Mr. Speaker, it is always a privilege and an honour to rise in this House, but I do so today on Government Business No. 26 with some degree of disappointment. There is disappointment because we are debating a motion that does not have the consensus of this House of Commons. It does not have the consensus of the recognized parties. The government and the government alone is trying to unilaterally change the accepted rules of this place without the consensus of all parties.
When provisions for hybrid Parliament were first introduced in this place, they were done so as a temporary measure so that members could participate in the proceedings of Parliament at a time when travelling and gathering in large groups were not permitted due to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. They were never considered a long-term change to how we conduct business as a House of Commons.
The proposed changes being debated today are not in the interests of Canada's Parliament. I am reminded of the words of a great Nova Scotian, one of the great parliamentarians of his generation, the Right Hon. Bob Stanfield, from Truro, Nova Scotia. I know the Speaker is a proud Nova Scotian. Bob Stanfield, in a memo to his caucus, focused on the importance of certain institutions, certain principles among parliamentarians, that we ought to hold dear. He wrote, “Not only is it unnecessary for political parties to disagree about everything, but some acceptance of common ground among the major parties is essential to an effective and stable democracy. For example, it is important to stability that all major parties agree on such matters as parliamentary responsible government and major aspects of our Constitution.”
In the past, that has been accepted. It has been accepted among all political parties and different political parties that when major changes are made to how we operate as a Parliament, as a House of Commons, it is done with a common understanding among parliamentarians. Indeed, during the Harper majority government, a process like this was led by then parliamentary secretary Tom Lukiwski, who ensured that the multiple major changes made to our Standing Orders were made with the consensus of all political parties at that time. That is the process that worked then, and that is the process that ought to work going forward.
I want to quote my friend and geographic neighbour, the hon. member for Wellington—Halton Hills. The member was recently at a parliamentary committee testifying on a different matter, but the point he made applies to this place. He said:
In Canada, there is only one federal electoral process, and that is the process whereby Canadians get one vote for their local member of Parliament. Everyone else in our system is appointed. The Senate is appointed. The Prime Minister is appointed.... The cabinet is appointed. Everyone else is appointed. The only electoral process federally in our system is for the House of Commons. It's the only part of our system that has an electoral process. It's the only part of our system that is democratic. It's the only part of our system where Canadians get a vote, and that is for the House of Commons.
The changes the Liberal government is proposing would give even more power to the whips and party leaders, and take away the rights and privileges of individually duly elected parliamentarians. It is a fundamental principle in this place that the Standing Orders ought to be respected, and up until now, the changes ought to require consensus. It is clear from the debate thus far that the government does not have that consensus.
I want to draw members' attention to some history in this place. On May 18, 2016, the then leader of the government in the House of Commons, now the minister of democratic institutions, introduced government Motion No. 6. Back then, when the NDP was still operating as an opposition party and holding true to its principles, the member for New Westminster—Burnaby raised a question of privilege in which he called the motion “a motion that rewrites our Standing Orders in more than 17 different ways so that the executive has unilateral control over all of the procedural tools in the House.”
That was when the member for New Westminster—Burnaby had principles and held the government to account. Unfortunately, now the New Democrats have joined the Liberal coalition and are no longer using the tools at their disposal. Motion No. 6 was eventually withdrawn, but only after the united concerted efforts of the opposition parties to make it clear that changes ought only occur with a consensus.
Then in our walk down memory lane, we move to 2017, when the then leader of the government in the House of Commons, now the chair of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, instructed the Liberal members on that same committee to introduce a motion that would have given the government the ability to change the Standing Orders in a way that was only approved by the Liberal majority in the House of Commons. This resulted in what was then known as the Standing Orders standoff, in which the 55th meeting of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs lasted from March 21 to May 2, 2017, when the Liberal government eventually backed down.
That was certainly a challenging time, but when I look back at it, I do so with pride, because it was a time when Conservative, New Democrat, Bloc and Green members were all united against the unilateral Liberal government actions. I remember at the time the outrage so eloquently expressed by the NDP member David Christopherson. In one of his 303 interventions in that meeting, he said, “I don't understand how the government thinks they're going to win on this, or how they think that ramming through changes to our Standing Orders is going to make the House work any better.”
More than six years later, here we are again, with the Liberals trying to ram through changes, having not learned a single thing. Unfortunately, this time the NDP is driving the getaway car.
It reminds me of another quotation. In a speech to the Empire Club, an individual said this:
It is the opposition's right to insist at all times on the full protection of the rules of debate. The government is entitled to that same protection, but in addition it has its majority with which to establish its will. The opposition has only the rules for its protection, hence the authorities on parliamentary procedure emphasize the greater importance to the opposition of the only protection it has, the protection of the rules.
Who said that? It was the late great Stanley Knowles, one of the great NDP parliamentarians in this place, who, even after he left office, continued to have a seat at the clerk's table until he passed away. That is how dedicated he was to this place and to parliamentary democracy. Sadly, the NDP is no longer living up to the great expectations set by the late great Stanley Knowles.
As I mentioned at the outset of my remarks, the provisions for hybrid were brought in as temporary measures during the lockdowns of COVID-19. They were only there as a matter of necessity and should not be a permanent change so that members of Parliament can avoid this place.
Frankly, I remember that in April 2020, when we first started looking at temporary changes to the Standing Orders, it was done with a clear understanding that they were temporary. When the procedure and House affairs committee made its recommendations at that time, it included phrases such as “during the current pandemic” and “during exceptional circumstances”. This was never thought to be a part of the normalized operation of this place.
In fact, the committee heard from former acting clerk Marc Bosc, co-editor of House of Commons Procedure and Practice, third edition, the person who quite literally wrote the book on procedure in this place. On June 4, 2020, he said:
...I would say that I agree with Mr. Blaikie that the changes made so far relate to a pandemic situation. I think that has to be the lens through which you look at this particular exercise. The speed with which the hybrid model for the committee has been adopted, to me, is not a particular concern, but as Mr. Blaikie pointed out, if the tendency or the temptation is to make these changes permanent, that's a whole other issue.
As clearly shown at the time, these changes were never contemplated to be wholesale changes but rather temporary measures for a temporary situation.
We, as parliamentarians, especially opposition parliamentarians, hold a fundamental purpose in holding the government and the executive branch to account. What is often forgotten by Liberal backbenchers is that they share the same responsibility. Liberal backbenchers are not members of the government. They are members of the government party, but they are not members of the executive branch, and they ought to share the same concerns as opposition members in their role of holding government to account.
Unfortunately, hybrid Parliament makes it easier for Liberal ministers to avoid accountability in this place and at committee. What is more, as much as we may not always like what our friends in the media may write or say about us or our party, the media, too, holds a fundamental role within our parliamentary democracy. However, when a minister of the Crown participates virtually, either in committee or in the House, they avoid the interaction with our friends in the media and thereby avoid that effective way of accountability. When ministers participate in committee virtually, it takes more time and eats up more of the opportunity for opposition members to ask questions and have an effective restraint on the actions of government.
As I have raised a couple of times in questions and comments, the challenge of committees is very clear in a hybrid setting. I had the great honour and privilege to serve for nearly a year on the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage. At the time, we were undertaking some very important studies, one of them on the absolutely horrendous state of affairs at Hockey Canada. I might add that is now ongoing with many other sports, which frankly, has not been adequately addressed. Sport Canada, as an organization, should be ashamed of itself in view of those allegations against Hockey Canada back in June 2018. It did nothing for four years, but I digress.
At committee, we were also studying Bill C-11 and we were undertaking clause-by-clause. In both of these situations, having a chair who was entirely virtual led to a gong show of a committee. The committee was unable to function because the chair could not see the room. The chair could not understand what was happening in the room. Quite frankly, the chair was constantly saying that she did not know what was happening in the room because she was not in the room. That is one of the major failings of the hybrid system, particularly as it relates to committees.
Now, I do recognize that, in these provisions, the presiding officer must preside in person, and perhaps we could call that the Hedy Fry rule, but that is what is happening—