Mr. Speaker, I rise for the first time in the House to join the debates, and I do so with a profound sense of humility. I wish to express my tremendous appreciation to the residents of Scarborough—Agincourt for the distinct honour of representing them as their member of Parliament.
As this is my inaugural address in the House of Commons, I am mindful of the sense of history of this place. In my youth, I fell in love with Canadian history, and when I finally had the opportunity to visit Parliament, I realized why this place was so important. Not only is this where we make our laws and establish our government, it is this place that symbolizes the fundamental value of our democratic freedom. This is a freedom that flows through our evolved relationship with the Crown and with the institutions of sovereign and colonial power.
I have deliberately chosen this legislation to rise for my first time to join the debates in the House of Commons because I recognize the very important symbolism that the bill has come to represent across our country. There is a fundamental sense that democracy in our country, and across all democratic countries, is gradually eroding. Participation rates in elections have been steadily dropping. Canadians are increasingly developing a sense that our democratic institutions do not matter.
As members of Parliament, we each owe a critical duty to arrest this development and to increase confidence in our democratic institutions.
I look to my recent by-election and that of my fellow three colleagues who were elected on June 30. In that by-election, we saw participation rates drop to incredible lows. Sadly, in my riding of Scarborough—Agincourt less than 30% of electors chose to cast a ballot. My colleague in the riding of Trinity—Spadina probably had the best turnout in having approximately one third of the ballots cast by those who were eligible to vote. In the two Alberta by-elections, we saw voter participation drop to roughly 19% in Macleod and 15% in Fort McMurray—Athabasca.
We have seen participation rates in successive federal and provincial elections continue to drop. This is a broad question that all of us, as members, need to ask and, ultimately, to be concerned about.
To that end, I would like to pay tribute to the hon. member for Wellington—Halton Hills for the intent behind his private member's bill, Bill C-586, entitled simply “Reform Act”. In reading his backgrounder on this bill, I noted that it was his intent to reinforce the principle of responsible government. It was also his intent to provide checks against the exercise of executive power over the legislature. In particular, my friend sought to ensure that party leaders maintain the confidence of their respective caucuses.
This is a laudable goal and it is an attempt to bring back the normative practices of our Westminster model of government. However, when one actually examines the substance of the bill, I have to admit that I find somewhat of a disconnect between the aspirational aspects that the member for Wellington—Halton Hills is proposing and the practical outcomes of his bill. It leads to a series of questions and concerns.
In his backgrounder to the legislation, my friend from Wellington—Halton Hills attempts to address four broad reforms: first, restoring local control over party nominations; second, strengthening caucus as a decision-making body; third, reinforcing accountability of the party leader to caucus; and fourth, reforming the institution of Parliament.
I submit that my friend's intent to codify what has been the conventional practices reflects, unfortunately, a failing of members to exercise their very rights and privileges as members of Parliament. In some aspects, the changes proposed are rigid in that they seek to impose and create controls over political parties and their practices.
I have trouble with this approach. I can fully understand having parliamentary oversight over the practices of political parties, for example, as it relates to issues like financing, particularly when there are implications on our tax system or when there might be the possibility of undue influence as a result of public financing.
As it relates to the organization of political parties themselves, I am fundamentally convinced that these organizations should set their own rules and that participation by the broader public would be judged on effect, or how democratically these institutions operate. Let us leave the constitution of political parties up to the political parties themselves.
I know that the hon. member for Wellington—Halton Hills has consulted broadly on his bill, including soliciting input from various members of this House to address the operational concerns of his proposed legislation. I applaud my friend for reaching out. This is in fact how we should be working together and returning ourselves to a more civil time, when all members in this place were treated with honour and respect.
Let me say that here in the Liberal Party, we intend to honour the very spirit of my friend's legislation. It is our intent on this side of the House to allow all members of the Liberal caucus to vote on this private member's bill by way of a free vote.
Let me also say that despite outlining some of our concerns, it is my intention to support my friend's bill and to vote yes when it comes up for a vote at second reading. I will note that I reserve my right to reconsider my vote, depending on what transpires when the bill is sent to committee and we see what emerges at third reading.
I should also state that the Liberal Party has a different approach. I recognize that my friend from Wellington—Halton Hills may have some cause for concern about the practices within his own party or by the approach taken by the Prime Minister and the executive council, but here in the Liberal Party, we have decided that restoring trust in Canada's democracy will encompass the following reforms that have been passed, by a party resolution, by our own party. These include free and open democratic nomination of our candidates; fewer whipped votes and more free votes, requiring individual MPs to assume full responsibility for their decisions; stronger parliamentary control of public finances, including an annual deadline in the budget; accounting consistency among estimates and public accounts; more clarity in voting on estimates; a cost analysis of all government bills; and a requirement that government borrowing plans obtain Parliament's pre-approval.
We would seek an independent and properly resourced parliamentary budget officer. We would move to a more effective access to information system, with safeguards against political interference and meaningful whistle-blower protection; an impartial system to identify and eliminate wasteful partisan government advertising, like we actually have in the government of Ontario; limitations on secret committee proceedings; a limitation on omnibus bills; and limitations on the use of prorogation for the short-term convenience of the government.
We would move to adequate funding, investigative powers, and enforcement authority to ensure that Elections Canada could root out electoral fraud.
We would move to proactive disclosure of parliamentarians' expenses and a more transparent Board of Internal Economy that has proper audit rules.
Finally, we would move toward a truly independent Senate.
To that end, I would encourage my friend to also support Bill C-613, known as the transparency act, that was introduced by my leader, the hon. member for Papineau.
The goals of this bill my friend from Wellington—Halton Hills is presenting are laudable. Those on this side want a House where Parliament respects the principles of responsible government and the rule of law. I know that my friend has had challenges with his own party and with the sometimes difficult nature of the exercise of executive power.
Therefore, I challenge my friend from Wellington—Halton Hills to make the changes within his own party before we impose changes on all political parties, and if he cannot change his party, he is welcome to change parties.