Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to participate in this debate. It would be better if I did not have to, but I am certainly pleased to come to the House to offer my thoughts in this debate, coming from a number of perspectives from my own personal experience.
I, of course, spent a number of years as minister of public safety, and in that regard, had responsibility for, among other things, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who, at that time, had responsibility for security in the precinct outside this building. I also, of course, spent some time as government House leader. We had occasions when we had to deal with questions of privilege when peoples' access was denied, for one reason or another, on the Hill. As well, I had the honour of serving on the Board of Internal Economy, which wrestled with the many questions on how to deal with security and at the same time with the question of members' privileges.
The recurring theme that has become loud and clear here is that notwithstanding these repeated problems in the past, members' privileges continue to be denied. Why is that important and why is the amendment of the member for Beauce so important in that context?
There is no greater privilege a member of this House has, and no greater duty and responsibility, than the duty and obligation to be in the House to cast a vote on behalf of constituents. Hence, there is no greater violation of members' privileges than actions that deny them that most fundamental right. That is why it is taken so seriously. That is why it must be taken so seriously. That is why it is a matter of urgency, and that is why the member for Beauce is so correct in his amendment that says that not only must this be studied, but this study must be given priority and treated as an urgent and important matter. That is certainly the case here.
As I said, this is the second time. There was another occasion in this Parliament, in different circumstances, admittedly, when tempers were high and people were heated over Motion No. 6. It is funny how that happens. Every time someone is denied a chance to vote, it is at the same time as Liberals are proposing draconian rule changes to suppress the rights of members in the opposition, and lo and behold, at the same time, members of the opposition are denied their privilege and right to vote. I do not know if that is coincidence or God sending a message or some kind of literary theme at work, but it is a recurring theme. We are seeing that right now with the effort by the government to unilaterally force changes through the procedure and House affairs committee.
It is also a nice way of juxtaposing those two issues and focusing on why, indeed, the privilege of members to vote needs to take precedence at this particular time. It is a matter of urgency that could occur again tomorrow. It could occur again today, for all we know. None of the changes being talked about at that committee include this dramatic, urgent situation, but we could face the exact same problem today, tomorrow, or the next day, and we have to work to resolve it as soon as possible.
The member for Winnipeg Centre set the groundwork for me on what I want to say next, when he said that the Speaker went on at length in his decision on this. I want to approach my next set of comments with sensitivity and a bit of delicacy, because I am going into what is a very delicate area.
In his ruling, the Speaker stated, “In fact, I have received two reports of the incident. The first, from the House of Commons Corporate Security Officer and Deputy Sergeant-at-Arms, provides an excellent minute-by-minute summary of events and is supplemented by witness statements. The second report was received from the acting director of the Parliamentary Protective Service. Based on those reports, here is what appears to have happened on March 22. At approximately 3:47 p.m., the bollards at the vehicle screening facility were lowered to allow for the arrival of a bus transporting journalists to Centre Block for the presentation of the budget. The media bus, under Parliamentary Protective Service escort, immediately proceeded to Centre Block”.
The Speaker then continued with his interpretation of events, as reflected in these reports. He went on for some time and then wove in references to the member's presence at the gate and the inquiries that were made. It is not clear in the reports where those came from or whether they were based on the member's representation in the House when this question of privilege was argued. In any event, they are there. Why am I troubled and uncomfortable?
Those findings were in reports that were apparently made available to the Speaker. I have not seen those. I do not believe they have been tendered to this House, yet they were the evidentiary basis on which the Speaker's finding was made.
I want to make it clear that I do not take issue with the prima facie finding of the Speaker. I conclude, in fact, that it is fair and correct. However, there is a long-established principle. In the courts, for example, we know full well that if judges are hearing a case and they hear evidence before them, they are to decide that case based on the evidence. It is considered highly inappropriate, and we would have an instant appeal to the courts, if judges were to play detective, gather evidence of their own, and seek out the advice of experts on their own.
I say this because the hon. member for Winnipeg Centre is saying that we should just leave it to the experts, something that is our responsibility, and we should trust them. That has already happened here, in part, in a way that I find uncomfortable, if I can put it delicately. That discomfort is that the basis of the decision in these reports was available to the Speaker but not to me, as a member of the House. It is evidence on which his finding of a prima facie case was made, but I had no opportunity to look at that evidence myself and make my submission on whether it supports or does not support a prima facie case, and that is, of course, the proper role in place in this House.
That evidence should have been before all of us before that finding was made. Certainly, I would hope, it would come out as part of what would be available to the committee when it does its study, a reason the study must go ahead and why it is urgent.
It really is not the place of the Speaker to conduct such inquiries. We have the good fortune of having had precedents on it. For example, Speaker Milliken was faced with this on one occasion. This is from October 25, 2001, where he stated the following:
The hon. member for Winnipeg—Transcona in his remarks tried to assist the Chair by suggesting that it was for the Chair to investigate the matter and come up with the name of the culprit and so on. I respect his opinion of course in all matters, but in this matter I think his view is perhaps wrong. There is a body that is well equipped to commit acts of inquisition, and that is the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, which has a fearsome chairman, quite able to extract information from witnesses who appear before the committee, with the aid of capable members who form that committee of the House.
I think there the Speaker was saying that it is not the role of the Speaker to conduct inquiries, to gather evidence, and to make decisions about those him or herself.
I recognize that the Speaker has an administrative responsibility here, with the recomposition of the Parliamentary Protective Service and the unification of those on the Hill and in the House. That being said, that does not change the fundamental principle in law and in parliamentary law that if we are to be able to debate an issue and make a decision on it, if some facts or evidence, not law or previous decisions but facts or evidence, form the foundation of a Speaker's decision, it should be before all members of this House. We should all have an opportunity to evaluate it, pass comment on it, and make our submissions on it. That did not happen here. That I find a little bit troubling.
It then becomes one step more troubling. We have seen the member for Hull—Aylmer make reference to these documents, suggesting that he has them. We have had the Parliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons wave the documents about, yelling, “ Look it's in here, it's in the report”. Not only did the Speaker have this evidence and not present it to the House, but he apparently has presented it, or someone has, his administrative responsibility, to members of the Liberal government. It has not been presented to us in the opposition on this side, so we are handicapped in this debate to begin with.
The worst part is for the confidence of people in this House, the confidence that this House is working properly, fairly, and judiciously. We have to understand that this evidence was before everyone before the prima facie finding was made.
As I said, I believe the Speaker made the right finding in the end. My concern is the process of getting there and particularly that members of the Liberal government had access to this information.
That could lead a critic to suggest there were perhaps an unseemly, inappropriate proximity between the role of the Speaker, sitting in a quasi-judicial function deciding a question like this, and the government having and sharing information unavailable to other members of the House. By this, I do not wish to in anyway call disrespect upon the role of the Speaker and the job he has done. This ruling is a sound one in the end. It is not unusual for a sound ruling to occasionally have an error in process on the way. However, I did want to share with the House my discomfort with that process. There is a concern there.
That we have these documents floating about, which the opposition has not seen, underlines the importance of why this has to go to the procedure and House affairs committee to be studied. It also underlines why it is a matter of urgency.
There is a lot at the procedure and House affairs committee right now. The government has suggested all kinds of things that in other ways will tilt the table toward the Liberal government.
In all my time as House leader, and I am the longest-serving Conservative government House leader in Canadian history, we never, ever proposed unilateral changes to the rules. I know I am well respected for the approach I took of respecting the rules of the House and making everyone happy that we were in it. We never once sought to propose unilateral changes. In fact, my friend, who was my parliamentary secretary, the member from Regina, was very good at laying out the government's position at the procedure and House affairs committee. We agreed that changes would not made without agreement among all the parties. That is the proper approach.
Something like that can be done in the matter before the procedure and House affairs committee. If such a commitment is made, if such an agreement is arrived at, the committee need simply pass a resolution like that and we can proceed on with all the business. I do not think anyone in that context would argue that it does not make sense for our procedural matter here, the question of privilege about the rights of members to vote, to take immediate precedence.
What is so discomforting is that when we pull all these things together, there is a recurring theme again and again. It is a recurring theme where Liberals may have said one thing when they were in opposition, but now have a very different approach in government. That has never been my approach. I have tried to be consistent throughout, and tried to follow the rules of the House. They are very important and should be followed. However, to change those rules in mid-stream for partisan advantage is poisoning the well of this place. I think everyone who has been here sees how it is poisoning that well.
I feel badly for many of the Liberals, including the candidate I ran against, a fine lady, who spent much time in meetings telling their constituents they wanted to do things differently with a new respect for Parliament. They wanted to be more consensus-oriented, communicate and consult more, and work together. Apparently, that was not true. I sense that is why in these debates we see such lack of diversity in the spokespeople on the other side, because so many of them feel that discomfort. They did not campaign on the proposition of replacing or adding to time allocation, with an ability for the government to unilaterally impose it without a vote of the House, not just in each stage of the bill, but all the way through the process, to dictate it for every stage and advance, and thereby limit debate. No one ever talked about that. However, that is what the Liberal government now wants to do.
Now the Liberals think it is more important to talk about that and make that happen than it is to talk about the fundamental privileges of members of the House to vote. That is what the member for Beauce is saying. If we keep having occasions where people get denied their opportunity to vote, the most critical central part of every member of Parliament's role, what do I say? I feel for the member for Beauce and the member for Milton. What do they say to their constituents who ask why they missed that vote?
Some people care about voting records. As leadership candidates, they may have the odd hole. However, to then have additional holes created because somebody stopped them from carrying out their duties here, how could that be? How can somebody stop them from voting? They are there to vote on behalf of their constituents. It is a difficult thing to explain. Some people may begin to arrive at arguments like that presented by the member for Winnipeg Centre, that it must be the fault of the members somehow that they got stopped. That is why this is so serious.
If I can step into a place as genuinely non-partisan as possible, we had the same problems when we were in government. I wrestled with them as a member of the Board of Internal Economy, as government House leader, and as public safety minister. Why? Because people had a job to do, usually in the security service, that they took far too seriously and did not appreciate the importance of the privileges here. The thought and the hope was that by creating a single unified service on the Hill, we would finally overcome that, because the problems were always on the RCMP side. The Parliament Hill side was pretty good. It was always the RCMP.
Guess what? Notwithstanding all the changes, the problem has not been solved. That is pretty urgent. That is pretty important for us. Toward the end of our government, when these questions would come up, I would be very quick to stand and say that the member of the opposition, who was unhappy with the circumstances, was absolutely right. A member's privilege should never be violated in this fashion. Even if it is just to hear the speech of a visiting head of state who we are interested in, a member's privileges should not be denied. Certainly, when it is the question of that most profound element of our job here, to vote, it should not be denied and should not be permitted.
When this issue arose initially, I found it surprising that the government did not offer to bring to the House the evidence that the Speaker went and got on his own. We always did that. We offered to go and get that information and provide it to the House. I am surprised that did not happen. I am surprised he did not intervene to do that at all, but let it come to this without providing those kinds of answers. It is not an answer to say that it should be turned over to the experts, that the functionaries, the officials, will decide for us what our privileges are and how they shall be respected.
If we do not assert our own privileges and rights in this place, I can assure members that nobody else will. That is why I thank the Speaker for his prima facie finding. That is why I think he made the right decision. That is why I think it is so important that we study it. I do not know if this is one of the things the Liberal government has proposed in its set of changes, but there is a reason why it is built into the rules right now. When a finding like this is made, the House proceeds immediately to the motion from the member and immediately to the debate and that debate continues until the question is resolved.
The drafters of those rules cared about how this place worked. They cared about balancing the rights of members. They cared about ensuring the minority was protected in all cases. They realized this place was not here for the convenience or efficiency of this place. I keep hearing the word efficiency from the government House leader in defending what the Liberals are doing. The drafters of those rules realized that this place has certain inefficiencies which are called “protecting people's rights”. Protecting our rights means sometimes those inefficiencies. They recognized it was so important that when a finding like this was made and a motion like this came forward, it took priority over all other business of the House. That is what the Standing Orders say now.
Perhaps the Liberals want to change that. Perhaps they do not think it should have precedence. Perhaps they do not think it is the most important part of business. That is what their conduct shows. That is what it showed with Motion No. 6. That is what it shows with their work at the procedure and House affairs committee now. That is what it shows with the submissions from the member for Winnipeg Centre from the Liberal Party. It shows that we should not deal with this, that it can be dealt with by officials, so never mind.
We stand on centuries of precedent in the Westminster system. These rules are there for a reason: to protect our democracy, to protect the rights of the minority. That is what this motion is for. That is what the motion moved by the member for Milton would do and what the amendment moved by the member for Beauce would do. That is why they should indeed be approved, and why priority must be given to this most fundamental question of a member's right to vote in the House.