Mr. Speaker, I am very glad indeed to participate in this debate.
I want to address the problem that faces us as we decide on this matter of privilege to face the fact that we are going to be sending this question of privilege to a committee which has itself largely broken down. It is a committee in which the spirit has been adopted by the current government of running roughshod over the traditional rights and privileges of the opposition. These are privileges that are the practical basis on which the opposition can carry out its job of ensuring proper scrutiny of what the government does, ensuring that government business can be slowed down and examined at sufficient length so that if there is a problem with it, it can then be brought to the attention of the Canadian public. This would allow the Canadian public to then say they expect changes, thereby pressuring the government, which after all wants to win the next election, into respecting the wishes of the people and changing its policy.
That is what the opposition does under our system. It is what the opposition has always done under our system. It is a good way of organizing things. That is why these rules have evolved over time, over centuries. It is why they have been maintained over the decades of the past century. It is why we have, among other things, concluded as a parliamentary community that we ought not to change the Standing Orders without the consent of all parties. That, of course, is the approach that all the opposition parties want to take right now. It is the approach that was taken under the Harper government and under the Chrétien government. T
here have been very few occasions on which changes to the Standing Orders have been pushed through without the consent of the opposition, and that is a very good thing. Those changes that have been pushed through without consent are almost invariably, but they are invariably, changes that have had the effect of stripping the opposition of its ability to do its job on behalf of Canadians, and therefore of destroying, in part, the constitutional apparatus. When I say constitutional I mean that in the traditional British sense of how we conduct legislation in a Westminster system in Canada.
The practices on the committee that have veered so far from what is acceptable need to be enumerated here, and I propose to do that today.
At the committee on March 21, a motion was introduced at an in camera session, and in all fairness, it was a session that started off in camera and then went public. A Liberal member of Parliament proposed that all changes to the Standing Orders would be implemented and a report submitted to the House of Commons by June 2. This was effectively a way of ensuring that a single report containing all the necessary provisions, everything the Liberals wanted, would be produced. There could be a dissenting report, I guess, but there would be no option of trying to place limits on what gets agreed to by saying that no, the opposition does not support this or that particular change to the Standing Orders, including ones that had never been contemplated in the Liberal election platform or discussed with the Canadian public. All of these could be pushed through at the government's discretion.
Lest anyone suffer from the illusion that we had any idea of which policy option would be preferred, we have a government discussion paper which includes a whole range of topics, some of which contradict each other. We would either sit on Fridays and make them full days or not sit on any Fridays. Numerous other options were put out there which could not be compatible with each other. New items could be added in and the government would not indicate it. At no point between that day and this day would the Liberals ever indicate which of these items were the ones that were their bottom line, so we never knew. We had no security at all. We were told to have a discussion and the Liberals would not provide us with any details; we would get to find out once we had consented to allow them to move forward with the motion. Of course, we opposed that.
I proposed an amendment to this motion in that committee which said that we would still maintain the June 2 deadline, but we would only have such changes to the Standing Orders as had the unanimous consent of all members of that committee. This followed the practice established in the past and actually spelled out in the House orders during the last Parliament in which Jean Chrétien was our prime minister. That is what we proposed. For the intervening period between March 21 and today, that is all we discussed, endlessly.
The first big surprise and the first deviation from appropriate practices came immediately after I proposed that amendment. This would have been on March 21 at the end of the normally scheduled meeting. We started the meeting at 11 a.m., as the procedure and House affairs committee always does. We were getting close to one o'clock, which is our normal time for adjournment. I proposed my amendment, expecting that we would come back if we stayed on this topic and deal with it at our next meeting, which would have taken place two days later, on March 23, but the chair at the appointed time for adjournment said, effectively—I do not have his exact words in front of me, but they are in the committee Hansard—that we were not going to adjourn because the chair may not adjourn without the consent of the majority of committee members; it is not in the power of the chair to adjourn, and the Liberal members indicated they did not want to adjourn. The purpose of this quite clearly was to keep the debate going until the opposition ran out of steam and then the government would simply push through its motion in that committee and that would result in the Standing Orders being unilaterally changed in a way that could not be controlled or modified in any way by the opposition in that committee.
At that time, I argued that the chair was misinterpreting the practices of the House. There is no standing order that says the chair cannot adjourn the committee without the expressed consent of the majority of the committee at the time when the committee normally adjourns. However, the chair argued back that no, he cannot adjourn. He went on at some length that he could not do this, and so in the end we had no choice. We could hardly stand up and walk out of the committee. That would result in the Liberals getting what they wanted, and subverting all of our rules, all of our protections, so we had no choice but to talk and talk. We started a filibuster, which has become the longest filibuster, to the best of my knowledge, in the history of this country. Until it was adjourned this morning, in that committee it was still March 21. Instead of being adjourned, the meetings would be suspended, and we would come back sometimes after a break of a day or two days and on one occasion most recently after a break of two weeks, but always to the fiction that it was still March 21.
It is one thing for us all to see the clock as a certain time in order to wrap up the proceedings of a committee or of the House early, or to do the opposite and see the clock as being a little earlier than it actually is to allow the committee to go on a bit longer. I used to do this all the time when I chaired the Subcommittee on International Human Rights. I would say to the committee members, and members can examine the committee Hansard to see this, “I see the clock as not yet being 2 p.m.” When we looked at the clock it was clearly 2 p.m., which was when we adjourned, but as long as no other member disagreed, that allowed us to maintain the official fiction that it was prior to 2 p.m., so that we could continue hearing witness testimony. We would hear heartbreaking stories about people who had been tortured and murdered in other countries. It was our job to listen to this testimony and then make use of it in preparing our reports. I always sought the consent of the committee in that matter, but I understood that a meeting ends at the time it is scheduled to end. The chair took a different position.
Then today he came to our meeting. We met at 9:02 a.m. The chair said, “It being 9:02 on May 5”, not maintaining this fiction that it is March 21, “good morning. Welcome back to the 55th meeting of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs. This meeting is being televised. Prior to our suspension on April 13, the committee was debating” the member for Lanark—Frontenac—Kingston's “amendment to [the] motion. Also, I'll bring to your attention the two excellent papers we asked for, done by our researcher, one on the standing orders in Quebec's National Assembly dealing with omnibus bills, and the other one on the historical contents of budget implementation bills.”
Referring to the debate that is happening right now, he said, “It is my understanding that all parties have signalled their intention to support the subamendment and amendment on the question of privilege currently being debated in the House. As members know, when this question comes to a vote it means that ultimately this committee will be seized with the matter of access of members to the parliamentary precinct. Given this information, I'm happy to say that this 55th meeting finally stands adjourned.”
He then gavelled us out.
There are two problems with this procedurally. This is the same chair who said that a meeting cannot be adjourned without the consent of the members of the committee. Now he said that he was adjourning it. He made no effort to even look up from his papers. He adjourned the meeting of the committee without the consent of the members. Unlike the previous occasion, when we actually had arrived at the pre-scheduled end time of the meeting, this was in the middle of the meeting.
This was clearly in violation of the traditional practice in this House that the chair cannot adjourn a meeting. It is not a standing order. It is a practice to ensure that chairs cannot adjourn meetings in the middle of a meeting, in the middle of a proceeding, to prevent some item of business from being dealt with or to prevent discussion.
Our name is Parliament. Parlement. Medieval French is where this came from. It is a place to speak. Our default setting is to be able to continue debate, and he shut that down in a way that violated the practice of this place, as stated on page 1087 of O'Brien and Bosc:
The committee Chair cannot adjourn the meeting without the consent of a majority of the members, unless the Chair decides that a case of disorder or misconduct is so serious as to prevent the committee from continuing its work.
That is something that would only occur in the middle of a meeting, not when we have arrived at the end and are past our time. The chair has violated this rule twice. Once was by misusing it to justify keeping a meeting going indefinitely. That particular meeting started at 11 a.m. and concluded at 3 a.m. and then was picked up after a suspension the next day and the next.
The second was by actually overtly and egregiously adjourning the meeting a minute into a meeting that was expected to be several hours long, and, I might add, in the midst of me attempting to raise a point of order on this very point. I stated, “point of order.” He heard me and chose to ignore me. That was an egregious, deliberate, and overt abuse not of the practices but of the Standing Orders. This is the committee to which we propose to send items of privilege, a committee chaired by someone willing to violate the practices and the Standing Orders of this place.
That is one problem. Let me talk about something else that was wrong in the way this was done. It was with respect to the suspension of the committee. What the chair did at the end of the first meeting, the first sitting of this committee, which started on March 21 at 11 a.m. and carried on until 3 a.m. the next morning, was suspend, suddenly and without warning, and we came back the next day, I believe at noon. After that, the tendency was to suspend at midnight and come back later on.
Let me give members an idea of just what I am talking about. They will see the importance of this in a second. We started on March 21 at 11:05 a.m. There were a number of brief suspensions for votes during the day. We then suspended at 3 a.m. There is an oddity here. It says we suspended on March 21 officially, but it was really March 22, until noon the next day. On March 22, we then suspended until March 23 at 10:30 a.m. We then suspended and recommenced on March 24 and then again on March 25. On March 25, there was a suspension during a break week. We suspended on March 25 at 11 a.m., and we returned on April 3 at noon. We suspended on April 3, coming back on April 5. We suspended on April 5 and came back on April 6. On April 6, we suspended and came back on April 7. On April 7, we suspended and came back on April 11. On April 11, we suspended and came back on April 12. On April 12, we suspended until April 13. On April 13, we suspended and came back on May 2, today, and we had this adjournment.
I want to talk about what O'Brien and Bosc say about suspensions. They say:
Committees frequently suspend their meetings for various reasons, with the intention to resume later in the day. Suspensions may last a few seconds, or several hours, depending on the circumstances, and a meeting may be suspended more than once.
So far, so good:
The committee Chair must clearly announce the suspension, so that transcription ceases until the meeting resumes. Meetings are suspended, for example, to change from public to in camera mode, or the reverse, to enable witnesses to be seated or to hear witnesses by video conference, to put an end to disorder, to resolve a problem with the simultaneous interpretation system, or to move from one item on the agenda to the next.
It also notes:
Speaker Milliken expressed reservations about the power of a committee to suspend proceedings to the next day....
This is not something that is an approved practice. I then looked up Speaker Milliken's ruling, delivered on June 3, 2003. He stated that it was inappropriate. It was not a breach of the rules or the Standing Orders but a breach of precedence for the chair of the Standing Committee on Transportation to suspend a meeting on May 28 and resume it on May 29.
Your Speaker is...somewhat troubled by the notion of an overnight suspension of proceedings. As hon. members know, if the Speaker's attention is drawn to a lack of quorum and no quorum is found, the House must adjourn forthwith. While it may be argued that no such obligation exists for committees, I would not consider the unorthodox actions of the transport committee in this particular instance to be a precedent in committee practice.
This is a quorum issue that caused them to suspend.
In other words, their suspension to be back the next day was not a precedent that says that this is acceptable. This is not an acceptable practice, and that was a situation in which a committee suspended once for 24 hours.
Here is a situation where the committee suspended 10 times for breaks ranging from 24 hours to two weeks. This was not a suspension. This was adjournment and reconvening of the committee. To this chair's credit, when I asked him, he started to let us know what the next time we would be coming back would be, and he started to let us know when our next suspension would be so we could at least plan.
However, initially, in this particular situation, the government members apparently knew when the suspension would be, but the rest of us, who had to keep the debate going, were hamstrung. These are all examples of an absolutely egregious abuse of the way in which this place works.
I intend, now that I have seen how these particular practices have been abused, to come back with proposals to change the Standing Orders to make sure that suspensions are used as suspensions, not as adjournments, and to make sure that the rule, the practice on adjournment, is actually put down as a Standing Order. We cannot adjourn a meeting as the chair in the middle of a meeting, but at the end of a meeting, we cannot keep the meeting going unless we have the consent of the majority of the committee. Hopefully that will remove some of the abuses that have gone on in this committee.
Let me just say this. There is a pattern here, not just in this committee but in the government, of absolutely having no regard for the traditional way we have done things. This is a majority government. It has enormous power. The powers of a Canadian prime minister far exceed those of an American president, far exceed them, domestically speaking, but they are not the powers of a dictator. The rules that keep them from being the powers of a dictator are the ones that are incorporated in our Standing Orders and in the respect we all have, until recently all had, for the practices of this place.
These are slender threads that preserve our liberties, but they are vital. We should not sweep them aside, and I encourage all members to take great caution not to allow this practice on this committee to become the practice of the House or of the committees in the future.