction can have a cost and that can be a very high cost indeed.
Let us be clear about what the New Democratic Party was doing. The New Democrats have said it in their own words. In yesterday's communications they repeatedly indicated that what they were engaging in was a filibuster. I have one tweet here that was put out by the New Democratic Party. I will substitute the names for constituencies. It says, the member for Alfred-Pellen, a New Democrat, “happening now...is standing up to the Prime Minister and filibustering Bill C-51”. That is what was said, not asking for more witnesses, but rather filibustering.
Similarly, Shawn Dearn, who is the director of communications for the Leader of the Opposition, tweeted out that the member for Alfred-Pellan “is fighting for your rights and freedoms right now...by filibustering Bill C51”.
Similarly, the New Democratic Party headquarters put out a similar statement that the member for Alfred-Pellan “is fighting for our rights and freedoms right now by filibustering Bill C-51”.
The member for Skeena—Bulkley Valley cited the same thing, “standing up for rights and filibustering”.
This is clear evidence of that what the committee was dealing with was not considered debate and discussion, but rather filibustering.
What is filibustering? There are probably some normal people at home who are not familiar with that world and they should be made familiar with it. I will give them some indications.
The Gage Canadian Dictionary, the Canadian definition of it, defines filibuster as “the deliberate hindering of the passage of a bill in a legislature by long speeches or other means of delay”.
The Webster dictionary, a slightly smaller version, defines it as “a member of a legislature who obstructs a bill by making long speeches”.
The Oxford dictionary, which is my preferred dictionary, defines it as “prolonged speaking or other action which obstructs progress in a legislative assembly while not technically contravening the required procedures”. Then it says the origin is from the French “flibustier”, first applied to pirates who pillaged the Spanish colonies in the West Indies. I like that.
In any event, what was taking place at that committee was a filibuster, and that certainly then leaves us with the question of what are committees to do when faced with such filibuster efforts by one individual or a minority to prevent them from engaging in their work, to obstruct, to block, as those definitions show, a bill from passage, to prevent that tyranny of the minority from happening.
The question is, what is the appropriate balance? In this case we are talking about a committee that had met for two days after Bill C-51 was sent to it by the House to debate and discuss process. I have heard they went on as many as 10 hours to discuss these questions of process. At what point do they get past that and actually begin engaging in the study that everybody claims is so important? Certainly opposition members keeps claiming they want more of it, but they keep using up the time for other things, for this filibuster of which they are so proud and so fond.
I would submit in the simplest terms, Mr. Speaker, that you are being asked to intervene by the official opposition members to give them a blank cheque, an unlimited right to be able to filibuster and forever prevent members of that committee of the House of Commons from debating the bill, from being able to hear witnesses, that they should have an unlimited right to block and filibuster without end. It would be an extraordinary thing for you to step in, Mr. Speaker, and provide them with such right and to do so in the context of a bill so critical to the public safety of Canadians, so critical to protecting their lives at a time when we know that every week the people who have targeted Canada are killing people, killing innocents around the world and they have identified and targeted Canadians to do exactly that.
To get into the dry legalese of my submissions in terms of the rules, I will continue by pointing out that the meeting we are talking about was one designed to deal with the organization, simply the discussion and debate of how the bill should be processed by the committee and what witnesses it should hear.
At the meeting yesterday, which was held in public, the committee debated a Conservative motion, then the New Democratic amendment and then a Conservative subamendment. This was all part and parcel of the normal iterative dialogue which happens at committees. It is a normal thing when they seek to schedule business. However, that iterative process, that back and forth discussion and debate, simply stopped when the NDP refused to engage in any further serious effort toward a productive discussion and launched into a filibuster.
At that point, it went over six hours of debate on just the subamendment yesterday. That is the point at which it was clear there was no discussion and it was, as the public statements started coming out at that point, just about filibustering. It was becoming increasingly repetitive and irrelevant to the question before the committee.
I understand a number of points of order were made related to this concern yesterday afternoon at committee. After some time, the hon. member for Northumberland—Quinte West, a member of the committee, raised a point of order calling for the chair to put the questions before the committee to a vote, citing the persistence in repetition and irrelevance on the part of the New Democrats. We know that repetition and irrelevance is a clear part of our Standing Orders in the House. Committees are masters of their own process, have their own rules so on, but repetition and irrelevance is simply not permitted. You, Mr. Speaker, have been a champion on that question.
The chair then made a ruling which the hon. member for Northumberland—Quinte West appealed. The majority of the committee sided with the hon. member and voted not to sustain the chair's ruling, as was the right of those members. Subsequently the committee endorsed our government's reasonable proposal to allow for approximately 50 witnesses to appear before and during the study of Bill C-51. The Chair is now being asked to interfere in the decision taken by a majority of that standing committee.
First, the Chair should reject the challenge immediately, given that it is made in the absence of any report from the committee on this specific matter. To make the finding without a report in front of you, Mr. Speaker, would simply fly in the face of the traditions, conventions and practices of the House.
Page 1046 of House of Commons Procedure and Practice, second edition, acknowledges that, “the Speaker is reluctant to intervene in a committee's internal affairs unless the committee has previously reported on the matter to the House”.
The hon. member for Burnaby—New Westminster this morning urged the Chair to apply to the proceedings of the committee, what we would consider in the world as appellate law, to be a standard of correctness.
Footnote 517, on page 1046 of O'Brien and Bosc, refers to a ruling of Mr. Speaker Fraser, which acknowledged that in “very serious and special circumstances” the Chair may intervene in the absence of a report. This is far beyond any test for “correctness”.
The standard of intervening in the absence of a committee report might be gleaned, for instance, from the decision of Mr. Speaker Parent on November 7, 1996, at page 6225 of Debates, in a case where an associate member of a committee, back in the early years of the concept of associate membership, was denied certain participation rights.
In fact, a long line of Speakers' rulings uphold the point that committee decisions ought not to be interfered with in the absence of a report expressly on point.
Mr. Speaker Milliken, on November 27, 2002, at page 1949 of the Debates, ruled:
—it is a long tradition in this place that committees are masters of their own proceedings. Ordinarily the House is only seized of a committee matter when the committee reports to the House outlining the situation that must be addressed.
In a subsequent Parliament, he delivered a ruling, on May 10, 2007, at page 9288 of Debates, which noted:
—it would be highly inappropriate for the Speaker to break with our past practice and pre-empt any decision the committee may choose to make. The committee is seized of the issue and if a report is presented I will of course deal with any procedural questions which may be raised as a result. Until such a report is presented however, I must leave the matter in the hands of the committee.
In another ruling, on March 14, 2008, at page 4182 of Debates, Mr. Speaker Milliken said:
For the present, I cannot find sufficient grounds to usurp the role of committee members in regulating the affairs of the Standing Committee... However, if and when the committee presents a report, should members continue to have concerns about the work of the committee, they will have an opportunity to raise them in the House...
Not only is the convention that the Speaker does not interfere in committee proceedings sound in policy terms, it is sound in its practical application. The minutes of the proceedings or the evidence have not yet been published, so we are arguing on the basis of what we understand to be the facts. That leaves the Chair with representations about what happened at the public safety committee made by two members, myself and my NDP counterpart. We are both not members of that very committee.
In fact, it is because I take the view that committees ought to be the masters of their own proceedings that I am relying upon accounts of what happened there in the absence of any official documents. The House leader of the official opposition grounds his point of order on a claim that a motion for the previous question was proposed. That motion, if proposed in the House, is a debatable motion, so the NDP House leader's construction of the facts simply does not add up to what happened.
The hon. member for Northumberland—Quinte West was, as I understand it, challenging the irrelevant and repetitive interventions by the New Democratic Party, interventions which simply exposed the New Democrats' approach to delaying and obstructing these legislative measures to support our police and security agencies. From that perspective, the hon. member's view was that the debate had been exhausted. I cited some examples that support that from the communications that were put out by the NDP party and by members of the caucus.
If I ended my argument here on the point about the lack of a report, some observers might claim that I am asking you, Mr. Speaker, to allow what happened on a technicality. However, the actions of the public safety committee are also sound on the merits since committees are, as we all know and say often, masters of their own proceedings. This concept is explained, at page 1047, of O'Brien and Bosc, which states:
The concept refers to the freedom committees normally have to organize their work as they see fit and the option they have of defining, on their own, certain rules of procedure that facilitate their own proceedings.
On the next page, it states, “committees may adopt procedural rules to govern their proceedings, but only to the extent the House does not prescribe anything specific”.
Rules concerning repetition and irrelevance are prescribed by the Standing Orders and our practices. When the chair of the committee was asked for several rulings yesterday on relevance and repetition, this is consistent with his role under Standing Order 117, which states, “The Chair of a standing, special or legislative committee shall maintain order in the committee, deciding all questions of order”.
However, those words are followed by a very germane phrase, “subject to an appeal to the committee; but disorder in a committee can only be censured by the House, on receiving a report thereof”. The hon. member for Northumberland—Quinte West disagreed with the chair's ruling and appealed to the committee. The majority of the committee's members, in turn, agreed with the appeal. Again, that is expressly allowed by the Standing Orders.
Page 1049 of O'Brien and Bosc reiterates the point:
Decisions by the Chair are not debatable. They can, however, be appealed to the full committee.
Speaker Milliken's 2002 ruling, as I said earlier, confirmed this practice:
Even the rulings of the chair of a committee may be made the subject of an appeal to the whole committee. The committee may, if it thinks appropriate, overturn such a ruling.
This passage was cited favourably by our own Speaker in his ruling on November 29, 2012, at page 12609 of the Debates. The principle is worth repeating: appeals lie to the committee, not to the House.
The hon. member for Prince Edward—Hastings, a man whose constituents are lucky to have as an MP, a chairman of the public safety committee that those members are privileged to have as a chair, ought to be heartened that O'Brien and Bosc go on to add at page 1049 that:
The overturning of a ruling is not considered a matter of confidence in the Chair.
Citation 716(3) of Beauchesne's Parliamentary Rules and Forms, sixth edition, speaks to committees being the proper venue for committee's procedural disputes being settled:
— that the Speaker has ruled on many occasions that it is not competent for the Speaker to exercise procedural control over the committees. Committees are and must remain masters of their own procedure.
Citation 822, again of Beauchesne's, meanwhile gives us this advice:
Procedural difficulties which arise in committees ought to be settled in the committee and not in the House.
Speaker Fraser, in his ruling of March 26, 1990, at page 9756 of the Debates, explained why this is a sound approach:
If I am cautious in not acting now it is simply because the Chair does not supervise the standing committee chairmen. That function belongs to the members of each committee and they have obvious avenues to pursue other than invoking privilege in the House.
Our own Speaker, at page 17795 of the Debates for June 6, 2013, said in response to a point of order:
To answer this fully would be to ask the Chair to reach into and adjudicate upon committee matters, a practice the House has long resisted, given that committees are masters of their own proceedings, as we are apt to say.
Beauchesne's citation 762 notes that:
Proceedings in the committees are more relaxed in nature than those in the House as the requirements which must be observed in the Chamber are not so strictly enforced when Members sit as committees.
This point was confirmed in a ruling of our current Speaker on November 29, 2012, at page 12609 of the Debates.
—it is true that committee practice is of considerable flexibility and fluidity.
Mr. Speaker Milliken's 2002 ruling, which I already quoted twice, speaks to the wisdom of letting committees resolve their own difficulties, such as those presented by the NDP's persistence, irrelevance, and repetition yesterday at the public safety committee:
That being said, it is true as well that committees are permitted a greater latitude in the conduct of their proceedings than might be allowed in the House. It may not always be clear in a particular set of circumstances how best to proceed and so the ultimate decision is left to the committee itself.
In this case, I suggest that we let the public safety committee's proceedings remain the exclusive concern of the public safety committee unless and until the committee chooses to report this particular matter to the House for our consideration.
I am continuing my review of the detailed submissions that my friend the opposition House leader tendered this morning. As I said, I may wish to come back.
However, I do want to point out again, Mr. Speaker, that if you are going to accede to the point of order that has been forwarded by the opposition House leader, you are essentially going to be ruling that a minority—a single member, perhaps—has the ability to stand through a filibuster, as they have indicated, and block and obstruct legislation from ever passing and from ever being considered. You are going to be ruling that a minority can prevent witnesses from being heard and can prevent legislation from being debated.
When one talks about protecting the rights of the minority, I do not think that the right of the minority is the right to become a majority, to transform itself through extraordinary breath and extraordinary endurance so as to be able to prevent progress on legislation and to be able to block decisions from being made by this legislature. That is not what standing up for the minority means. That would be the establishment of a tyranny of the minority.
In a case like this, the legislation is very important. We would like to see this bill become law in this Parliament because it is a matter of public safety, because Canadian lives are at risk, because the phenomenon that we are seeking to combat has cost us Canadian lives. It cost us a life just steps from this Hill, steps from the very place we are, and it came close to costing lives right here. We are talking about a terrorist threat that threatens all Canada and about solutions that have been identified by the government to make those Canadians safer.
This Parliament has a right to consider those solutions. It has a right to deliberate them. That committee has every right to ensure that it cannot be held hostage to prevent it from considering that legislation, hearing witnesses, deliberating on it, pronouncing on it to us, and providing its report to us on the appropriateness of that legislation.