We'll call this meeting to order.
Welcome to the 147th meeting of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs.
This morning, we are continuing our study of parallel debating chambers. We are pleased to welcome Charles Robert, the Clerk of the House of Commons, to share his expertise on parallel chambers.
Mr. Clerk, it's a pleasure to have you here.
Just before we start, you may remember that about a year ago the Clerk told us that he was embarking on reorganizing the Standing Orders just to make them clear and easy to access, not making changes to them, and that he would report back to us. He's available on Tuesday, if the committee would be willing, to just update us on the progress of that report and on getting it ready for the next Parliament. By that time it would be ready, I think. If it's okay, he could report to us next meeting.
Thank you, Mr. Chair and honourable members of the committee.
I am pleased to be here today to talk about parallel debating chambers. I understand that the former clerk of the United Kingdom House of Commons, my good friend Sir David Natzler, who retired recently, as you know, has also appeared to discuss that legislature's experience with its parallel chamber, Westminster Hall.
I would like to begin by reminding the committee of an updated briefing note that was initially submitted in 2016 during your study of initiatives towards a family-friendly House of Commons. This updated note was sent to you a few weeks ago, and I hope the information it offers will be helpful as you discuss the possibility of establishing a parallel debating chamber.
My presentation today is intended as an open discussion on establishing a second debating chamber parallel to the House of Commons, and on the implications for our practices and procedures. I would like to share a few thoughts on the issues being studied by the committee.
The work of the House is governed by practices and rules of procedure that structure each sitting, from government orders and private members' business to routine proceedings. These rules also apply to the House of Commons calendar, voting and many other areas.
Changes in House practices have often been influenced by the needs of members themselves. Major procedural reforms are often the result of a consensus among MPs.
Establishing a second chamber could open up some interesting opportunities for members, and I encourage you to study innovative recommendations and proposed options that, as Mr. Natzler explains so well in his testimony, could be new, unexpected and different from the operations of the House.
It is up to you, as a committee, to determine the scope of your study and the recommendations you wish to make. It will then be the responsibility of the entire House to decide whether to proceed with this reform.
Australia and the United Kingdom offer starting points for a look at how our own House of Commons could introduce a parallel chamber. Some elements could be copied and applied to our legislature. Others may not be as easy to apply since our practices and procedures differ in many respects from those of our counterparts. It is therefore a good idea to analyze how parallel chambers function elsewhere, but still take into account our own rules and way of doing things.
And so, if your committee intends to recommend a parallel chamber, you must determine how it will operate. This involves such issues as where the chamber would sit, what limitations would be placed on its activities and what decisions it could take.
There are many, more specific questions to be answered as well. In terms of logistics, where would members want this new chamber to be housed? How would the chamber be laid out? Would members debate face to face as they do in the House of Commons or would the room be arranged in a hemicycle?
The committee might also address some important questions concerning the debates themselves. For example, how would the work of the House, such as bills, the business of supply, and private members' business, be managed? Would the parallel chamber be empowered to make decisions? Similarly, what would be the quorum requirement? Would members be able to move motions and amendments during debates in the parallel chamber? How would the two chambers be allowed to communicate to ensure continuity in proceedings? What rules of debate would apply? Would they be similar to the rules of the House or more like those used in committee? What would be the hours of sitting for the parallel chamber? What would happen if there were a sitting in the second chamber and the bells rang for a vote in the House of Commons, or if it were time for oral questions or other activities that required all MPs to be present in the House?
These are a few of the procedural matters that the committee will want to consider. As you discuss these questions and their answers, you may find that they give rise to other complex issues.
And so, while I encourage the committee to pursue your study and report back to the House, I am tempted to recommend, if I may, that you use this report as a springboard and a starting point for the debate on procedure at the beginning of the next parliament. Your report would serve as a benchmark and its recommendations would be food for thought in the debate pursuant to Standing Order 51.
As always, your committee is the master of its own proceedings and is solely responsible for deciding on the next steps to take. If your committee, and subsequently the House, decides to proceed with a parallel chamber, it goes without saying that the administration, my procedural team and I will be pleased to provide our support. We will be ready to act on your recommendations and provide you with all the resources necessary to implement them.
I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.
Another thing might be useful. At Westminster they have the committee of chairs, the liaison committee, the backbench committee and other vehicles that are not yet established here and may never be established here.
Since, for example, you have a subcommittee that deals with private members' business, if you really wanted to be bold, you could take on the responsibility or suggest that you, as the procedure committee, would be prepared to assist in setting the agenda of the parallel chamber.
I'm just throwing that out there for your consideration.
It's my first time at this committee. I always wondered what PROC gets up to. I have to say, I'm shaking my head at this one. I'm wondering if we can have some of the members of Samara actually follow a member of Parliament one day, and see that we don't have a second in the day to do something additional. A parallel chamber, I'm like....
I have lots of questions about this. You make a good point with omnibus bills, but time after time, the opposition asks for those to be separated, to go to the appropriate places, which are the relevant standing committees, and we don't get that. That would be my preference, rather than going to some nefarious room that isn't taken as seriously.
I think there are many things that could be done to make this place more democratic, and to not only give more opportunities to the elected members, but to the public, scientists and experts to come in and testify, so that we can hear their opinions.
The big question I would raise is that I think a lot of people would think this sounds exciting, because we're actually finally going to have debates. We don't really have debates in this place. One person speaks, and then another person speaks and another person may get to speak. I think that if there were a mechanism, not necessarily another House, but if there were time set aside each year, where we were generally going to have debates, then there could be agreement on the topics of the day.
Say, for example, we have a genuine debate about how we're going to resolve pharmacare. It's not just people giving speeches; you actually have an interesting debate, and maybe panels of experts.
I looked at these other two parallel chambers and in some cases, it seems like those are exactly the things we do in the House. I'm wondering why we need a parallel chamber. My biggest bone of contention is with majority governments. What guarantee is there in this second chamber that it's not all going to be taken up by majority government members? Who's going to decide who gets more time to debate? Big issues like that need to be discussed.
What's the intent of this? Is it to give opportunity for those who aren't getting a fair chance to speak the chance to speak? We have the frustration right now where many can't even table their private member's bill because of procedural actions by the government of the day.
I'm wondering if you've discussed those kinds of issues with these other two jurisdictions about whether they have dealt with some of these issues, and where they think this second chamber helps any of those issues.
I actually had a question on the subject.
I personally am not married to the idea of any particular name—I know there's been a lively discussion about this—nor to the specific location it goes in. In the long run, I agree that you'd want to find a suitable location. To some degree the way it evolves would indicate what location is suitable, I would think, so we would learn that. As a practical matter, we are in no position to pick a permanent location now, given the fact that we ourselves are not in a permanent location in the main chamber. I just offer those things. I feel the same with regard to the name. That may, I think, evolve with time.
Having said all of that, the question that arises for me is this. Let us say, for the sake of argument, that we were to do as you've suggested, debate this in the Standing Order 51 debate that would arise 60 to 90 days after the beginning of the 43rd Parliament. Let's imagine, for the sake or argument, that at some point in the life of the 43rd Parliament it comes into existence. These are not guaranteed things, but they're reasonable speculations. Then, let us say, we came to the Clerk and said, “It looks like it's going ahead. What room would you suggest?”
What room would you suggest?
I think that the House leaders and the whips are important people to include in this discussion about what the possibilities and the implications are. I know they're challenged enough as it is making sure people show up to fill spots in committee, show up to a vote and be in the chamber to support people when they're speaking and so forth. It would probably be good to hear from them about what complications there might be for them or how we could take that into consideration.
I am deeply concerned about any proposal about spending more when we already have commitments, for example, to be coming up with the dollars to provide interpretation for indigenous and we're not doing that. For example, the committee I just came from agreed for the first time to translate their report into four languages. I think that these kinds of things are going to increase in cost. We need to be thinking about the commitments we've already made in the House of Commons and through committees before we start adding on and then ratcheting back.
Those kinds of factors are really important to look at. When we're looking at interpretation, we're now looking at more complications on things like that. I think costing clearly will be a big one that probably various leaders will ask for—certainly the Speaker's office and so forth.
Who is going to decide the agenda and what debates will occur? Is it going to be different from the way it is right now, which is essentially the majority of members at every committee? Different committees operate more convivially than others. Is this chamber going to be different, particularly if David is saying that it should give more opportunity to the backbenchers? There's a heck of a lot more backbenchers in the majority Liberal government right now than there was in the Conservative majority government.
Those kinds of things.... You'll have more enthusiasm in the members of Parliament if they think that is generally going to give them an opportunity to be debating.
This idea is coming, as I understand, from Samara. They did that report on the frustrations former members of Parliament had with democracy and so forth. Part of it, too, is that the public wants to hear more of what the various parties and members of Parliament think. I haven't really heard anybody talk about the role of the great unwashed public in this.
Is that room going to have to allow for substantial audiences? That is another issue because they can come and sit in on our debates in the House. They'll probably want to sit in on some of these debates, particularly if they recommend them.
I believe it really depends on how and whether you as parliamentarians think it's important. The parallel chamber is being designed to accommodate—let's be bolder about it—the frustration you may feel in your life as a parliamentarian and what would help to validate and address the challenges you have as parliamentarians.
If you feel that petitions are important, that they are an expression of a democratic interest in various topics, then allowing some time in a parallel chamber to debate those petitions that meet a certain threshold of support would be useful.
As we mentioned earlier, how you would handle debate on complex legislation, how you could have a parallel debate that would give members a greater opportunity to participate in what they believe to be important legislation when they have a point of view to express—this is also a way the parallel chamber could provide some assistance to alleviate that sense of frustration that members may feel.
We sit 100 or 135 days in a good year. We sit during fixed hours. There is a lot of stuff to be done in a short amount of time. If the legislation is becoming increasingly complex, as it appears to be, then how do you want to manage that?
The government is not going to become smaller. It's not going to become simpler. Legislation is not likely to be as easy as it was a few years ago, or many years ago, when a bill 10 pages long was a big bill. In the 19th century, most of the legislation considered by Parliament was private. It was not government. Government was too small to actually involve itself in a tremendous amount of legislation. That was also one of the reasons that sessions were relatively short. I think in one case we had four sessions in one year, and that means four Speeches from the Throne.
I'd like to address something mentioned earlier, the whip situation. I don't think you do this in a vacuum unto itself and exclude the whips. In my humble opinion, I think you create something here that avoids the pitfalls through which a whip can get in trouble, as it were. So the whip has to make sure the votes are there, the people are there for the votes, the legislation is moving through. I'd say whip and government House leader as well, of course.
I don't think the parallel chamber should be something that interferes with their function in any way, shape or form. If we're doing government legislation of the day in the parallel chamber so that other people get to speak, then if I don't get a chance to do it in West Block or in the House of Commons, I will get a chance to speak on this issue in the parallel chamber. But again, that would still be subservient to the House of Commons proceedings.
I champion the cause for backbenchers, but I wouldn't want to take away the essential functions of the whip or the House leader for reasons that are obvious.
By the way, somebody else brought up votes and the marathon votes and that sort of thing. Well, that's something we also have to look at. That's something entirely different. I've told this story before and I'll tell it again. I had three or four members of the European Parliament come over to witness question period. Following question period, there was a vote. This one individual—I forget her name now, but she's been in the European Parliament for almost two decades—said, “It was a fascinating experience. I like your question period, because the questions are limited to 35 seconds.” I told her why and she said, “Well, it's very exciting. You debate like it's the 21st century, but why do you still vote like it's the 19th century?” That's true, because of electronic voting, but that's a whole other issue. I thought I'd just throw that in there.
When it comes to the parallel chamber, though, what about the idea of witnesses? One of the advantages we have here with committees, including committee of the whole, is that we're able.... As a former chair of the fisheries committee, I can talk about what experience fishermen go through on a daily basis, but when I have a witness from Toogood Arm—that exists, by the way; it's a town—who comes in and says, “This is what's actually going on in the ocean right now,” that is a huge advantage. They can come in and give us the most vital experience, such as we're going to see with Samara next. They know what they're talking about.
Well, set goals that you think are structured in a way that your imagination and those goals harmonize. If you think, for example, that it might be useful to have some sort of association with the Senate, then that's an option.
Dealing with private member's business, let's say that as long as a bill reached a certain stage, either in the House or in the Senate, proving that it had at least a level of acceptability, then you can in those circumstances, rather than allow the bill to go to committee for a study, let it go to the parallel committee composed of members of both Houses, and that can be used as a way to advance the consideration of that bill in whatever second chamber is to be studying the bill after it passes the House.
That record of deliberation could be, in some fashion or another, taken into account when it goes to the second House for deliberation. There's a possibility.
Welcome back to the 147th meeting of the committee, as we continue our study on parallel debating chambers.
We are pleased to be joined by representatives of Samara Centre for Democracy. Here today are Michael Morden, research director; and Paul Thomas, senior research associate. Thank you both for being here today.
Members will recall that Samara also submitted a brief to the committee on this subject.
I'll turn over the floor to you, Mr. Morden, for your opening remarks.
Thank you very much for the opportunity to address this committee.
My name is Mike Morden. I'm the research director at the Samara Centre for Democracy. Next to me is Dr. Paul E.J. Thomas, our senior research associate.
As you may know, the Samara Centre is an independent, non-partisan charity that is dedicated to strengthening Canadian democracy through research and programming. We want to thank the committee for undertaking this study. Doing so reflects its commitment to stewardship of our Parliament and our democracy by extension. That includes examining issues that are not on any political front burner but deserve consideration because they hold the potential for incremental improvement of our institutions. That's a role we also want to help play.
The Samara Centre supports the creation of a parallel debating chamber. We would also like to encourage the committee to keep the following objectives in mind when designing such a chamber: it advances a clear value proposition by not solely duplicating the business and character of the main chamber; it empowers backbench MPs by providing greater control over the agenda and substance of debates; by doing so, it makes parliamentary debates more relevant and accessible to ordinary Canadians; and it may be used as a platform for experimentation in order to drive improvement to the state of debate in Parliament overall.
As members might have already reviewed the brief that we submitted last month, we would like to save the bulk of our time in order to address questions as best as we are able. I will open just briefly by describing our interest in this proposal. Paul, who is wiser on this subject, and indeed on most things, will then speak about the model of a parallel chamber that we think is best suited to improve the life and work of the Canadian Parliament and to strengthen its ties to citizens.
Since its founding, the Samara Centre has conducted exit interviews with former parliamentarians after they have retired or faced electoral defeat. A central theme of this work is the strong sense among MPs that extensive party control over many facets of parliamentary life hinders their ability to independently advocate on issues and meaningfully influence government policy and legislation. We've always argued that such limitations have important implications for the overall health of our representative democracy.
In our most recent round of interviews, undertaken after the 2015 general election, we were also surprised and troubled to discover just how dismissive former MPs were of parliamentary debates in particular. We took up that theme again last year, when we collaborated with the all-party democracy caucus to survey current MPs. We asked questions of members to assess where they felt more or less empowered to do the work of democratic representation. The strongest finding to us was that debates were the domain of parliamentary work where MPs felt they made the least impact. In fact, two-thirds of MPs who responded were dissatisfied with the state of debate in the House. Just 6% identified debates as an area of parliamentary work where they felt empowered to influence policy or legislation.
We have also observed, as others have, an increase in partisan conflict over time in Parliament, reflected most simply in the recent and sustained spike in the use of time allocation. That conflict reflects the legitimate desire of opposition MPs—and, we would hope, all MPs—to debate and deliberate on government business while also advancing issues independently. It also reflects the legitimate desire of executives of all party stripes to advance government business. That tension will not resolve itself organically, and could conceivably get worse.
Finally, consistent with the views of MPs, our ongoing surveys of ordinary Canadians have repeatedly found the perception that MPs do a better job of reflecting the views of their parties than of their constituents. We want citizens to see themselves more closely reflected in parliamentary debates.
In short, we see four overlapping problems that a parallel chamber could help resolve: one, disempowered MPs who, because of party control, are hampered in their ability to represent their constituents; two, persistent unhappiness with the quality of parliamentary debate, even among MPs; three, a parliamentary time crunch; and four, an enduring disconnect between Canadians and their Parliament.
I will begin, too, by expressing Samara Centre's gratitude for being invited to testify before the committee today. Dr. Morden has already spoken to some of the challenges that we feel are facing the House of Commons, so I will focus my remarks on how a parallel chamber could be designed to help respond to those challenges.
As Deputy Speaker described in his remarks to the committee last month, there are two precedents for parallel chambers that could serve as inspiration: the Federation Chamber in the Australian parliament and Westminster Hall at the British Parliament. Both are supplementary chambers, with neither being used for recorded divisions. Both meet only on days when the main chambers are sitting as well.
Australia's Federation Chamber is used for a variety of parliamentary business, such as constituency statements, member statements and debate on uncontentious pieces of legislation. Rather than adding new functions, it serves as what called an “adjacent lane” for House business, with most of its functions also occurring to some extent in the parallel chamber. Moreover, decisions regarding what business goes to that chamber are made by the party whips.
In contrast, Westminster Hall proceedings are distinct from those of the main British House of Commons. Westminster Hall is used exclusively for adjournment-style debates, which can be 30, 60 or 90 minutes long, depending on the issue being addressed and the number of members wishing to speak. The debates are selected through four different mechanisms, all of which are driven by backbench members: Individual backbenchers can apply for a debate to the Speaker's office, which holds a ballot of applications once per week. They can apply to the backbench business committee, which is a committee of backbench MPs that schedules a portion of the debating time both in Westminster Hall and in the main chamber itself. The liaison committee, which is made up of the chairs of the various standing committees, can also schedule debates on committee reports. Finally, the petitions committee of the House of Commons can schedule debates on petitions receiving over 100,000 signatures.
However they are chosen, as Sir David Natzler noted when speaking with you, a fundamental characteristic of Westminster Hall debates is that a minister must attend the sessions and respond to the points made. This requirement allows the debates to be much more influential than is possible through member statements.
Importantly, such debates need not be explicitly critical of the government. Indeed, Westminster Hall is regularly used for debates that mark symbolic days, such as Holocaust Memorial Day, World Cancer Day or International Human Rights Day. Such general occasions allow for Parliament to be responsive to the concerns of citizens without being centred on a specific issue at the time.
Although the Federation Chamber has created more opportunities for Australian MPs to raise concerns from their constituents and participate in legislative debates, we believe modelling a new parallel chamber along the lines of Westminster Hall would better respond to the challenges facing the Canadian Parliament.
While it is not possible to exactly duplicate Westminster Hall in the Canadian context, the Samara Centre nevertheless recommends that any Canadian parallel chamber be designed for the benefit of backbench members, with backbench members being able to schedule business independent of party whips; that participation in a parallel chamber similarly be free of control by the party whips, with no lists developed to schedule interventions by members; that much of the debating time in such a chamber be devoted to general debates like those of Westminster Hall, with ministers being required to attend and respond to the points made; that the topics for such debates could be chosen by applications from individual members, the reports of parliamentary committees or petitions from the general public; and finally, that the chamber be a vehicle for further procedural experimentation.
At a time when both citizens and MPs are questioning the value of parliamentary debates, the creation of a parallel chamber devoted to hearing from the diversity of Canadians through their elected representatives could help to empower both Canadians and parliamentarians themselves. It could help make backbench members more central to parliamentary debates, and parliamentary debates more central to political life in Canada.
Thank you very much. We look forward to your questions.
That's a hell of a number to look at. That's everybody but cabinet, almost, right?
Voices: Oh, oh!
Mr. Scott Simms: That tells us that we're way behind in making this place more accessible, and accessible not only to parliamentarians but the disconnect also between Canadians.... That makes it further worse, this situation that we're in, to try to find a cohesive place, so I'm glad you came here with some actual suggestions, especially when you say the Westminster Hall is preferred. Let me get to that, because we're juxtaposing, for the most part, Westminster Hall and the Federation Chamber, as I think it's called, in Australia.
In Westminster Hall, one of the most popular things for a parallel chamber is the petition aspect. People bring in a petition and it gets a lot of attention from the public. That's one aspect. Is this the type of thing that you see as the best possible route for a parallel chamber?
One of the things that struck me in reviewing Sir David Natzler's remarks to committee was his suggestion that something like eight of the 10 most-watched debates in recent years had been debates in Westminster Hall provoked by petitions. It's really kind of astonishing. That's not government business.
I found that actually really encouraging. It's a little bit emboldening as well, because it suggests to me in strong terms that it would still matter to Canadians, in this context, to see their issues debated at Parliament and how that holds value. As the Clerk and others have described, there are a number of different ways to design the parallel chamber, and we do need clarity on what problem we're trying to solve and about—I think reasonable people can disagree—where the balance should be struck.
Ms. Duncan raised in the last session this question of where ordinary citizens come in. We do see something like a petitions mechanism, as well as the opportunity for an ordinary member to approach either the Speaker's office or a backbench business committee to advocate on an issue that they see as holding importance for their constituents. Either a petition or a backbench member, it's either a direct or an indirect mechanism through which citizens can fuel through greater agency what's debated in Parliament. That, to us, strikes us as a particular value proposition for the parallel chamber.
Thank you to both our witnesses. Dr. Morden and Dr. Thomas, it's nice to have you here.
I wanted to start by asking about this recent Brexit debate in Westminster Hall. It seems to me that one of the problems arising in the House itself at this point, as the issue is debated and re-debated, is that for reasons that have to do with what's on the agenda and which changing coalition of members—factions, I could almost call them—is in favour of or against different proposals, or the rules on reconsidering an issue that the House has debated before, the debate in the House is being constrained in ways that are perhaps not productive. It would be a very interesting exercise to go through it, from a game theory point of view, as to how the debate has evolved in the Commons.
This raises the issue that there's no longer really a venue in the House itself—or what one might think of as a plenary session—where we're debating the big-picture issue of Brexit itself, as opposed to this or that way out of the current fix the country is in. The fix itself changing on a nearly day-to-day basis. Is that actually what happened in this debate on the e-petitions, that in fact it was possible to go back and reconsider the big-picture issues? That's number one.
Number two is, has this also been a venue for the numerous backbenchers—there are so many of them in the U.K.—who are not in a position to get up and have debates in the Commons itself, to speak and to give those individuals a chance to address Brexit issues?
I must confess that I have not watched the debate in its entirety. My knowledge of it comes largely from the reporting of BBC Radio 4, through the Today in Parliament
From that report, it did appear to be more of that fundamental discussion of Brexit. It is challenging, I think, at present for the British House of Commons to have fully dispassionate debates on Brexit, given the extent to which the entire political system has been consumed by it, particularly the divisions not just between, but within parties on this issue.
The report concluded by saying that it was refreshing to see it in a different venue, and that the party lines became blurred. That is, in some ways, one of the main benefits of that system. I believe it was noted by David Natzler that the Westminster Hall model is a horseshoe, which helps to reduce partisanship as compared to the more traditional two swords' length seating arrangement.
On a different topic, because we've only got a minute or so left, you mentioned that both the Australian and U.K. parallel chambers have sittings only on days when the Commons, or representatives in the case of Australia, are in session. By contrast, ordinary standing committees of the House of Commons, let alone legislative committees, can meet when the Commons is not sitting. The reason that can be done is that only a small number of members have to be present. To have the Commons sit, let us say, through July and August, would involve every single one of the 338 of us saying we'll work instead of being in our constituencies in July and August. That is not true with a committee. In consequence, I've been on a number of committees, like the electoral reform committee that met throughout the months of August and September when the House was not sitting.
Could this not also be true for a parallel chamber, given the low quorum requirements, that it could sit on break weeks and into the summer without creating a situation in which people can't get back into their constituency weeks?
Here's my perspective, having been here for 11 years.
Rather than going back in deep dark history when we burned the place down, why would we not first of all try to make this place—what we have—more democratic? Basically we have a system where the government, with procedure rules, can simply control the agenda. It varies from committee to committee, but they have the majority and they can decide what they're going to talk about and for how long, and who the witnesses are.
I think that's where a lot of the frustration is. When you're the third party or you don't have party status, you have very little chance to speak in the House. I don't think we're dealing with the democratic actions in the House. I'm not convinced that setting up yet another chamber is going to resolve the frustrations of a lot of members, and that includes backbenchers in majority governments.
I have a couple of questions.
First, what makes you think that party influence and discipline are going to be removed from the second chamber? Are members going to be free all of sudden to express their opinion if it's against the government's position, or even the opposition party's position? How is it going to be set up? Is it going to be first-come, first-served? We have 180-plus backbench Liberals who are probably going to be keen to have a chance to finally stand up and debate something keen to their constituency. How would that be balanced out? Who's really going to decide what the topics are and who gets to speak?
Also, why couldn't petition debates be made part of the House agenda, like maybe once a month? I think that would be fascinating. Instead, they just table them and say that the responses have been issued. Other than sending out the responses to the people who signed the petition, nobody else ever knows what the government response was.
There are a whole lot of things that could be done with the current regime without increasing the amount of work. Is there then going to be pressure on the opposition members and the backbenchers—“Well, why aren't you proposing something in the other chamber”—and adding that to their agenda?
Also, the majority government has all kinds of members that they can send around. The smaller parties are pressured as it is. They have to be in the House. They have to be in committee. Some of them may be travelling with committee. It's a different kind of proposition. If you have a whole lot of members, it's, “Oh yes, we can probably do something in the additional chamber.” I think that needs to be thought through as well.
I would love to also see some good ideas coming forward on how can we make the current chamber more democratic and interesting to the public.
This is the element. It would be having a place where debates are chosen, ideally without the involvement of the party whips, and having a place where speakers would participate without involvement from the party whips.
The goal, ideally, would be to have this as the beginning of an experiment, to see if having a space that was free of party might spread some ideas cross-partisanship into the other place.
I believe there have been complaints about rising partisanship in debate in the Canadian House of Commons for most of the past century. If you read the great text on Parliament, The Parliament of Canada by Ned Franks, written in the late 1980s, the words sound like they could be taken from today.
That would be an issue that would be worthwhile, talking to the elected members in those two countries: whether they genuinely became freed up from party discipline. That's what you want to have happen, so I think it would be really useful to find out. Did that actually happen in those parallel chambers?
We have media panels every day, and people are still saying the party line. All of a sudden because it's in a different room, I don't know if it'll change, if it is still broadcast. It's a challenge, but it would be interesting to find out in those two countries if in fact there was a transformation and people felt....
If it were more of a discussion as opposed to a debate—you're looking at an issue and everybody is coming up with innovative ideas—how are we going to resolve that? That's a possibility, but if you're debating a bill that has been in the House and those lines have already been drawn, it's interesting.
This is the main benefit, to be honest. The Westminster Hall model allows members to suggest issues that are relevant to them or their constituencies. This week, for example, there was a debate on pancreatic cancer. The goal was, hopefully, across party lines, to secure better treatment for pancreatic cancer. Members from all places in the U.K. have constituents who might be affected. They came and raised their concerns, and the minister addressed it. It was not necessarily in a partisan fashion but as concerned MPs representing their communities. I believe that in the brief we submitted to the committee, we included a list of the debates that were held. Transportation infrastructure in Essex, for example, hopefully is something that all members could agree on and would not necessarily be committed to the overall partisan success or failure.
To be honest, part of it would be that, hopefully, members would push back against their parties should they find there would not be support. The history of Parliament is littered with innovations that were tried and did not succeed, but that does not necessarily mean not to try, I hope.
To your point, I know that when the parallel chambers were brought into both places, they were brought in on a temporary basis. You asked if there was a survey of the MPs, when they were asked to vote on it, and they were overwhelmingly in favour. There was kind of a temporary trial for a year or two. After that, it was resoundingly supported by the MPs because of the reasons that the two gentlemen have expressed, that aspect of a better debate, as you were pointing out.
I have a disagreement with one point here. You mentioned that we have time allocation because many members want to speak. A lot of time members are asked to go and read a speech, which, theoretically, is against our rules. We're not allowed to read a speech, but we do. Do they read the speeches? I understand they don't in the United Kingdom. Do they read them in either the second chamber in the United Kingdom or in Australia, or are they forced to actually give a true speech?
I have just a couple of quick notes. I won't take long.
There is something that hasn't been said and I think it should be said.
If we recall in the 2000 election—I think Scott Reid that's when you came in the first time—there was the promise to have petitions create debates. Rick Mercer made a mockery of it with the Doris Day petition regarding Stockwell Day. It had three million signatures.
It's not always necessarily a good idea to say with petitions take it through the House, with this middle ground of the committee that controls the agenda. Once you have that middle ground that controls the agenda then they can do the agenda clearly for a secondary chamber. I think it's a good approach to doing it.
You were here in the audience for the previous panel. You heard my comments on having a joint chamber with the Senate. Do you have thoughts on that, having a single joint chamber that takes care of PMBs directly and where they're dealt with?
Maybe a partial answer to Mr. Graham's question about what one can do in the constitutional legal concerns, what one can get away with doing, in terms of creating parallel debates of both chambers, is that, ultimately, you have to pass a bill, for it to become an act, in both chambers. The rules about first, second and third reading are, however, as I understand it, entirely internal, and could be stripped away. This was actually tested before the courts in 1919, with reference to the Manitoba referendum legislation, which assumed that if a bill was passed in referendum, it would supplant the various readings in the provincial legislature, and would also be considered to have received royal assent. The courts ruled that royal assent must still take place. It's written down in the Constitution, but the courts ruled that the various internal stages of compressing or telescoping the various readings could be dealt with by means of.... I'm not sure if a statute could do it, or if you require changes to the Standing Orders. At any rate, they dealt with it. There's some reference point to go back to, if one's trying to figure out what is and is not permitted under our Constitution. That all deals with the 1867 Constitution, as opposed to what was added in 1982. It's still relevant law.
I wanted to comment, if I could, on Ms. Duncan's concern about the ubiquitous entry of whips, party considerations and partisanship into committees. That is what happens in most committees, most of the time, including this committee, frequently. My experience is that sometimes it doesn't happen.
There is one example on Parliament Hill of a subcommittee where party and partisan consideration has been kept almost exclusively out. That's the international human rights subcommittee of the foreign affairs committee, which I chaired for eight years. It already had that culture of not being partisan prior to my arrival. It retained it during my period there, and it kept that culture after I left. Whatever the reasons were for its arriving in the first place, I note that we just had to follow certain principles. We agreed that the Standing Orders still applied to everything we did in the procedures, but that we could, by a convention that exists only in the committee, agree to move forward only by consensus.
The world presents a vast smorgasbord of human rights abuses, the result being that we could pick ones where there was no obvious left, right or partisan division. If you debate human rights in Venezuela, the merits of the Maduro regime inevitably come into question, and that's problematic, because we have divisions on that. If you debate an issue about some other country, where there's a Canadian mining interest, say, you're less likely to have that problem. As a result, careful selection criteria, and some other internal rules—
When witnesses appear before us, I think it's an opportunity to hear what they want to say, what they think and what they've been studying.
Earlier, you mentioned in your briefing that you had studied the cases of people who had lost their jobs or retired in 2015. You say that two-thirds of the people seemed frustrated with the way it worked.
Have you checked whether the figures for 2006, 2008, 2011 or all previous elections were different?
Okay. So they were mainly those who did not return in 2015.
We talked to the clerk earlier. We talked about objectives. In the context of a possible parallel chamber, what objectives would you like to achieve?
I would also like to know whether you studied the role of members of Parliament as well. The clerk seemed to say that it had evolved over time. We want to better represent our constituents. That's my second question.
My third point is about the parallel chamber. We talked about it earlier. I would like to know whether, during the evolution of the parallel chambers, the behaviour of members of Parliament seems to have improved.
The nature of the debates in Westminster Hall in part reflects the different tradition, it would be best to say, of the British House of Commons, where party discipline is much more fluid. They have the three-line whip system, so that the government stakes out aspects of business that are crucial and then allows dissent on a wider range. That has existed previous to the adoption of Westminster Hall. Where the debates were chosen, the culture in that chamber reflected this aspect to some extent. Members were used to having a diversity of opinions.
It also speaks to the broader relationship of the MPs with their whips. There is not the same ability for party leaders to deselect members as the ultimate threat. It's chosen by constituency associations and then on from there.
That said, where it has made a greater difference is in the ability of individual members to hold a debate as part of a broader advocacy on a particular issue. Oftentimes, what you will see is a member raising a particular issue, say, pancreatic cancer, as a first step. Then it might lead to another debate and potentially a bill.
As part of my own research, I looked at the evolution of the law in metal theft. Scrap metal theft is a large issue in the U.K. They have many old buildings. It started with a Westminster Hall debate, then went on to eventually be a private member's bill to regulate scrap metal dealers. That has empowered backbench members to build a broader campaign. It has provided more tools to allow that sort of advocacy.
In terms of the basic relationship between members and their parties, it has always been a bit looser. However, in recent years, and this refers to Ms. Duncan's point, rebellions have increased. There has been more dissent on votes. In part, that reflects the coalition government period and the current hung Parliament.
I hope that responded to your questions.
I definitely agree with some of Ms. Duncan's points, but then I disagree with some of them as well.
There is a lot of partisanship, definitely, in this Parliament, but I do think it shifts from time to time. When we are debating PMBs, I notice less partisanship. When it comes to voting, there's a little less partisanship when it comes to PMBs, unless you're the NDP.
In the committee process, we also see a little less partisanship maybe, until there's a vote on some type of issue, but when we're trying to explore topics and discuss ideas, you see that the partisanship starts to shift a little, so I can envision a parallel chamber where perhaps the culture doesn't completely go away but shifts a little bit, and that's a start.
I'm really thankful for the work you've done. In terms of debating government legislation, have you ever had anybody say that they didn't have enough time to debate government legislation, whether they were the government party or opposition?