Mr. Speaker, I am most pleased to support my colleague, the member for , on the Liberal opposition day motion.
I will not read the actual motion, which is rather technical. The motion speaks to a very serious flaw in Canada's democracy. That flaw was especially revealed in the way that the Conservative government has operated with respect to Bill , the fair or unfair elections act, whatever members want to call it, depending on their perspective, and how the regime would impose its will to the exclusion of all other views. That is a part of what is forcing this motion today.
I listened closely to the member for York Centre earlier, going back through a lot of history and where closure, time limitation, and debate have been used. There is no question that sometimes it is necessary in regular business as a government, in terms of doing the business of a nation.
However, let us understand what has been happening in recent years. There have been omnibus bills, 400 pages in length, dealing with sometimes as many as 40 different pieces of legislation that have nothing to with the budget. In previous times, most of those pieces of legislation would be broken out so that they could go to the appropriate committee. They would be debated here and would have a full hearing.
It has to be noted that in terms of this motion today that we are only dealing with the Canada Elections Act and the Parliament of Canada Act. What more important business could Parliament have than with those particular acts, which are the underpinnings of our democracy?
We need to ensure, at least on those particular pieces of legislation, that a slight majority government in Canada cannot impose its will in this place. It is one of the flaws in our democracy. The government needs to get things done, but it does not have the majority of the votes in the country.
The Conservative government, in particular, fails to operate for all Canadians; it tends to operate for a certain ideological base. As a result, these laws are not debated and analyzed in a proper, open, and transparent fashion, with the necessary witnesses. As I said, the government is imposing its will on the people and without proper debate.
The rationale behind this motion is that changes to legislation that are fundamental to our democracy should only be made through a consensus-based process. The Conservatives are treating Bill as another piece of partisan legislation to be rammed through Parliament at their convenience. This needs to be prevented from happening, now and in the future. That is what this particular motion would do. It would ensure that there is the proper debate.
Again, I listened to the member for York Centre, when he said that if we had the opportunity to debate every bill over the course of a term, members would only get to speak on eight bills in the whole term. Nobody is talking about every bill. We are talking about the way that government members continue to operate. They try to misrepresent and mislead the facts by saying something that is spinning it a little, that is a bit close to what the motion is talking about but is not the real thing.
How many hours would it take up in the House of Commons if the committee studying Bill travelled to every region of the country to hear what Canadians have to say on the bill? Would that not be the proper thing to happen in a democracy, that a committee goes out there to the country with the bill in hand, with all the parties present, and allows witnesses to have their say directly in their own areas, rather than either transporting them to Ottawa or doing a video conference? It should get out in the country where people can be heard, where people from the countryside can come into the meeting, rather than in the kind of bubble that is Ottawa.
Changes to legislation like the Elections Act and the Parliament of Canada Act, which are fundamental to our democracy, must be achieved by broad consensus and be backed by solid evidence. That is what the proposal by my colleague, and this motion, is all about, that there be proper debate, in a proper forum, with the proper amount of time on these two pieces of legislation. That is why we, as a party, have introduced the motion today that will change the Standing Orders of the House of Commons to prevent any government from using time allocation and closure to shut down debate on changes to the Elections Act and the Parliament of Canada Act.
As a member of the Liberal Party, I would point out that if the government continues to run roughshod over Canadians by forcing through its bill, our leader has committed that a Liberal government will repeal the Conservatives' undemocratic changes to our country's Elections Act. That is a sure thing.
How serious is this particular bill? There was an article in iPolitics this morning that fairly aggressively states where Canada will be left if this bill is passed. The article in iPolitics is entitled “The Fair Elections Act is a global disgrace”. It is written by Anita Vandenbeld.
Ms. Vandenbeld worked for a number of years internationally, on democratic development with the United Nations Development Programme, the National Democratic Institute, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and the Parliamentary Centre. She has considerable experience on viewing democracies around the world.
I will not go through all of our arguments; I will go to some of the witnesses before committee. However, I would encourage people, and especially the Conservative backbenchers, that rather than just accepting the speaking points from the PMO, to read this article. She spells out the serious flaws and how Canada is becoming an embarrassment around the world with the way the current government is operating and how it is trying to seriously undermine the main foundation of our democracy.
The key point she makes, which in stark reality shows what her view is on this particular bill and the way that the government is handling it, is this. She states:
|| The last time I worked in a country where a government used its majority in Parliament to ram through changes to an election law without public input was in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2011. I never would have expected this in Canada.
That tells us how the people with the experience in looking at democracies around the world are looking at the actions of the government.
I have to say this because I hear some chirping from the backbench over there.
People who are on the back bench have to understand that they are not members of the government. The cabinet is the government. They are members of the governing party. They have the right, if they so desire, to stand up in their own right and represent their constituents and Canadians. They do not need to follow the whipped moves from the PMO.
They can stand up and express their own opinion, and on something as fundamental as Canada's election laws and the Parliament of Canada, I would love to see them tonight, or whenever the vote is held, standing up in support of this motion. We would applaud them for showing that, under this regime, democracy could even work in this place. That would be quite startling, and I would love to see it.
Legislation affecting our democratic institutions is too important to be rammed through in a partisan manner by any government. Such legislation should be able to get support from at least one other party in this place. We are all here representing constituents. We cannot be that far apart on issues such as democracy.
One would think that the government would be able to get at least one party on side in support of its legislation. As a result, though, of its not gaining that support, we are seeing an abuse of processes in this place in situations like those with Bill , which is horrible legislation in my view. It seems there is no support from anyone other than the Conservative Party, but it intends to ram it through Parliament.
As such, I maintain that this is an affront to our democracy. Canada was previously seen as a model for other developing democracies, with Elections Canada, government representatives, and spokesmen being asked to profile how we operate in Parliament, how we run elections in this country.
That is all going to be gone, because we are now seen, such as at the United Nations, very differently from we used to be. We are no longer seen as a global leader in terms of peace and democracy around the world. It is because of the way the government operates.
The member opposite says it is because of Bill . No, it is because of the attitude and the way the government has operated in the last eight years. This is a government that came in talking about accountability and transparency, and we have not seen it be accountable for anything.
The minister certainly does not stand up, apologize, and be accountable for what he said to the Chief Electoral Officer. There is no such thing. The minister was responsible, and if the would show some leadership, he would force that minister to apologize for the way he is treating parliamentary officers in this country.
It is an attitude that has pervaded that whole Conservative Party since it came to government, which is making us disrespected around the world.
We are now witnessing in Canada the undermining of debate on bills. I have heard others say this and I think it may in fact be necessary for us in the next election to ask for United Nations observers to come in to observe the election.
The members are laughing over there. However, when we look at this bill, we can see that we may need United Nations observers in this country of Canada because the government is undermining democracy so much. Moreover, as we will see when the vote comes up, not one of those backbenchers will be willing to stand up for Canadians. They are only willing to stand up for their .
Bill , the so-called fair elections act, is quite literally nothing less than the most comprehensive voter suppression effort in Canadian history.
The bill was designed to exclude, to manipulate, and to undermine the democratic process in Canada, which is the bedrock of our democracy: our election process. The has performed his task well. He has delivered for his leader the kind of legislation that would only serve to increase the cynicism among Canadians as to the political process, with the result, the Conservatives hope, of driving more voters out of the system, young people in particular.
All one has to do is listen to some of the witnesses who were before committee and listen to what some people are saying in the press. This is a government that views the manner in which Canada conducts federal elections not as something that all parties in the House have an equal share in ensuring works properly but as a system it manipulates to its advantage. That, to the Conservatives, is acceptable.
There are only two kinds of Canadians according to the government party opposite: good Conservatives or bad Canadians. Those who oppose the government are less Canadian, unCanadian, the enemy, subversives. That is the kind of government this legislation is revealing to Canadians that we have in Canada at the moment. There is something suspicious about a government that is attempting to manipulate the democratic system to ensure the disenfranchisement of Canadians, while fearing to allow thorough, open, cross-country public hearings to hear the voices of Canadians. A government with any integrity would have worked with all parties in the House on this legislation and, if not that, would have had the integrity to take the legislation into the country and road test it. It can still do that, if it really wanted to. It could go out and hear from Canadians.
As I said earlier, backbench members over there have the opportunity to stand up and be counted to ensure that there is proper debate, long-term debate, cross-country hearings where everyone can be heard on the Parliament of Canada Act and the Canada Elections Act.
This legislation, Bill , to which the motion today relates, has to be placed in the wider context. That is the fact that the former auditor general, Sheila Fraser, stated that the government would undermine the credibility of virtually every arm's length agency of the government that performs any kind of oversight. Ms. Fraser said, according to The Globe and Mail of April 9, that the attack on Mr. Mayrand “disturbed” her greatly, was “totally inappropriate”, and that such comments “undermine the credibility of these institutions”. She also warned that the bill would unduly limit the Chief Electoral Officer, threaten Elections Canada's independence, and block people, including her own daughter, from voting with the tightened ID requirements. We all respect Sheila Fraser. She is a former auditor general. When she makes those kinds of serious comments, it is time we listen.
Let me list the bill's critics so far. They include Mr. Mayrand; Commissioner of Canada Elections, Yves Côté; two of their predecessors; Ms. Fraser; former Reform Party leader Preston Manning; provincial chief electoral officers; Harry Neufeld, the author of an authoritative Elections Canada report; law school deans. There was a list on March 11 of well over 100 university professors saying this bill should not go through as is.
I will conclude by saying that this motion would lay down criteria where proper debate has to be held on the Canada Elections Act and the Parliament of Canada Act. I encourage backbench members to stand in their own right to support it.
Mr. Speaker, I am honoured to speak today. Just so my colleague across the way understands, when we get back to this fine institution in a couple of weeks, as a backbench member of the government I will be voting against the motion that is in front of us.
I have done a bit of research and have thought about the motion here in front of us. I basically broke down my presentation into two or three different areas, and hopefully I can get to them all.
First, so the public understands, let me talk about what is happening today.
Today is a supply day. Supply days were a creation of the Liberal government in 1968. They have been around for a long time. Previous to that time, the estimates, the actual allocating of money, was all dealt with in the House. It took up a tremendous amount of time. There was no time, or very little time, for creating legislation. The Liberal government of the day, in conjunction with the opposition members, came to the conclusion that things could be done more efficiently and effectively by allocating 25 days of the year to supply.
This means that the opposition parties can bring forward any motion that they would like on any topic that they would like. I am just guessing, but I think the vision of the day was that opposition parties would be able to bring a non-confidence motion forward and either criticize the government's policies or programs or maybe even present an alternative. That was the fundamental reason for supply days to begin with, and that is what we are doing here today.
I find it a bit strange that the Liberals are using this valuable time in this way. Because the Liberal Party is now in third place, it gets fewer days. Because the days are allocated by the size of the opposition, obviously the official opposition would get more days than the Liberal Party, and today the Liberals are using one of their two spring supply days to talk about process. I thought that was very strange, but I am happy to talk about process if that is what they want to talk about.
I thought maybe they wanted to define “middle class”. In part of my research, I was looking up “middle class”. The leader of the third party has been talking about the middle class quite a bit, so he must know a lot about it. His father was the prime minister of Canada and his upbringing was not really in the middle class, but I thought maybe it was his grandfather who instilled the middle class piece in him.
I looked in The Canadian Encyclopedia. I know my family and the vast majority of Canadian families are not mentioned in the The Canadian Encyclopedia, but the Trudeau family is. I found out that the former prime minister's father, the grandfather of the present leader of the Liberal Party, was listed there as being a wealthy businessman from Quebec and part of the elite even back in that generation.
I find it very strange that the Liberals are using today to talk about process. Maybe it is because they would have a difficult time talking about what they would like to accomplish, because they really have not indicated a whole lot to Canadians about what they want to do.
This brings to me to the actual motion, which is about time allocation.
The Liberals have chosen two specific areas to talk about in relation to time allocation. I want to make clear that what they are talking about is time allocation. Let me go through the three ways that it can happen.
There is a difference between closure and time allocation. Time allocation is allocating the amount of time in this House to deal with whatever the item happens to be. It makes it much easier and more convenient for us to determine how many speakers we have, when we will do it, and what days we will allocate to speaking on whatever item. It is purely organizational.
There are three ways that I know of that time allocation can happen.
First of all, the public should know that the House leaders from each party meet. They discuss the agenda, or the orders of the day as we call it here, such as, what is going to happen in the House, when things are coming forward, and how much time will be put to them.
It is my understanding that in the past the number one way of allocating time was by agreement between House leaders. For example, a House leader would agree to put up 20 speakers and another House leader would agree to 5 speakers. There would be an agreement on how much time is spent on a particular item. That is how it has happened in the past and it can happen in the future.
Then, when there is agreement, members would come back to the House. The House leaders go back to their whips and organizations, in our case the parliamentary secretary in charge of that area, and they would organize the speakers from our side who would speak to a particular item. The same thing happens with other parties and their critics.
A second way of allocating time is to have an agreement with the majority of the parties in the House. There are three recognized parties in the House, and two of the three can come together to figure out what we want to do. Technically they can allocate the time for whatever the discussion will be on a particular area.
The third way to allocate time is unfortunately what we have had to come to, but it is completely legal and fair. It is that the government of the day can allocate the time. That is not closure; it is not saying that we are not debating something.
I spoke earlier this week when we were debating our budget implementation bill. I was the 69th speaker, and there was going to be a speaker after me. There were 70 speakers at second reading, and five days were allocated to the debate in second reading.
The bill then goes to committee. If there are amendments at committee, it comes back here to report stage, which I did not know about until I got here. That was not mentioned much in the political science books that I read in university. However, there is a report stage. Again, there is an allocation, which may be done through the House leader on the government side or through a negotiation and discussion at the House leaders meeting. However, there is an allocation of time to debate the item, based on the amendments.
As members know, there could be a lot of amendments. The Speaker could group amendments together and we could then have debate on single sets of amendments. It is not just amendments in total, but on single sets. That could go on for a lengthy period of time. The bill then comes back for third reading. Third reading in this House has another time allocation piece to it.
Unfortunately, what is happening is that we are not able to get agreement from the other side on allocations, so the House leader on our side has to tell the House how much time will be allocated. There is always a 30-minute discussion on the government's allocation of time.
On the budget implementation bill, for example, we allocated five days to it. People can say that five days is not a lot. However, I did a little research on this, and I want people to understand the agenda in terms of the length of time that we are here.
In this calendar year, we will be sitting for 27 weeks in Ottawa, doing Canada's work. We all do plenty of work in our ridings, of course, but this is work on legislation that comes to the House. I then took all of the days that we have in a week and broke it down.
I do not know if people understand this, but there are 20-minute time slots for the speech and 10 minutes for questions and answer. Technically, one could split one's time. Today we have 20-minute slots, but to maximize the amount, it could be 10-minute speeches with a 5-minute question and answer period.
For example, on Monday, we are in the House from 11:00 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. We have to remove an hour for private members' business and an hour for question period. There are a lot of other things that eat into the time, but I am being judicious in saying that those two things automatically happen. There is also routine procedures and so on, which is another 15 minutes or so. In actual fact, we have about five hours and fifteen minutes on Monday, which is about 21 slots, if we split the time slots.
On Tuesdays there are six hours and fifteen minutes for discussion. That is 25 slots. On Wednesdays it is only a couple of hours, at two hours and fifteen minutes of actual time, which is nine slots. That time gets eaten up with trading over. On Thursdays we are back to the same as Tuesday, with 25 slots. On Fridays we have two hours and fifteen minutes, the same as Wednesday, with another nine slots.
If everything went absolutely smoothly and there were no interruptions or points of order and we went right to the minute and moved along, that is maybe 89 or 87 spots in a week.
I heard a few minutes ago that members of Parliament get elected here to talk about the items. Can members imagine if all members, all 308 of us, were required to speak to every item? We have about 88 spots a week. We are here about 27 weeks of the year. We then have supply days thrown in. We have other items. We have voting. If everything was as smooth as glass, based on my math, we would get maybe two pieces of legislation through every year.
That is not including the budget and the budget implementation bills, because in a sense those are automatics. We have a budget presented by the finance minister. There is debate and discussion on it. Then there are also two budget implementation bills, one in the fall and one in the spring, and time is allocated for debating those bills as well.
My estimate is that if we followed the rule or the expectation that all 308 of us would get a chance to speak to every item, we would get through a maximum of two pieces of legislation in the House.
That is not including committees. The public should know that. As I was saying this week, I was the 69th speaker at second reading. The bill then goes to committee. At committee, members of Parliament hear witnesses and get involved in debate and discussion about the legislation in front of us. The bill then comes back here for the report stage and third reading.
In my view, if there was no such thing as time allocation, as members of Parliament we would get virtually nothing done. I am not sure that the public of Canada is sending us to Ottawa to do absolutely nothing. The public expects some legislation to be passed.
The public expects discussion to take place, and there is discussion. There are speeches from both sides, from one side or the other, and there are often areas of concern or interest. On our side, normally we promoting. On the opposition side, members are often taking exception. Those discussions will happen.
People will notice that comments are often repeated over and over again. We do the same thing on our side. I am not saying that it is a one-sided thing. We repeat the same thing, or something very close to it. I know that the rules of this place are that we cannot say the exact same thing as somebody else. I do not really use speeches, as members can tell by my standing here. I have some notes, but I do not have actual speeches.
What I am saying is that time allocation does not stop debate. It assists debate. It allows fair discussion on the issues, and the limited time that the House has to deal with legislation requires time allocation.
We are being criticized, partially in this motion, over time allocation as if it had never existed before and as if it were something new that we had come up with. As far as I know, time allocation has been part of the process here forever, because it would not make sense to do otherwise.
Stanley Knowles, a New Democrat member of Parliament many decades ago, has been quoted as saying that it is important to have time allocation, that it is important that we have an understanding of how much time we are going to spend on a particular item and move forward to make decisions on whether we are going to support or oppose something.
The Liberal motion today tries to focus on two specific types of bills. In my view, they have done that because they know very well that time allocation is an important process around here, and they are using these two items for political reasons, not for practical reasons of improving how this place operates. We have a reform bill by one of my colleagues here before us. But in my view, if we really want reform of this place, and we know how little time we have to debate different issues, and given the scheduling that we have to arrange between committees, and so on, I think there are better ways to operate the House of Commons. I have made some suggestions on the number of committees, the timing of committees, and how much time we allocate for House time. We could be much more efficient than we are, strictly from a business perspective.
My concern is that when we hear the opposition say they did not have time to debate it, if we look at the actual speeches they make, they are repetitive and clearly not supporting the actual legislation in front of the House. That is fair. That is their job, to be in opposition. However, they should be able to make their points and then move on. That is not what is happening.
Time allocation and closure are two different things. Closure is a motion invoked when a piece of legislation is required by a certain time, whether it is in other statutes, or a Supreme Court decision has been granted on a certain item and the House has to report back by a certain date. If we check the records, closure is rarely used.
Another item I have heard about recently, aside from the debate on the , is omnibus bills. The opposition are concerned about the size of bills, and they will quote big numbers. This week they were quoting it as 489 pages long. I agree that the particular piece we were dealing with this week is 489 pages long, but it is in both English and French, so it is actually about 250 pages. The fair elections act is not even that long, but it is in two languages.
If, say, we have to read a couple hundred pages, I am pretty sure that most Canadians believe that members of Parliament can read a couple of hundred pages. Additionally, what is also great about the way the system works here is that despite the fact legislation arrives before us in legalese, there are summary pages at the front of every piece of legislation highlighting what is important and what each section does.
What happens is that I, as a member of Parliament, read through the summaries and look through the parts of the legislation that are of concern or interest. If there is something I do not understand, I read it in more detail. Then I have an opportunity to talk to the minister. That opportunity is open to every member of Parliament. They normally have a session with a briefing that anyone can attend, including staff. They are briefed at the bureaucratic level on what is in a bill so they will have an understanding of it.
With the amount of time we have, which I am running out of now, I do not think we should support the motion. Time allocation is getting a bad name because people do not understand what it is used for and how it works. It is something that makes the House operate. If we were to ask people on my street, they would believe we are way too slow in getting legislation through the House.