Good morning. Welcome to the 148th meeting of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs.
I want to welcome the Conservative whip, Mr. , and and from the NDP, to the most exciting committee on the Hill. I'm sure you'll all enjoy yourselves.
I want to let the committee members know that you'll soon be getting two pieces of information that I've asked for some more research on. One is the number of members who normally attend the dual chambers in Australia and Great Britain, and the second is on when the exact legislation was passed that gave the authority for the parliamentary precinct to Public Works, related to things we've been discussing.
Pursuant to Standing Order 108(3)(a)(iii), we are pleased to be joined by Charles Robert, Clerk of the House of Commons, to brief us on progress on the initiative to modernize the Standing Orders. As you remember, on February 27, 2018, he mentioned that this process was starting. These aren't substantive changes, but an effort at reorganization so that the Standing Orders are clear. It's hard for people to find things. It's that kind of work. You got some documents yesterday from the committee clerk.
The bells will sound shortly, so hopefully we can get through his opening statement soon.
Maybe I should just mention while we're still here what I propose for the meetings when we come back after April. The estimates have to be tabled this week. There are three panels of estimates that we would normally have. On the first panel would be the Clerk, the Speaker and PPS for the House of Commons estimates and the PPS estimates. On the second panel would be the Chief Electoral Officer for the elections estimates, and on the third would be the minister and/or the commissioner of debates for the debates estimates.
Does anyone have any problem with that schedule of having those panels for the estimates?
When I became the Clerk in 2017, one of my goals was to unify the administration as one entity serving the members. In terms of procedural services, one way to proactively support the needs of the members was to review the Standing Orders. From my reading, I found them overly complex and not really accessible to members and their staff.
As a consequence, I launched an internally driven project to improve the style and organization of the rules and to enhance their accessibility.
Specifically, my aim was to rewrite the Standing Orders in plain language, using consistent terminology and eliminating internal references, and to reorganize the Standing Orders to improve the navigation of the document by adding a comprehensive table of contents with matching marginal notes, and I proposed a new numbering scheme that acts as a memory device and organizes related procedures in discrete chapters. Finally, I wanted to do this without making any substantive changes to the rules. This was my commitment to you at this committee at my first appearance.
The project has involved two phases of activity.
Phase one was to rewrite and reorganize the Standing Orders with a view to improving the logical flow of the rules, disaggregating complex and lengthy rules into subsections to provide a step-by-step understanding of the procedure and, where possible, combining certain procedures to improve the conciseness of the document.
Phase two was to work with the legislative services to ensure that there are no discrepancies between the English and the French text. To do this, we have involved jurilinguists on the project; these are specialists who work in the Law Clerk's office. This will also improve the level of French in the Standing Orders.
I know that you have all received a bundle of documents to prepare for the meeting. Three documents are part of it. There is a general information note describing the genesis of the project, the principles applied in the review and the approach adopted to improve the style and organization of the Standing Orders. There is a proposed table of contents and the first seven corresponding chapters, which provide a basis for the work done in the House. There is an appendix that draws members' attention to inconsistencies between rules, divergence between rules and outdated usages or rules.
Where possible, we have suggested changes to improve the internal consistency of the rules and to improve the alignment of the rules with our practices.
There has been no attempt to introduce new concepts or to recommend substantive changes to the interpretation of any rule.
Let me take some time to walk you through some specific proposals that are designed to improve the accessibility of the document.
Let's begin with the table of contents. As compared with the existing version, the proposal of a comprehensive table of contents using marginal notes or subheadings will improve the ease of navigation of the document.
Another thing users will note is the writing style, using plain language and the active voice. We also placed a premium on concision, which improves the clarity of the text and the ease of comprehension.
The removal of internal references is a major improvement in understanding the operation of the rules. For expert proceduralists, this may not seem to be an obstacle, but for new members and new staff who possess limited procedural knowledge, internal references represent a barrier to understanding the rules and how they work together.
In this same vein, we have added notes and exceptions under rules to explain linkages to other rules, exceptions to the application of rules, and references to statutory and constitutional authorities.
By using consistent terminology, we hope to eliminate the use of redundant text where the application of a term is different.
These are examples of how we propose to improve the writing style of the Standing Orders. Now here are some examples of how we organized the document to improve its navigation.
We found that certain groupings in long chapters were not particularly helpful in finding what the reader is looking for. For example, we reorganized the chapter on financial procedures. We took the procedures dealing with the budget debate and put them in the special debates chapter. We took the ways and means procedures and grouped them with non-debatable motions in the chapter on motions. And we kept the remaining procedures dealing with the business of supply in the chapter named after business of supply.
In addition to adding an index to the document, we are also proposing to include a glossary of terms that we hope will improve the understanding of the Standing Orders.
We have completed the first phase of the project for all the chapters, with the exception of the one on private members' bills. We have realized that the framework considered in the Standing Orders to deal with private members bills is archaic and inapplicable. So we are proposing options on the best ways to modernize that chapter.
I would like to hear comments on all aspects of the project.
We very much appreciate your views on how to improve the accessibility of our Standing Orders and on ways to make them best suited for your purposes as members of Parliament.
Over the next few months I will continue to provide you with new chapters as they become available. It is my hope that an iterative dialogue will lead to a revised set of Standing Orders that you and your colleagues will find helpful in your work as parliamentarians.
I'm happy to take any questions you may have.
Mr. Clerk, it's been ages. How have you been?
For those who weren't here last time, he was just here.
Some hon. members: Oh, oh!
Mr. Scott Simms: First of all, I think this is a fantastic exercise that you're doing. I think that in most cases it's long overdue. I don't claim to be the smartest person around any table—God forbid I'd do that—but sometimes I read these rules and in my mind I find myself trying to read the language and it's literally like Cirque du Soleil up here, trying to go back and forth between this, that and the other thing. It's just not friendly at all to the average reader or to anybody who is not a—I believe you used the term “jurilinguist”.
What flags initially arose that have brought us to this point where you have a document that's ready to go and ready to be looked at?
Thank you, Mr. Chair, and thank you for the opportunity to participate today. I am here on behalf of my House leader, , to discuss the matter before us today.
I think that my characterization of this initiative will not be the same as Mr. Simms', who called it fantastic. In fact, I think it's putting the cart before the horse here.
As you know, when you were hired to the position, we were in the midst of a prolonged multi-week/month debate and dispute about the Standing Orders about who should be bringing forward changes, in what manner they should be considered, and whether there should be consensus, etc.
I'll go back to your testimony in February 2018, when you told this committee, “The commitment that I had made is that there would be no change to the Standing Orders”, and “understanding completely that no changes are being recommended through this exercise.”
You gave us “absolute guarantee that no changes would be made”, yet we have 70 changes here, which may meet Mr. Simms' description of being fantastic. I guess my primary question first of all is, on whose authority or initiative was this? Why did you take it upon yourself to change the Standing Orders? I would argue that is the purview of members of Parliament to decide if the Standing Orders need to be changed.
You referred many times to “we” throughout your presentation: “We decided. We did this.” Who is “we”, and who decided that this would be a good idea to pursue without having members of Parliament give you that charge?
The initiative was my own. It was done with the idea—again, as I mentioned earlier—to be proactive in assisting the members.
The 70 changes you may be referring to are the ones in yellow highlights. We recognize that they represent changes, and that's why they are deliberately highlighted that way. We came across them when we were doing the revision.
In the end, nothing changes unless the members themselves want it to change. I'm here basically as a good-faith agent, trying to assist the members in giving them tools that I think are more readily accessible. I have no authority to do anything in any way that can be considered final. That rests entirely with this committee, and ultimately, with the House, because the Standing Orders belong to you.
Again, let me repeat: I am trying to be a good-faith agent, trying to give you tools that will help you do your job better.
Okay, well that's news to me.
Again, I think that this is a cart-before-the-horse thing. It might be that what you have produced is worthy of adoption or consideration, but the way in which it was put forward I think is very concerning to us.
, who is not here today but is an eminent member of this committee, said at that same meeting, “You start talking Standing Orders, and I mean the House owns the orders, not the Clerk's department.”
I again want to lay down that marker. I don't know what would now prevent a future clerk, or what prevents any part of the apparatus that serves members of Parliament, from embarking on similar good-faith initiatives. They may actually be done in good faith, but if they're not directed by members of this committee, members of the House, then I would argue that they are in fact counter to the very thing stated, that this should be done on the request of the House.
Again, these are our Standing Orders. The constantly refers to the fact that he cannot act outside of these rules because he is a servant of the House.
I would ask, perhaps in another way, who else has been assisting with this? Have you been assisted through the government House leader's office or the Privy Council Office or the Speaker's office to undertake this initiative and to produce the document that we have in front of us?
No one from any of those three you mentioned has directed any aspect of this project. Again, as I mentioned earlier, this was a good faith initiative on my own part. I would not have taken it this far had I not been in consultation with the chiefs of staff of the government House leader, the opposition House leader and the NDP House leader.
They understood what I was doing. No one told me, “No, don't go any further". The purpose is to provide assistance to the House. As Mr. Christopherson said, I fully recognize and realize that I have no authority to implement anything.
In the same way that we are now reviewing the members' orientation program for the period after the next election, we are trying to improve the service that we give to you. That was the only intent to this.
If you feel this is inadequate or inadvisable, it will be for you to tell me to stop, and I will stop.
I'll be splitting my time with Mr. Graham.
There are just a couple of points that I would like to make. I apologize to our witness. There will be a question at the end, but I will make a couple of points.
It really is unbelievable that the Conservative opposition whip would come down and try to make this a partisan issue, not having been to this committee once and not having heard from the witness before, with a public servant who has had a good record in Parliament. He has brought forward no issues of substance—not one.
This is an issue that has been brought to our attention on a number of occasions, and the Conservatives did not raise their concerns. Yet for him to come down here and attempt to attack the credibility of a respected public servant is just on par with what we've seen from the Conservatives over the past many years.
Mr. Strahl has come here to pick a fight for reasons that we don't know. He has come with pieces of information. He has come explicitly at the behest of the House leader, but clearly has not spoken with the individuals who have been in communication with the witness. He's just come to pick a fight, and that's shameful.
This is a committee that runs into issues and has healthy debates, but it's a committee that works very well together. I know from the practice of law that there's a plain language movement to try to make things more accessible. You can really tell the difference between a judge's written decision now versus one that you read 20, 30 or 40 years ago, even at the highest levels. The issues haven't gotten simpler; it's about making the law more accessible to the public, making it more accessible to the clients.
Here's an objective to make our Standing Orders more accessible, not only to parliamentarians but also to the people of Canada. This is a complex issue, not necessarily one that can be undertaken by a single member of Parliament, and yet you come here to pick a fight. That's unbelievable.
Some hon. members: Oh, oh!
Mr. Chris Bittle: The Conservatives want to laugh about it, and I guess that's their right. Again, having not raised these concerns about it, they think this is funny. I guess this is on par with what they do and how they want to operate.
My question, Mr. Robert, is this: When was the first time you brought the notion of the plain language changes to the Standing Orders? When was the first time you brought it before this committee?
As explained in the documents that were circulated, if you go to the annex, the final document that was given to you, there are a series of changes that are in yellow. I think they're also yellow in this text. They are things we have discovered.
For example, we suggested that you delete the dinner hour, because you don't observe one anymore. We suggested that you recognize the holiday in May as the Victoria Day holiday, as opposed to the day for celebrating the birthday of the sovereign. Things of that sort were also suggested. There may be some that are more substantive.
There is one that is more substantive, which deals with royal assent by written declaration when the House is sitting. It's something that's been overlooked.
It's been put in, but we discovered these sorts of changes during the course of the rewrite. We wanted to make sure that the commitment was respected, so we deliberately highlighted them.
Certainly in keeping the book up to date, it would be very helpful. The House of Representatives Practice
manual is now in its seventh edition, and it came out originally about 20 years ago.
Odgers', which is for the Senate of the Australian Commonwealth Parliament, is in its 14th or 15th edition. Erskine May, which has been published since 1844, is soon to have its 25th edition.
What will happen, though, with the next edition of the House of Commons Procedure and Practice is, again, that in a more proactive attempt to be of help, there will be a section in the book on what members need to know under each chapter, because when I was reading and studying the book—and I don't mean this as a criticism; please be clear about that—I found out that in the chapter on oral questions—and I've become notorious for this because I just don't let it go—the fact that you're limited to 35 seconds is buried in footnote 41.
An hon. member: Right.
Mr. Charles Robert: You will not find it in the text of the chapter, yet it seems to me that it is something of importance for you as a member, and it's been in footnote 41 for all three editions.
An hon. member: Right.
Mr. Charles Robert: It's based on an understanding that is observed, but it has not been part of our actual practices; it has not been formalized, but the House leaders have made an agreement that this is how it would happen, and it has been observed faithfully since.
In terms of trying to inform members, it seems to me that it's healthy to know that.