Mr. Speaker, I want to thank the member for Scarborough—Agincourt for sharing his time with me. It is emblematic of the duties we have been sharing over the past year as I have been working with him to back him up in his deputy House leadership duties.
While my dream of fixing the clocks in this place to be digital remains unfulfilled, there are a number of more serious Standing Order issues that need to be addressed. While the opposition has often accused Liberal members in this place of wanting to change the Standing Orders to government advantage, I would argue that the opposite is true.
Many of us on this side were here when we were in opposition. A few of us survived the decimation to third party. I started as a staffer, working for Frank Valeriote, the previous member for Guelph, in his constituency office early in the 40th Parliament. I eventually found myself working here for the member for Ottawa South, where I worked when the government was found to be in contempt of Parliament and an election was forced in early 2011. I subsequently worked for both those members as well as the current members for Halifax West, whom I take great pride in calling Mr. Speaker today, and the member for Coast of Bays—Central—Notre Dame, all, for a short period, at the same time.
Working for four excellent members of Parliament, with different personalities and areas of interest, I gained a great breadth of experience and perspective, which has been a key part of learning how to do this job. It also gave me an up-close perspective on the abuses of power, on a daily basis, by the previous government. That is the perspective from which this motion has been written, that of the third party. To make the point, I want to go over Motion No. 18 one piece at a time.
In 2008, most of us will remember that the Liberals, NDP, and Bloc got together in an effort to take down the freshly re-elected Harper government. Whatever one thinks of the details of that agreement, a majority of members intended to vote no confidence in a sitting minority government. To avoid this, Harper visited then governor general Michaëlle Jean and asked her to prorogue Parliament, a request she granted after a couple of hours of deliberation.
Parliament is often prorogued between dissolutions. Of the past seven Parliaments, only one did not have at least one prorogation, that being Paul Martin's minority 38th Parliament. Proroguing itself is definitely legitimate. In the 2008 instance, however, it was used as a tool to avoid a confidence vote. We all know how history played out after that, and it was a tactical success for Prime Minister Harper.
The first clause of Motion No. 18 would not prevent a prime minister from proroguing, but it would require the executive to explain why they felt it was necessary and would mandate the procedure and House affairs committee to revisit the matter. It would not prevent abuse, but it would raise the bar on prorogation.
It is a bit of a marvel to me that, in my experience, no one has tried to do a massive private member's bill that rethinks the role of government from one end to the other. It would be a pretty interesting two-hour debate and is only currently prevented by convention, not rule.
In the last Parliament, the government had some impressively scattered omnibus bills. The standard here is not about how many laws a bill amends but rather if those various and sundry changes all serve the overall purpose of the bill. For example, Bill C-49, which passed at second reading here only yesterday, was cited by many in the opposition as an omnibus bill because it intends to modify 13 existing acts. However, this is spurious, because all the changes legitimately and clearly fall under the concept of the name of the act, the transportation modernization act, and some of those 13 existing-act changes are both relevant and miniscule.
For example, clause 91 of Bill C-49 is the section that would amend the Budget Implementation Act, 2009. This change reads, in whole, “Parts 14 and 15 of the Budget Implementation Act, 2009 are repealed.” A quick investigation will reveal that Part 14 is amendments to the Canada Transportation Act and Part 15 is amendments to the Air Canada Public Participation Act, both well within the purview of the Minister of Transport to modernize within his mandate. Both sets of amendments from that Budget Implementation Act, 2009, which was called Bill C-10 in the second session of the 40th Parliament, came with a coming into force clause that read, in part, “come into force on a day to be fixed by order of the Governor in Council made on the recommendation of the Minister”. The most remarkable part of this eight-year-old piece of legislation is that the Governor in Council never brought these changes into force.
Getting rid of obsolete, never implemented bits of transportation law is clearly within the frame of transportation modernization.
In 2012, the Conservative government brought in a wide-ranging budget bill that implemented much of what it called Canada's economic action plan, but it also went after environmental legislation that had nothing to do with the budget. Among other things, it stripped legal protection for Canada's millions of lakes and waterways. This was slowed down, but not stopped, by more than 1,000 amendments to the bill at the finance committee, resulting in an around-the-clock filibuster-by-vote at clause-by-clause. I was there as staff for the final shift of that marathon vote.
The second section of Motion No. 18 would attempt to address these problems. Any bill presented in the House that did not focus on a single theme or overarching purpose could be split by the Speaker. While there would be an exception for budgets, the phrasing of that section, which would be standing order 69.1(2), would only seek to clarify that the objectives outlined in the budget would in their own right define the purpose. Attempting to change environmental law in a budget implementation act, without having defined it in the budget itself, for example, would permit a point of order to be raised and accepted by the Speaker to carve that section out of the BIA. This change is important and is something we committed to doing.
The third change is a little more arcane.
I was a staff member on the public accounts committee for a short period in the 41st Parliament and was a member of government operation and estimates early on in the 42nd Parliament for about the same length of time. I do not pretend to have any great understanding of the minutiae of the estimates process and defer to those who do. That is a big part of the point here. I welcome anything that can help bring clarity to the estimates process.
The fourth change in the Standing Orders in this motion is a particularly interesting one, covering sections 4 to 6 of Motion No. 18.
In the last Parliament, I believe most of us who were around had the same experience. Committees were run by parliamentary secretaries. They sat next to the chair, moved motions, voted, and otherwise controlled the committees. This utterly and totally defeats the point of parliamentary committees. The parliamentary secretary is, by definition, the representative of the minister. In this capacity, parliamentary secretaries serve a critical role in liaising between the committee and the department the committee oversees.
Being able to answer questions about intent and plans from the committee on a timely basis or bringing concerns or issues for study that ministers would like feedback on in the course of their duties are completely appropriate. However, when parliamentary secretaries run the committees, these oversight bodies cease to oversee much of anything and simply become extensions of the executive branch of government. If that is what we are to have, the committees serve little purpose. Including parliamentary secretaries on committees as liaisons with their departments instead of as the planners and executors of the work of those committees is the right balance.
This is really important. During the Reform Act debate in the last Parliament, the member for Wellington—Halton Hills, for whom I have great respect and have for many years, commented to me that as a backbencher, he was not government. “Like you,” he said to me, “my role is to keep the government to account. The difference is”, he concluded, “I have confidence in the government.”
This critical bit of political philosophy has stuck with me since that day. Our role as backbenchers is indeed to keep government to account whether we are on the government or opposition benches. One of the most critical tools to achieve that is committees, and when this government talks about restoring independence to committees, it is not a meaningless catchphrase or sound bite; it is legitimate. I have seen the transition on committee function from last Parliament to this Parliament and it is truly something. Keeping parliamentary secretaries in a participatory, but not controlling, role on committees is a critical element of this.
The last change, section 7 of the motion, is particularly interesting. The one place where the opposition has immense power, even in a majority government, is in the power of the filibuster at committee. An opposition member determined to prevent a vote from taking place or a report from being written at a committee has the absolute power to do so, as long as he or she is willing to talk out the clock and stay reasonably on point. Our colleague from Hamilton Centre is an expert at this task, often joking that after half an hour of talking he has not yet finished clearing his throat.
When we had the debate on reforming the Standing Orders that went sideways at PROC a few weeks ago, we were accused of trying to kill the filibuster. This could not be further from the truth.
In that debate, we sought to have a conversation about how to change the Standing Orders. The government House Leader had written a letter with her ideas of what changes she hoped we would discuss on top of the numerous ideas already before us on account of the Standing Order 51 debate from last fall. However, but if we refer back to the previous elements of this speech, where we landed was up to us as a committee. An idea floated was that members at committee be limited to an unlimited number of 10-minute speaking slots rather than a single slot with no end.
The way I understand this would work in practice is that any member can speak for as long as he or she wishes at committee, but when another member signals his or her interest in speaking, the member would have 10 minutes to cede the floor before the other member would take over, before giving it back again if the first member so chose. The effect of this would be to ensure that every member on a committee would have an opportunity to speak in any debate, but would not limit anyone from tying up committee and would not kill the filibuster either in the instance or in principle. It certainly would make it easier to negotiate our way out of one by giving others a chance to get a word in edgewise.
However, the change proposed here is not about that. It is about getting rid of one of the most absurd abuses of committee procedure we saw in previous parliaments: that a member of the committee majority would take the floor, even on a point of order, and say to the chair something like, “I move that we call the question.” The chair would correctly say that it was out of order and reject the request for the vote. The member would then move to challenge the chair, the majority would vote that the chair was wrong and the question could be called, and the motion to debate, study, report draft, or whatever was happening, would come to an abrupt, unceremonious, and totally acrimonious end. That was the only effective, if not exactly legitimate, way of ending a filibuster.
In Motion No. 18, we are defending the right to filibuster.
As I said, Motion No. 18 is about defending the rights of the opposition, informed by our experience in the third party. Not one line of this motion benefits a majority government. All, however, benefit the improved functioning of this place. I look forward to its passage.