Mr. Speaker, it is a great privilege to speak here today, and I mean that with sincerity, because it is relevant to the topic of debate. We are talking about parliamentary privilege today. I will definitely speak on that, but I will also comment upon what the House leader and parliamentary secretary to the House leader have talked about today.
One thing I would like to point out is that in June of this year we will be celebrating the 802nd anniversary of the Magna Carta. I bring that up because all of what has happened throughout history, in English parliaments and parliaments around the world, is related to the debate we are having today.
If members will recall, the Magna Carta was signed reluctantly by King John at Runnymede in the 13th century. It was the foundation of parliamentary democracy. It was when barons stood up to the executive and said that they were not going to be taxed without representation. It was not at all a democracy at that point, but it was the beginning of a check on executive power. That is very important. However, from that initial document, a series of rules and institutions were built around the relationship between the executive, which in that case was the king, or eventually the queen, and those who were governed, those who paid taxes or were covered by the coercive power of the state. Really the Magna Carta in our history, and we are modelled on the English and then British and then U.K. parliaments, is a check on the executive, and that is important.
The Magna Carta was signed after a long period of turmoil, a very violent state of affairs at that time, but that violence and instability within England and eventually United Kingdom continued right through the period. Thank goodness we have a relatively peaceful period of time now. However, what began to emerge through history, as parliaments began to sit more regularly, was that the king would decide that he did not like what some members of parliament were saying and would have them arrested. The king would send troops and would block the entrance to parliament. I do not know if Queen Victoria did it, but we do know that previous kings did it. Most famously, Charles I tried to have five parliamentarians hauled out of parliament for speaking against the king and refusing to pay tax. That did not end too well for Charles I, who was beheaded during the civil war with Oliver Cromwell.
This might seem like an esoteric argument, but this is directly related to what we are talking about today, which is privilege. The deal that was made between the executive, the king or royalty, and those who were government was that they would be able to go to a place where they could voice opposition. They would be able to challenge, agree or disagree, with what the executive was proposing and not feel threatened. They would be protected under the law. That, of course, rises to the supremacy of Parliament. Those are the foundations on which we are built here today.
What we are talking about may seem like a relatively small incident, and why are we debating it at great length? We are debating it because it speaks to the principles of what we do in this place. We carry the weight of history, of people who fought and died so that we can stand in places like this today. Our job is to be caretakers of this place so that we can pass it on to future generations.
What was usually happening when rules were reformed and new rules put in place was that something bad was going on. Take, for example, the English Civil War, with the king trying to haul parliamentarians, MPs, out of Westminster, and then being executed, and of course the country dropping into a civil war, when Thomas Hobbes described the world as being “nasty, brutish, and short”. This gives us a picture of what we do not want to happen.
After that settled down and peace broke out, parliamentarians and the executives sat down and asked what kind of rules could be put in place to avoid that from happening again. That is exactly where parliamentary privilege comes from. When we are in relatively good times, like we are today—we do not have any civil war on the horizon in Canada—maybe these rules do not seem very important, but they are important in bad times. Obviously, we do not wish for that; we see a bright future ahead of us. However, these things happen.
In governments around the world, we see surprising, shocking upheavals that we could not anticipate. I always think of the former Yugoslavia, which hosted the Olympics one year and then a few years after split up as a country. Things can happen.
We have to respect the laws that we have negotiated over the years. That is really what has happened. The bad times show what should not happen, and during the good times we negotiate the rules by which we try to avoid future bad times.
This is an important question of privilege. I have listened to the debate. There has been a good level of respect for this. The House allotted a good time for this. Again, it is good for us to remind ourselves of the boundaries of debate and our responsibilities here, and the roles we play. Of course we have a fused legislature here, with the executive sitting among the legislature. Sometimes it can get a bit confusing in that sense.
However, the role the opposition plays is essential. Voicing the will of constituents is one thing, but it is also keeping the government from making big mistakes. That is what we are supposed to do here. We are supposed to debate. I think all Canadians would agree, and a lot of people in the House agree, that these things could be improved, and we have seen some improvement.
We have to be careful to not take questions of privilege too lightly and ensure we consider them very carefully, if we feel privilege has been breached. Perhaps we can learn from this so we can make adjustments to ensure these things do not happen again.
A lot of this debate has been related to the changes to the Standing Orders. We have heard debate on the other side. In the last Parliament, I closely related to the change in the Standing Orders. I was able to put forward a private member's motion to bring electronic petitions to the House of Commons, which was eventually successful. I would like to walk the House through that a bit, because it has been misrepresented by the other side.
Initially I put forward a first motion and then after some discussion a second motion to Parliament. Right now in the Standing Orders, we have the ability to do paper petitions. If constituents write a petition in a particular way and they get 25 signatures, we are able to submit it to the House for consideration by the government and also speak to it briefly.
What my motion was designed to do, and did, was change the Standing Orders so these petitions could be accepted electronically. A new web page would created, people could post their electronic petition ideas online, a parliamentarian would sign off on the petition, and then the petition, if it gained 500 signatures, would be sent to the government, just like a paper petition.
The innovation, of course, was that when the government issued a response, this response would be emailed to all those who had signed it. For example, with the recent e-petition on electoral reform, which had about 130,000 people sign, when the government issues a response, those 130,000 people will receive this notice.
That is an important innovation because with the paper petitions, people were not really getting the feedback. It was difficult for them to find out what the government response was to their petition.
I was of course hoping for more changes, such as if petitions received 50,000 or 100,000 signatures, it would trigger a debate in the House of Commons. There would not be a vote, but there would be a debate. This is modelled on the U.K.'s parliamentary system.
I brought forward a motion for a study of electronic petitions. It was not a motion to change the Standing Orders; it was a motion for a study of the Standing Orders, with some suggestions about how we could move forward with electronic petitions. That idea was opposed by Mr. Harper's Conservative government. However, with the kind support of the Liberals, the Green Party member, as well as the Bloc and eight government backbenchers, that motion passed, 142-140, in the House. What passed was a motion that we study electronic petitions and that it be sent to PROC for consideration.
The motion went to PROC. There was a lot of debate. Some of my ideas were adopted and some were not. The report was sent back to the House of Commons and in concurrence of the report, it was adopted unanimously. Even though the discussion started off as a close vote and there was rigorous debate at PROC, when it came back, a compromise was agreed to and it was adopted unanimously. Hundreds of e-petitions have been used at this point. Almost every parliamentarian has used them in one form or another.
Again, that has been represented as a majority vote, but it was not. It was concurred on unanimously at the end of the process.
That is important because it talks about how we amend the Standing Orders. What is being proposed is ham-fisted. Motion No. 6 was proposed by the previous House leader, who is no longer House leader because he muffed it so badly. He tried to ram through changes to the Standing Orders without any discussion. That did not work. Now a new House leader basically has decided to do the same thing. That is not working either. We are looking at a third attempt today to force unilateral changes on how we do business in the House. The processes have been agreed upon over a very long period of parliamentary history, both here and elsewhere.
The government has two things wrong. The first is the process by which we make changes and the second is the content. The process we have been using is a consensual process. We look at the Standing Orders, sit down with political parties, find a way to tweak these orders, look at how we incorporate new technology, those types of things. That is how we have traditionally made changes.
The Liberal government is in a panic at the moment. If we look at its legislative agenda, it has really passed nothing. It has had budget bills that have to pass through the House and the Senate, but really there is very little legislation. From the promise in the election to have real change, we have really had no legislative change.
For example, the assisted dying bill will be struck down by the courts eventually. Members in the other place are waiting for ideas to come from the House of Commons. As the opposition, that is not our responsibility. We try to do the best we can with private members' motions and opposition motions, however, it is the government's job to set the agenda.
The Liberals love campaigning. That is why they are trying to make changes so the Prime Minister does not have to be in the House, but they do not like legislating. This might make the other side upset, but it reminds me of what is going on in the United States. The U.S. President likes to campaign and does not understand how to govern. The President makes promises he knows he cannot keep, and he has not kept them. Apparently, Obamacare was supposed to be abolished in the first order, but that has dropped off the agenda.
Although it is being done with a smile here rather than a sneer, it is still the same thing. It is a government that is unable to accomplish its legislative agenda because it really does not know how to and now it is punishing us by trying to change the Standing Orders unilaterally to force legislation through more quickly. That is not the way it is supposed to be done. We did not vote for Donald Trump in Canada and we do not expect that kind of treatment here.
The process is really important. We found this on electoral reform. We had a committee that was built on consensus. The committee arrived at consensus. It was rejected by the government, but at least we got that far in looking at electoral reform.
The government ended up breaking its promise on electoral reform. We will see what happens in the next election. The Liberals promised they would abolish the first past the post single member plurality system 1,800 times and then they did not do it because they did not get their preferred system. The voters will decide in the next election whether that was a promise worth keeping. I think it was. I am a huge proponent of proportional representation and I am deeply disappointed we did not get that change. However, that is what the government has decided to do.
The process by which we make changes to the Standing Orders is very important. It should not be taken lightly, because it does set a precedent for other changes. If the government decides it will just ignore us or ram through Standing Order changes on this group of changes, why will it not do it again in the next round. It breaks the whole precedent about how we have managed to change the rules in the House in the past.
The other is the content. The content of this new proposal was dropped to the media first, again breaking precedent, and then mentioned in the House of Commons before it is brought up at PROC. The content is also problematic. I am of two minds about whether the Prime Minister should be here for every day of the week or if he should be here one day of the week mainly because I have not seen enough evidence of the impact that will have on how we do business.
I have talked to some colleagues outside the confines of this place. Some of them are okay with it and some are not. However, there is no real space for us to have that debate. Therefore, what happens is that the government brings in a so-called discussion paper, which is actually the motion that will go to PROC. It will go into this forum when we have to vote on something, but there is no place outside of either the chamber or PROC where we can have neutral discussions, have input without the pressure of having to have a vote.
Since we are talking so much about the United Kingdom, and this would perhaps fall on you a bit, Mr. Speaker, its has something called a Hansard Society. It has been there for a very long time. It is actually funded by the Speaker's office and by Parliament and it sets up a neutral place, run by academics, who continually review how parliamentarians do their business.
The Hansard Society came to prominence when there was a huge election expenses scandal in Britain in 2010. The Speaker of the House ordered the Hansard Society to review how the standing orders worked, and it is a great forum. Parliamentarians came in on their off times. They went to sessions, which are actually held in the parliamentary precinct. They would discuss what changes could be made with the public and with experts.
The Hansard Society releases reports and there is no vote, so parliamentarians can speak as parliamentarians. There is no rigorous partisan whipping that happens and it does a courtesy to those members who have been sitting in the House for such a long time to hear their views. We sit here day after day doing good work, but also observing and thinking about how we can make this place work better. The Hansard Society allows that space for that discussion to happen without having the pressure of a vote at the end.
I have had many great discussions with Hansard Society researchers like Dr. Ruth Fox. In fact, they were kind enough to share their experience with electronic petitions with me and helped influence how we built our system here.
We are talking a lot about, for example, Prime Minister's question time being on a Wednesday, which is done in the U.K., but it was developed through neutral discussion in places like the Hansard Society, where parliamentarians could come, let down their hair and have a good chat about how they did their work. We could do the same thing here. If there is one thing that comes out of this discussion, it is perhaps that we need to think about how we can have these discussions without the partisan intensity that happens in this place and in PROC.
Although the privilege question is a serious debate, I am glad we were able to have these discussions, to think about how we do business in this place. I am glad there are thoughts about changing the Standing Orders. However, I am not happy about the way the Liberals are proceeding.