Thank you for the invitation to appear as part of your study of a parallel or concurrent debating chamber for the House of Commons.
Before I get into this, I'd first like to say that I really don't consider myself to be an expert in these matters, but I have shared and will share my perspective today on some of the research I have done in this area. Of course, as some of you may know, some of this was published in the Canadian Parliamentary Review and in the IRPP op-ed the chair mentioned, but these are also my own observations, as a parliamentarian, here since 2006.
I am going to touch on three main things here in my opening comments. The first will be a general description of the concept; second will be some reasons we might be considering this kind of innovation; and third will be some thoughts on how, if the decision were to proceed, that might be dealt with.
After that, of course, I'd be happy to take your questions.
Firstly, in terms of the second chamber itself, the briefing materials and the testimony of Mr. Natzler, the clerk of the UK House, will give you a rough idea of how the system works. Both Australia's House of Representatives and the UK Parliament use them. Australia was the first country to implement the structure, in 1993, and the UK followed, to a degree inspired by Australia’s experience, in 1999.
Each has evolved into a permanent and valued part of its parliamentary institution, and it's noteworthy that their functions and the way they serve MPs and Parliament are somewhat different.
The Federation Chamber in Australia, for example, is used as an adjacent lane for parts of the legislative process, such as second reading and report-stage debates, whereas the U.K. keeps all its consideration of government legislation in the main chamber.
In my view, this is telling. While we share the Westminster parliamentary tradition with our Commonwealth friends in the U.K. and Australia, our Standing Orders, conventions and practices have evolved differently to suit our needs and the priorities of parliamentarians here.
However, there are some common virtues of the two second chambers. These virtues include the following.
They have a low quorum of three people, including the chair occupant, a member from the government side and member from the opposition. The forum is less controversial, since the debates by their nature are less divided.
The parallel structure affords more time for members of Parliament to debate and to speak about issues that have direct relevance in their constituencies. The second chambers operate on a fixed schedule that’s around 30% to 35% of the time in the main chamber.
The second chambers are seen as a way of managing or supplementing the noncontroversial aspects of the day's business that would otherwise take debating time away from the more consequential business of the main chamber, such as routine proceedings, adjournment debates and members statements.
They can act as a proving ground for testing new procedures that may be considered for implementation in the House, and for MPs to hone their debating skills and familiarity with procedures. They are also a help for newer presiding officers to gain knowledge of their roles and points of procedure that will invariably become helpful when they preside in the House.
They generally operate on the same rules of order as the main chamber. They are televised, transcribed and journaled, and provide a small gallery for the public. In our case we would have to add to that simultaneous translation—in essence, the same way that we support standing committees.
The physical setting is similar to a large committee room. The more intimate setting aids decorum. The U.K. and Australia use a U-shaped design to invite more collegiality across party lines.
Since their inception, each of the two chambers has created new features that have become very popular. In the U.K., as you heard, they use the chamber for e-petition debates that can have in excess of 100,000 signatures. Due to the high level of public interest in these debates, they can attract a big online audience, which have been noted to be sometimes higher than for other debates that are broadcast. In Australia, time is reserved for what is called “constituency statements”, like a three-minute S.O. 31, which both members and ministers can use to tailor messages to their own constituents. You'll know that our ministers are prohibited from using that in our S.O. 31 system.
The reviews of each second chamber after more than a decade of use—two decades in the case of Australia—show that each overcame the early concerns and skepticism regarding their merit and usefulness.
Secondly, I want to address the reasons for embarking on a project like this. I believe that it's important that any effort to establish a second chamber be based on a reasonable need or short-coming with our current parliamentary system and procedures.
Understanding the scope of the problems would be instrumental in explaining how a proposed second chamber would work, and more importantly, why it's worth doing. Though the outcomes were favourable for the parliaments in our fellow Commonwealth countries, it's recommended that we understand what issue or gap a second chamber would be intended to address.
There should be a cross-party consensus on this before proceeding much further, and it would take some additional work even to land on what the rationale for such a project would be in the Canadian context.
For the examination of where these gaps or areas of improvement could lie, Samara has done some excellent exit surveys of MPs and tapping of the views of MPs currently serving. House leaders, whips past and present, and table officers have an understanding and experience of parliamentary processes that is unique compared with that of the average backbencher, and their insights on where the current system could be improved would be invaluable.
I would also suggest getting a firm understanding of the original motivations for both the Federation Chamber and Westminster Hall, because they are instructive. The way these two chambers operate today reflects very much their initial raison d’être. That is why, for example, Westminster Hall is more a domain for backbench business versus the main chamber, whereas the Federation Chamber acts as more of an adjacent lane for a wider array of House business.
Finally, as you look at possible steps for your study and recommendations, it is worth looking at how the Select Committee on Modernisation proceeded with their investigations into what eventually became Westminster Hall.
The select committee was aware that creating a second chamber would be, for the institution, a radical and broad innovation to the usual practices. The UK first looked into the second chamber idea in 1994, based on Australia's success. It wasn't until December 1998 that the select committee tabled a discussion document for members of Parliament presenting the possible advantages of the chamber. At that point, the select committee wasn't even proposing to start a second chamber on an experimental basis.
Their intent was to set the idea out in some detail, so members could give their views on the basis of as much information as possible. They then invited members to comment on the proposal over several months, after which they could determine whether to proceed, but if so, how it might best be implemented. As they explained, members will wish to consider it with care, not only in principle but how it might work in practice.
With the inputs they received from MPs in hand, the modernisation committee tabled its second report in the House on March 24, 1999. It was debated in the House in May, and that second report became the basis of a trial of Westminster Hall starting in November of that year. It was not until 2001-02 that Westminster Hall became a permanent part of the U.K. House of Commons parliamentary process.
In summary, I believe that your consideration of this idea is a constructive exercise. Parliament, like any other organization with which we have worked, must constantly seek to improve the efficiency of its internal and administrative processes and make good use of its time. The time demands on parliamentarians is a recurring theme throughout the evolution of our standing orders and our practices and traditions.
Moreover, we should always be looking for ways to demonstrate to our constituents the value and consequence of the exercise of our duties as MPs.
There are many possible advantages to moving ahead with this idea, and the success in the U.K. and in Australia is well established. For our Parliament, having a good grasp of the issues, obstacles or limits that a second parallel chamber could address is the crucial first step.
I thank you for your attention. I'm happy to take your questions, Mr. Chair.
Mr. Stanton, all partisanship aside, I'm a fan. Thank you very much. I enjoyed your article when it first appeared in Canadian Parliamentary Review, I think it was.
I've been following this issue and looking into it further in other jurisdictions, much like you have. During my time, I'm going to do two things: I'm going to ask you questions, but I'm also going to give myself the opportunity to vent my spleen on many of these issues.
I say that because I am absolutely envious of many of the things I've heard in witness testimony about Westminster, the clerk there, and what I've read from Australia. I've seen how they have made strides well advanced of what they were back then, both in Australia and England, but also in New Zealand, and how they've managed to do that with a great deal of maturity.
As a matter of fact, if I may be so bold, sometimes they debate the way their House operates in such a mature fashion that it makes us look like a stationary clown car where reasoned debate goes madly off in different directions. That is most disappointing, because we had an episode last year that was absolutely disgraceful, and I think we should all be blamed for that.
I saw it 10 years ago. I saw it 10 months ago. I think ideas like yours get lost, because I don't know if we're mature enough to deal with them yet. That's my view. That's 15 years of my spleen vented.
Some hon. members: Oh, oh!
Mr. Scott Simms: There are two things about that. There is the Federation Chamber in Australia and then the Westminster Hall. One is a supplemental, if I may use that term, in the sense of there being over 600 members of Parliament. A lot of it deals with the backbench business of emergency debates, e-petitions and constituency statements. I'd love to get three minutes to talk about my constituency. I think we all should have that. The Australian model is more of a parallel chamber. That's the one that's adjacent.
My opinion is that we would be better served with a parallel way of doing this. In other words, for the actual legislation that's in the House now, we should have the opportunity to go beyond the House and discuss it outside if we want to talk about a certain issue of the day. As a matter of fact, I do believe that we could deal with the issue of travel on Fridays, because it seems like everybody who is in government wants to get rid of Friday sittings. Everybody in the opposition wants to keep Fridays; it doesn't matter what party it is. That's been going on for 50-odd years.
This could be a situation where Friday is set up for a parallel chamber, and you don't have to be there on a Friday; you want to be there on a Friday because it deals with a bill that is pertinent to the people you represent.
Do you have a preference between the two?
Deputy Speaker, thanks so much for attending today.
You and I have similar experience in this place. You arrived in the 39th Parliament in 2006, and I got here in the 38th Parliament, just 18 months before you, so most of our experience is the same.
Again, to speak to my experience in coming to this, I've also been a House leader in opposition at Queen's Park, but I was also a part of the House management committee when we were in government. I served a stint as deputy leader, trying to be a referee, similar to you. I think I have a good feel, from all sides, for the concerns and the opportunities.
Let me just say that since this first came on our radar a few years ago when we started to do a review, you and Frank and Mr. Reid and a few others—Mr. Simms—have really taken this to heart. I've had an interest in it, but some of you have gone further and done the research on it.
I only say that to reflect on having been here long enough to see enough things come to life and then go away, then come to life and go away again. However, I think this has some legs. This has captured our attention. We've continued to work on it and people have taken it to heart. If I can be so bold, albeit I won't be here, my gut tells me that this is going to come to be and that it's going to be a good thing. It's a question of how we do it and the process.
If I could jump ahead in my thinking, I think a trial is going to be a definite component of this, because nobody is going to want to go too fast, too far.
I appreciate your recognizing the politics of this, because there are two sides of it. One is the most efficient way to give all members as much participation as possible, particularly in light of our being in a number of eras where more and more power is devolving to the PMO. That's not just to the executive, but concentrated in the PMO.
If I can make a shot for my motion coming up that speaks to our taking back control of hiring our own agents, I will remind people that we still allow the executive to do the hiring process for someone like our Auditor General. It's our Auditor General, but we let the executive, a subset of Parliament, do the hiring process. That's except for the night before when there's a quick little, “Hey, are you okay with Bob Smith?”, and that's it. That's the extent of consultation. To heck with that; we own it.
To me, this is another aspect of trying to reach out and grab back what the historical purpose of Parliament and individual members were.
I would emphasize that no one speaks better to this than Mr. Reid, in terms of both his longevity here, which surpasses ours, and from his interest and being a historian in his own right.
I do think that a trial is going to be a component. That's the one side of it.
The politics of it on the other hand—and I'm glad you touched on it because we have to deal with that too—is that the government wants as much time as possible to get its bills through so that it can say, “Yes, we allowed lots of debate.” Mr. Simms, I think you nailed it right on. The government gets kind of screwed both ways: If you don't allow debate then you're being undemocratic, and if you don't get bills passed, you're being ineffective. Good luck trying to work your way through that.
When we put this in place, we're going to need to be cognizant of that. That's why I'm really happy we are talking, for now, that this is looked at from the view of enhancing, and I would say returning backbench members to their rightful place as important members. We're not supposed to be here just echoing what our leaders tell us to say or to vote the way that our whips say, although that's what we do a lot of the time. We on this committee should be doing everything we can to enhance and preserve the role of individual members, which historically has been going the wrong way.
This was a really good presentation, by the way. Thank you.
Chair, I believe my colleague Mr. Reid may have a couple of questions later.
I have a broad question to get your thoughts on it.
First of all, I do want to thank our friends at Samara. I see that Dr. Paul Thomas is here. I would say Dr. Thomas is one of my two favourite Canadian political scientists who are named Paul Thomas. I just want to point that out. I do appreciate the exceptional work that Samara does and the information it provided to this committee.
You talked a bit about the evolution, especially of Westminster, and how they got to that point. I hadn't realized the process they went through with the initial committee report and the period for members to respond and give some thought to what they wanted, and then coming up with the final report and debating it in the House. It seemed like a very logical process they went through, whether it started that way or not or whether events got in the way.
How would you envision a similar process playing out here? Would it replicate that process, with an initial report and a period for feedback and then a final report that could then be debated in the House? That's my first question.
Connected to that, should we as committee, if we decide to look at that process, also have a part in that looking at other aspects related to that? I'm thinking about some of the Westminster innovations such as the Backbench Business Committee. Should we be looking at that at the same time to see how that might play a role?
We had a review of the e-petition systems here. One thing that was suggested in the past and wasn't adopted at the time was like in the U.K., with a debate to be triggered based on a petition. Should that be rolled up into this type of discussion, or should we focus only on a parallel chamber process? Should we include more in it at the same time? Can we have your thoughts on that?
Just to follow up, we've been talking around it, but I really want your perspective because, in your capacity as Deputy Speaker, you've spent more time than most of us thinking of this place holistically—every day, it's your job—and how things move and what's doable and what isn't.
I think it's fair to say that there is a lot of interest and a fair bit of support, and some of us are actually excited about this as a positive move forward. All of that is to say that it looks as if, right now, Chair, at least at this committee, if we could find the sweet spot, I think we're in a position, I would hope, to put together a report that actually moves this forward.
My question to you is this: In the real world of how this place actually operates, the question is ideally, within that context, for those of us who want this to happen, what do you think we should shoot for in this Parliament? Do you think there is enough time that we could actually get into the details? Should we spend more time now drilling down on details to get it as close to ready as possible, and then ask the House to endorse it, and then carry that over?
Or do you think that, given the realities—and you and I have been through a number of Parliaments now—that we're better off to just wrap up this report and give a favourable recommendation to the next Parliament?
I sense that you're enthusiastic toward this as an idea, as many of us are.
So that was a long way to ask what you think is the best we could do in this Parliament with this committee, given that we probably have majority support across all three of the recognized parties to do something. What do you think that something is? What's the most ambitious thing we could do to see this come to light, given that we're into the silly season, we're running out of runway, but we do have time?
Give us your thoughts, sir.
Thank you, Mr. Chair and members of the committee. I intend to do a short presentation in order to maximize the exchange with the committee.
I'm pleased to be joining you today to present the governance model approved by the Board of Internal Economy. My goal is to ensure the ongoing involvement of members of Parliament in the Centre Block rehabilitation project and to speak with you so that you have the chance to share your expectations and observations.
In terms of the governance model, at the last meeting of the Board of Internal Economy, the board decided to establish a working group composed of one member from each recognized party. That working group would report to the board but would be involved in the rehabilitation project of Centre Block to ensure that MPs were fully engaged, aware and part of the decision-making. Ultimately, while the authority of the decision rests with the board, they would do a report and go into more of the granularity in terms of the Centre Block rehabilitation project.
Obviously, in addition to this working group, as I said last time I appeared before this committee, at the administrative level there is an integrated working group with the administration of the House of Commons, Public Services and Procurement Canada, and also our Hill partner that is looking at and overseeing the project more in terms of its execution and its implementation.
In addition, there's this committee, which is for us a forum, in terms of the governance, to come here on a regular basis to provide updates and to consult and to receive your views on your expectations and needs.
I would suggest that in a nutshell, this is the model of governance. Obviously, there are other aspects that will flow from the work and from looking at the project in terms of where we go and how Centre Block will be rehabilitated. Other stakeholders, such as the media and the public, will for sure also be engaged in consultation, whether through this committee, the working group or the board itself.
I will say, having gone through the West Block experience, a significant number of lessons were learned from that project. From my perspective and in my personal opinion, the most significant one was that the MPs were not sufficiently engaged in the West Block development and its creation. I welcome, then, the direction we've received from the board in establishing that working group of MPs that will assure their continuous involvement at a high level in the project and its granularity. Centre Block is obviously an iconic building for the centre of parliamentary democracy, but it's also your workplace, so it's important that your needs be taken into consideration and that the reality of your lives here be recognized and taken into account in the rehabilitation.
Susan, Stéphan and I are ready to answer any questions you may have.
Thank you very much.
Thanks, Chair. I'm glad you asked that question, because it's quite germane to the point.
Before I do that, though, I do want to just give us all a little pat on the back—nobody else can do it; I can tell you that. We started out getting a report on West Block. We became alarmed at the lack of MP input. We were determined, ourselves, at this committee, that it was going to change in the future, and we made a decision that we were going to make an overture to BOIE. Each of us was then asked to go back and lobby our respective whips and members of BOIE. It would seem that was effective, based on what I'm hearing now, that there was constant talk about “PROC, PROC, PROC”. That's good. I'd just start out by congratulating the chair and the committee on being able to do this. Having been around for a while, I can tell you it's pretty big, in the world of moving government and decision-making, that we've been able to insert ourselves in the way we need to.
That being said, based on your last answer, though, it seems to me that we should be pushing for a little more clarity. The very question the chair asked is the one that was on my mind. I thought the combination Speaker/BOIE was the end of the road. I thought, “They make the decision; that's it.” Now I'm hearing it's not quite that simple, because at least the government—in its capacity to allocate money but recognizing that Parliament, and not the executive, controls the purse strings at the end of the day, though they can ask for money, as they will do tonight.... It's Parliament that says, “Yes, you can have the money”, or, “No, you can't have the money.” We see what goes down, down in the States, when that kind of thing gets challenged.
Then there is, as you've mentioned, the National Capital Commission. It gets its oar in the water. There's something called FHBRO or something close to that. It gets its oar in the water. Now we're putting our oar in the water. I think, Chair, that we should ask the staff to come back and give us a flowchart, as well as they understand it. I see the look on your face, and that's why I want it. The fact that it's nebulous leaves us out in nowhere land. We can think we're an important part of this, but we're all politicians. We can make something something or we can make something nothing, starting with the same something—it just depends on what we want to do with it.
I would like to see that clarity. Doing that, Chair, I think would allow this committee to establish the exact role of that integrated working group. To me, their reporting, if you will, or their advice goes to BOIE, yet I think we should still maintain that the group come in to meet with PROC, I guess as a separate entity. We could even define it as a subcommittee of this committee to make sure that it still stays here.
The fact is the parties get to pick who they're sending. Again we're now back into the executive structure of how this place runs, potentially leaving ordinary members once out, meaning they get to pick who those people are. They may or may not be the ones the rest of us would see as the best representatives of our interests. I'd still like to see some kind of line item—not so much on accountability but on input and dialogue—between that integrated working group and this group.
To put all of that in a nutshell, I'd like to see, as well as can be determined—the fact that it's not clear is one reason I want to see it—the flowchart of decision-making. In that I would ask you to include where you see the working group or where BOIE sees the working group. Then, Chair, we'll have an opportunity to delve into the details of that.
I was surprised. I'll tell you I was a bit surprised that BOIE said, “We have decided.” I'm okay, because I think it's a good move, but I was hoping we were establishing the kind of working relationship in which it would say, “This is where we're thinking of going. Does this satisfy your needs?”
To me, there still needs to be a clarification of the relationship between BOIE and final decision-making, the integrated working group, and PROC, and how they actually fit into an actual process.
We have a very high-level plan. The experts and other stakeholders know exactly what has to be done to deliver a successful project. There are very high-level steps, and those working on the project know exactly where the process is headed. Neither we nor the experts know all the details about the project.
I often liken it to a home renovation, which, by the way, is much more straightforward because we know how a home is built. Nevertheless, there are always surprises. Everything can’t be expected to go according to plan during a small renovation. That is all the more true when carrying out a project of this magnitude, with this kind of construction and symbolism at stake. The surprises will be many.
I would go back to something Mr. Reid mentioned, because right now he's involved in a project. Obviously at some point in time we're going to have a design and a plan. I'm going to suggest that we cannot be fools and think that those plans won't change if the project is under way for a period of 10 years, for example. We need to be ready to reassess when needed or when the circumstances change, and to address and accept changes to the design, even though it may have been adopted, approved and agreed to in January 2022, for example. We need to be open-minded enough to go back and say, “Things have changed, or as we were doing it we found a better solution, or the needs have changed in terms of bathrooms, or layout,” and things like that.
That's why it's important in my view that MPs, and I repeat, are continuously engaged. When I say continuously, I'm talking from the start to the end, because we're not doing this building for ourselves; we're doing it for you, because that's your workplace and that's the art of democracy.
I'm sorry, Chair, but I want to come back to this. If I'm too far off, I'll of course follow your guidance to get back, but I am really disturbed to hear this. I understand the practical reasons why. I accept that, but here's the thing. In this day and age, not only a government building but the premier government building on Parliament Hill, one of the buildings used for spouses—meaning the public—is not accessible. We deliberately designed, built and designated a room for Canadian citizens to use. In this case it's a spouses lounge, but it could be anything, and if you have any kind of disability regarding mobility, you can't get in there.
I'm sorry, but I find that unacceptable. Either we bite the bullet and spend the money that it takes to make it accessible or we don't use it for a public space, and we use it for some other capacity. To say that we had no other choice but to go ahead and create a space that disabled Canadians can't get to.... In this case, it might even directly be a member or a member's spouse, partner or parent, which is what the room is designated for, and if they aren't perfectly able-bodied, they can't use it.
I have trouble with it. Maybe that's just me, but I am having trouble with that. Again, I understand the practicality. I am not faulting anyone per se, but in allowing a space for the public or for anybody, any person at all—visitor, worker, member, family, whoever—that is not accessible, we've made a major blunder. All it's going to take is one spouse or partner to make an issue out of it, and we have no defence. I'll bet you dollars to doughnuts that if that happened we'd quickly shut it down and find another space.
Again, I'll just leave with colleagues one of these forward headaches that won't be mine.
Voices: Oh, oh!
Mr. David Christopherson: I urge all of you to give some thought to the idea that we've done something and allowed something—and now we're aware of it—that makes no sense given current laws and attitudes, especially around equality.