Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to rise today to speak about this important privilege motion and to share some of my thoughts with the government, other members, and those watching at home.
Because there are many issues that are alive in this conversation, it is important to set the stage a little in what we are discussing and why it is so critically important.
We are in the midst of this pitched battle between the government and the opposition in this place. It is not a partisan fight. It is a battle between government and a united opposition, united on the issues with respect to procedure. That includes not just the Conservatives and the New Democrats, but also the Bloc and the Green Party.
The four opposition parties do not always agree, but when we are talking about the fundamental rights of the opposition and the integrity of our parliamentary institutions, then there are times when we do come together to challenge the abuses being proposed by the government, especially by the Prime Minister and government House leader.
The context of this discussion is a particular privilege motion. Here is what happened.
We had an important vote taking place in the House of Commons on budget day. A number of members were trying to get here for the budget vote. They were prevented from doing so because of some issues with security. They were told that it had to do with the Prime Minister's motorcade, and thus they were unable to vote.
It is a very important principle of this institution that members of Parliament ought to have unfettered access to the parliamentary precincts. It is so fundamental to our job that we be able to be here to vote, but in general that we be able to access Parliament in order to do our job. When things happen to prevent members from accessing parliamentary precincts, therefore preventing them from doing their job, that is by definition an issue of privilege.
This issue was raised and it was recognized by the Speaker to be a prima facie case of privilege. That then opens a debate on the question of privilege, which is supposed to then lead to a vote and then a referral to the procedure and House affairs committee. However, another piece of context is that the procedure and House affairs committee is in the midst of a discussion about the government's desire to unilaterally impose Standing Order changes on the House of Commons.
The government House leader put forward a discussion paper which contained a variety of different ideas, most of which marshalled in the direction of strengthening the relative power of the government in the House, not just the power of the government over the opposition but also the power of the government relative to individual members of Parliament, be they on the government backbenches or on the opposition side.
This was proposed as an issue to study at PROC. Quite wisely, the member for Lanark—Frontenac—Kingston put forward a motion to have a requirement in the context of that study that there be unanimity on changes that went forward, the principle being that if we were to change the underlying substructure of democracy, the rules that shape how decisions were made, then it was important that all parties agree on them.
We do not want to set a precedent where the government gets to make unilateral changes to the way our democracy works to their advantage. I think government members can understand that this would be a problem, because they are not going to be in government forever. One day, hopefully after the next election, they will be in the opposition, and we, or perhaps somebody else, will be in government.
It is not in their interest or in the interest of this institution to establish a precedent by which a government, any government, could make unilateral changes to the way our system works that would work to its own advantage.
This was the context in terms of the study that was happening at PROC, and the ongoing discussion about the Conservative amendment. It was an amendment that was supported by all opposition parties. As the rules allow for us to do, we are doing the important work of talking that amendment out to ensure the government is not in a position to rush forward with unilateral changes.
While we raise these concerns about the government making unilateral changes, we see continuing actions of the government which contribute to, unfortunately, bad faith. We had this discussion going on about the question of privilege in the House. Then the government realized it did not want the question of privilege going to PROC directly in a way that was envisioned by the amendment put forward, because if it were to do so, this would supersede the discussion on the Standing Orders.
The government is eager to make unilateral changes to the Standing Orders without allowing a meaningful voice for the opposition. It does not want this question of privilege to go to the committee in a way that supersedes the existing piece of committee business being discussed.
The Liberals came up with what they thought was an ingenious strategy to circumvent the way privilege motions were supposed to work. They did something that the Speaker acknowledged in a subsequent ruling was without precedent. They tried to adjourn or end the debate on the question of privilege without a vote on it. They wanted to simply remove the discussion of this important question of members having access to the House of Commons without even voting on it.
At the same time, the Liberals had a member at the procedure and House affairs committee move a motion to say we would do a study of this question of privilege from the House, but we would do it at some point in the future. This was their way of taking the heat off them in the House and then also, in the context of that committee, continue to try to force through the changes they wanted to the Standing Orders.
There are a few important points to recognize about this. One is that this is a failed strategy. It assumes that at some point the opposition will give up with respect to the resistance we are providing at the committee. I can say quite confidently that no member on this side of the House has any interest in giving up that important fight for the integrity of our institution. We have had a number of members speak so far at the committee, but many members have many things to say, have not yet spoken and are eager to speak.
Ironically, this is in the midst of a discussion that has gone on for so long one would expect us to run out of speakers. However, the Conservatives, the New Democrats, and other members in the opposition are eager to continue to bring forward these arguments. Last night and this morning I spoke for about six hours and I have many more things to say. I look forward to bringing those forward at committee. I know other members are in the same situation. We are not backing down on this point of the integrity of our democratic institutions and the way in which Standing Order changes are made.
Nonetheless, the government members thought they were clever by doing something totally without precedent, which was to adjourn a debate on a privilege motion without a vote. This further has contributed to the bad faith that exists here, the concern we have that the government simply cannot be trusted when it comes to preserving our institutions.
What happened after that is what brought us into this subsequent discussion of a question of privilege raised by another member, pointing out what had happened, saying that it was inappropriate and a violation of privilege for the government to end the debate on the previous question of privilege in the manner it did without a vote. The Speaker, quite wisely, ruled that it was not appropriate for the debate to simply end at that point and the possibility of a motion discussing this brought forward at committee did not replace the very important discussion that was happening, that needed to happen in the House of Commons followed by a vote in the House of Commons, which then would go to the procedure and House affairs committee.
Now we are back to this point of discussing this important privilege issue. Yes, it speaks to the issue of members having unfettered access to the House. In principle and in theory, everyone says yes, members of Parliament should have unfettered access to the parliamentary precinct, that they should be able to vote. However, what is happening is that we have a government that is more interested in pushing aside these vital points of discussion because it wants to take advantage of the opportunity it thinks it has to make unilateral changes to the Standing Orders, which would work to the advantage of the government.
We are very saying very clearly, through this motion and also through the amendment we put forward, that this privilege motion is vital. It needs to be addressed here in the House. After that, it needs to go to the procedure and House affairs committee to be studied, and it needs to take priority. This is an urgent question. We are voting quite often in this place because of the current circumstances with, unfortunately, the failure of the government House leader to work constructively with the opposition around the Standing Orders. We are in a situation of having frequent and relatively unpredictable votes.
It is very important in the present time that we ensure members have the access they need to the House of Commons. We take that position very seriously.
There can be a discussion on changes to the Standing Orders. In the context of my remarks thus far at the procedure and House affairs committee, where I have talked for a total of about 16 hours, I have barely scratched the surface of the kinds of prospective changes I think could be made to the Standing Orders. I have actually put out a lot of different ideas for the kinds of changes we might see. The discussion of those changes has to happen in the context of an acceptance of the principle of consensus, that we would work together among parties to identify things that would actually improve the functioning of our institutions. We could bring those forward, they would then get support, and we could get them done.
First, we need to deal with the privilege question. Then we need to have an amendment pass, the amendment we proposed, which has the agreement of all the opposition, to ensure the government does not make unilateral changes that undermine the health of our institutions and put all of the power in the hands of the small group on the front bench of the government.
These are the things we need to do. We need to address this privilege question. We need to support it and move it to committee. At the same time, we need to move to a framework in which political parties are co-operating. We are all better off when parties can work together, but that can only happen if we have serious responses from the government with regard to our concerns about unilateral action. We do not see the kinds of efforts the government has put forward to change our institutions. We also have heard the very disingenuous arguments the Liberals have brought forward for them.
It is hard to make sense of the arguments coming from the government on Standing Orders issues. The Liberals reference a mandate from Canadians and they reference the platform they ran on in the last election. Of course, the platform has not been an impediment for them to do things that they had previously said they would not do. It is interesting how selectively they apply it.
Nonetheless, two things in the platform dealt with things that may in some sense have had a relationship to the Standing Orders. One was this idea of having a prime minister's question period where the prime minister would answer all the questions. The other dealt with omnibus bills.
As we have seen, it is not outside the scope of the Standing Orders as they presently exist for the Prime Minister to at least stand after every opposition question is posed. I did not say to answer or respond to, but certainly to stand. There is nothing to prevent that. In fact, there is nothing in the Standing Orders to prescribe which member of the cabinet responds to which question.
Today, we had questions about the legalization of marijuana that were answered by the Minister of Environment and Climate Change. I am not aware of what the impact of marijuana use has on climate change. Maybe there is something I do not know about the carbon footprint there. There is nothing in the Standing Orders to say that the minister responsible for a particular file has to answer the question. A member of the government is seen as speaking for the government in response to the question. Therefore, it would actually be quite unusual for the Standing Orders to prescribe that a particular member of the government respond to questions.
If we put in the Standing Orders that the Prime Minister has to answer questions every Wednesday, it actually creates some problems. We on this side of the House would accept that there would be certain times when the Prime Minister, because of international travel meetings, could not be in the House for, let us say, a week at a time. Perhaps there would be a situation where he could not get back here for legitimate reasons. Let us say he is stuck on an island somewhere and there is no commercial travel available. How would he get back? These are the kinds of situations that may arise if the Standing Orders narrowly prescribe exactly who must answer what questions when. If the Prime Minister wants to answer all of the questions posed every Wednesday, he is welcome to do. Although we have not seen that yet, he can stand after every question on Wednesday if he wants. That does not require Standing Orders changes.
Regarding omnibus legislation, again it is entirely within the purview of the government to decide what kind of legislation it brings forward. The Liberals brought forward a budget implementation act that is over 300 pages and would make amendments to over 20 statutes.
The discussion paper no longer says what the Liberals previously said. It no longer says that the Liberals would cease to bring in omnibus bills. It only says that they would end the inappropriate use of omnibus legislation. It is hard to understand what principal difference there is between their version of the appropriate use and what they described as inappropriate use at previous times.
I said in committee earlier today that omnibus legislation should be used conservatively, in both senses of the term. The government is using omnibus legislation liberally, in both senses of the term. It has not in any way offered a clear way of distinguishing between the two.
In any event, if we are going to talk about prospective standing order changes that have some relationship to the commitments that the Liberals made in and before the election, those are the two we could talk about, that being prime minister's questions, which in some sense the government has started to implement and clearly without requiring changes to the Standing Orders, and—