Mr. Speaker, I rise in the House today to speak to the motion put forward by the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs. The motion is to strike a special joint committee of the Senate and the House of Commons to consider matters related to the proposed amendment of the terms of union of Newfoundland concerning that province's school system.
The special joint committee will be instructed to consult broadly and review such information as it deems appropriate with respect to this issue. The committee is to be composed of 16 members of the House and seven members of the Senate and must present its final report no later than December 5, 1997.
Reformers recently supported a motion to strike a special joint committee to study a proposed constitutional amendment to the Quebec school system. However, we had reservations about that process. We were concerned about the extremely short timeframe the committee had to conduct its review and to report its findings. We also believe it was absurd to have senators who have no democratic legitimacy sitting on the committee.
However, despite these points of concern, the members of this side of the House were generally supportive of the establishment of a parliamentary committee to study the proposed resolution on the Quebec school system. Similarly, while we have corresponding concerns regarding this special joint committee, we generally support the establishment of another parliamentary committee to study the proposed amendment regarding the Newfoundland school system.
A large number of people in Newfoundland have been demanding a non-denominational school system for that province for more than three decades. During that time two royal commissions have studied the issue. There have been endless negotiations and debate, several court rulings and one constitutional amendment, and now two province-wide referendums on the school system.
Many commentators have noted that a single denominational system will be less costly and more efficient. The Premier of Newfoundland has estimated that the system will save $25 million per year. Clearly this is a very important issue. The proposed amendment deals with the Canadian Constitution which is the fundamental law of this land. In this case Parliament has been asked to constitutionally amend the 1949 terms of union that brought Newfoundland into Confederation.
The Reform Party believes strongly that education is a matter of provincial responsibility and that provincial jurisdiction over education should be respected and enhanced. Therefore, we neither support nor oppose church run or non-denominational schools for Newfoundland. We believe this is an issue that must be decided by Newfoundlanders by free and democratic processes and in accordance with the rule of law.
The principal interest of the federal Parliament in educational reform is primarily that such reforms do not prejudicially affect the rights of minorities which Parliament has an obligation to protect. As the other speakers from my party have stated, we believe Parliament should discharge these responsibilities by making any constitutional amendment proposed by a province, such as the one that will be considered by this special joint committee, subject to these three tests: democratic consent, the rule of law and the Canadian national interest.
Let me quickly review the three tests we feel must be satisfied if this amendment is to gain the support of the Reform Party. First, was there a clear majority of Newfoundlanders that supported the constitutional amendment through the results of a province wide referendum? Was the referendum process fair? And was the referendum question unbiased? The amendment was approved by majority in two separate referendums with the second referendum having an overwhelming majority of 73%. The turnout of 53% of eligible voters was fairly high when compared to other similar referendums. The referendum vote was conducted by Newfoundland Elections, the government's arm's length agency established to ensure fair and democratic elections. Therefore it appears that term 17 amendments have passed the test of democratic consent.
Second, is there compelling legal evidence such as an upper court ruling that certified the constitutional amendment itself conforms to the rule of law? Term 17 of the 1949 terms of union is intended to serve as a replacement for section 93 of the Constitution Act concerning education and applies exclusively to the province of Newfoundland. Therefore, it can legitimately be amended by the provincial legislature and the House of Commons passing identical resolutions in accordance with section 43 of the Constitution.
Section 93 does not prevent Newfoundland from reforming its educational system or from implementing reforms that affect minority rights. But the rule of law requires that the Newfoundland government demonstrate that its proposed reforms do not prejudicially affect the rights of those who desire a religious orientation in the education of their children.
We have been informed that Newfoundland's minister of education has obtained a legal opinion stating that the proposed amendment to term 17 is legal. However, the original term 17 amendment proposed by the Newfoundland government in 1995 was found to be constitutionally questionable by the Newfoundland supreme court. Therefore, we are not entirely convinced that the latest term 17 amendment fully conforms to the rule of law. Our concerns might be alleviated, however, if the Newfoundland government was to obtain a ruling from that province's supreme court establishing that the proposed amendment does not prejudicially affect the rights under section 93 of the Constitution act.
Third, is there is clear evidence that this educational reform does not prejudicially affect rights previously granted to the citizens of that province and in no way damages minority rights in that province or any other province? As with the proposed constitutional amendment regarding the Quebec school system, the manner in which this matter is handled may set an important precedent for other provinces with respect to educational reform as well as minority rights. Because we are not convinced that the latest Newfoundland amendment adheres to the rule of law, we are also not convinced that the term 17 amendment meets the test of the Canadian national interest.
I would like to close with an appeal to any common sense that exists in the government to allow a free vote on constitutional amendments, such as the one before us on Newfoundland term 17.
While claiming there is strong consensus for a linguistic school system in Quebec, the federal intergovernmental affairs minister has ducked the question whether there should be a free vote in Parliament on the constitutional amendment. The government has been successful in paying lip service to the principle of free votes for members of the House, but it has failed to put its words into action. Free votes have been few and far between. One of the few times members have been actually allowed a free vote was on the previous vote on the Newfoundland school question.
We encourage the government to make a clear and unequivocal public acknowledgement of the precedents set by the previous Newfoundland amendment for both the Quebec amendment as well as the vote that is now required on the Newfoundland constitutional amendment. Such a declaration of support for the principle of free votes would remove the constraints of party discipline from members of the House and allow government backbenchers to vote without falling out of favour with the party leadership.
I can assure members that on matters as important as changes to fundamental law of the land, Reform MPs will be particularly influenced by the opinions of their constituents and whether Canadians are satisfied that the amendment in question is democratic, legal and in the national interest.
In conclusion I ask, what will guide the MPs from other parties in these matters, the will of their constituents and the Canadian national interest or the heavy hand of party discipline?