Mr. Speaker, I wish to say from the outset that I will be sharing my time with the hon. member for Beloeil—Chambly. I ought to say at the outset as well that it is with regret that the NDP opposes Motion No. 18. Had there been a better way, we would not necessarily have been here. This motion represents the final act of a failed attempt by the government House leader to unilaterally ram through changes that would overhaul rules that govern democracy and the House of Commons, and the government failed.
The Liberals would have done things that would have consolidated the power of the executive branch of government. I want to outline, therefore, how we got to this point. I do concede that many of the more odious things that the government wanted to slip in under the guise of a discussion paper never found a way into this motion, mercifully. Still, the government's wish list is mostly about trying to make the House function in a way that is simply more convenient to the government. That is not necessarily how democracy was supposed to work.
There are five things that this motion would do. I will address them in a bit of time, but they are the prorogation issue, omnibus bills, the timing of estimates, parliamentary secretaries at committee, and the use of filibusters at committee. I will examine them later, but first we need to talk about how we got here.
The Liberals promised to “Change the House Standing Orders to end the improper use of omnibus bills and prorogation”. That was in the mandate letter for the hon. government House leader. Instead, their motion simply would legitimize omnibus bills. It would do nothing as well to hinder the improper use of prorogation, which the Stephen Harper government used in 2008 and 2009. It would simply regularize that. Therefore, the cynicism in the standing order reform is really quite breathtaking. They also promised to make committees independent by removing parliamentary secretaries, but the motion would do nothing of the sort to prevent them from being there, from managing the agenda in the interests of their ministers, or from ensuring their majority membership voted the right way.
In 2015, the campaign platform of the Liberals made a series of promises about parliamentary reform. It said this, “A Liberal government will restore Parliament as a place where accountable people, with real mandates, do serious work on behalf of Canadians.” One of the things they said they would do would be to change the rules so members and parliamentary secretaries may not be, or stand for, voting members on committees. This gives, I think, the clear impression that parliamentary secretaries and ministers would not be on committees at all; not so fast, as we will see.
They also said they “will ensure that the Parliamentary Budget Officer is truly independent...properly funded, and accountable only—and directly—to Parliament”. The current parliamentary budget officer and the former PBO, Kevin Page, have just criticized the changes that the government has made in giving new responsibilities to the parliamentary budget officer, fearing that they would have to have their work plan approved by the Speakers of the House and Senate before proceeding, hardly something that enhances the independence the Liberals promised us.
The Liberals said they would end abuse of prorogation and omnibus bills. That was included, as I said, in the mandate letter to the government House leader. She was to “Work with the President of the Treasury Board to ensure accounting consistency between the Estimates and the Public Accounts”—I will have more to say about that in a moment—and, my favourite, “Work with Opposition House Leaders to examine ways to make the House of Commons more family-friendly for Members of Parliament.” That has certainly gone by the wayside, as we see a four-week marathon session to midnight, which is hardly friendly to young families.
In March 2017, as the hon. opposition House leader has outlined, there was a so-called discussion paper where the government House leader. laid out the Liberals' plan to overhaul the rules of the House, clearly rejecting the traditional approach of requiring all-party agreement for major changes to the way this place runs. The Liberals simply did not seek all-party consensus. They simply thought they could ram through their changes; again, many of which were simply to make the life of a government easier. They did not succeed, I am happy to say.
They promised to eliminate Friday sittings. They have resiled from that commitment dramatically. Allowing ministers to vote without interrupting cabinet meetings is no longer there. Adding sitting weeks in January, June, and September is out.
Have the House sit longer on any given day, eliminate the summer and Christmas adjournment date at the government's discretion, remove tools of the opposition from routine proceedings, replace the tool of time allocation with a more powerful tool called “programming”, and so forth; a lot of those things did not make it to this part of our parliamentary process. Now we have a motion with merely five things.
There was also something called a “prime minister's question period” that did not make it. As of Friday it was in, but it is no longer there. I will ask Canadians to draw their own conclusions as to why. We are supposed to assume that it will still be part of their practice. I do not know what we are to take from that.
We saw a filibuster at PROC. We saw issues as we used our procedural playbook in this place to disrupt the government's agenda, to get Canadians' attention. The media and stakeholders rose to the occasion. We simply said as opposition that we would not stand for unilateral changes to this place. I am proud that both opposition parties worked together to find common ground in protecting parliamentary rights.
However, I want to give credit where credit is due. It was not just Conservatives and NDP, there were well-meaning, experienced Liberal members of Parliament who also understood how dangerous the government's course of action was. I refer, for example, to the hon. member for Malpeque, who on April 17 said this:
The reality is there’s not enough getting done in the House. I’ve been a long-term member and I strongly believe that you have to have at least consensus from the main parties to change the rules of the House.
We also heard from many Liberal backbenchers, encouraging us not to give up, understanding we were dealing with their rights as parliamentarians as well.
Eventually, the government has backed down and now we have what can only be described as pretty thin gruel before us. The government has been very ineffective with its legislative productivity. The Liberal government has passed half the bills that were passed by this time in the Harper government's mandate. The Liberals have introduced 56 bills into either the House or Senate, and now have passed 25 since they came to power. Notwithstanding that there have been a lot of time allocation motions in the last while, I think most Canadians will agree that had they worked with other sides of the House, we would have had a more productive Parliament.
I would like to address the five things, very briefly. On prorogation, within 20 days of the new session following a prorogation, the government would have to submit a report to the House explaining the reasons why it prorogued. What will that achieve? It will achieve virtually nothing. It will not stop the misuse of prorogation that we saw under Mr. Harper. In fact, it would simply allow rubber-stamping of prorogation. How cynical is that?
On omnibus bills, it was Mr. Harper who traditionally used the budgets for his omnibus bills, so it is not about a budget implementation act. It is about others. The Standing Order change would simply allow the Speaker to have the power to divide omnibus bills for the purpose of voting “where there is not a common element connecting the various provisions”. We saw the 300-page budget implementation bill that is before Parliament making all sorts of changes, which this would not affect.
On filibusters, in the interest of time, I cannot say much more, except to say that was a positive change that came out of eleventh-hour negotiations.
On the budget and main estimates, the Treasury Board Secretariat could have time to have the main estimates reflect what is in the budget. That is a good thing. However, our concern as opposition is that this proposal merely reduces the amount of time the opposition and stakeholders would have to examine the main estimates.
The NDP must, regretfully, vote against the motion. We hope the government will never again attempt to unilaterally change the rules that govern all of us parliamentarians as we go about our duties in this place.