In an effort to keep on time and get the maximum time possible for the committee to question the witnesses, we will start.
Good morning. This is meeting number 15 of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs of the first session of the 42nd Parliament. Today we continue our study of initiatives towards a family-friendly House of Commons.
The witnesses from the House of Commons administration are Marc Bosc, the acting clerk; and Pierre Parent, chief of human resources.
I'll just remind committee members that the witnesses are here to answer all questions about the House of Commons, day care, or the buses. Anything that comes up related to the House of Commons administration should be answered by these two, which is why they are here for two hours. We'll have a lengthy time to cover all of these topics.
Yes, certainly, if we have time at the end and people are finished questions.
We have the five things I mentioned at the beginning of the last meeting: your motion, Mr. Christopherson's motions, the conflict of interest guidelines on gifts, the Speaker's emergency motion, and approval of the budget for this study. We'll definitely do any of that we can, depending on the time.
Keep in mind that you have to get in all the topics related to the House of Commons. Make sure you've asked all your questions of these two witnesses.
Thank you for coming. I know you two are very busy with huge responsibilities, and we look forward to short opening comments and then lots of questions.
I'm obviously pleased to be before the committee this morning to speak to your study on initiatives toward a family-friendly Parliament.
I am accompanied by Mr. Pierre Parent, who is the Chief Human Resources Officer. One of our colleagues is also in the audience, the Director General of Parliamentary Precinct Operations, Mr. Benoit Giroux.
We've done our best to follow the work of the committee over the last little while, so we are somewhat familiar with some of the issues that have come up. I must say at the outset that I am pleased to share with you that the House administration under the Speaker's leadership has recently made a number of improvements to facilities and services available to members with young children. There is the creation of a family room, among other things, including parking spaces, and other facilities that have been improved or upgraded. We have made some progress.
As you move forward with your consideration of this study, we remain available to you and poised to act on the recommendations that the House may make. Obviously informally as well, with members who express special needs, we work with them and try our best to accommodate their requirements.
We are of course at your disposal to answer all of your questions this morning.
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
I think it's important to add that the day care doesn't operate under the management of the House of Commons. It operates by its own board of directors and own management. We've had in the past, I would say, 18 months several discussions on how we could arrange the day care for members with the help of Children on the Hill. We've looked at these options. For instance, we've looked at the option of having a drop-in at any time, and having the day care hours extended from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. when the House sits.
The issue has always turned on the business model of the day care. Of course, they're not there to lose money, so they would staff the day care accordingly. Then the question would be, if there's less usage than the staffing required, who would actually pay for the difference? That's the kind of balance between the offer of service from the day care, being an independent body, and the level of service especially from a drop-in perspective where the facility should be there and people should be there to accommodate drop-ins, and without knowing exactly the level of usage. That was one of the difficulties.
Also, from their perspective, and I can't necessarily talk on their behalf, but mixing their full-time program and the drop-in program is problematic. I won't necessarily go into the details, but that was problematic from their perspective, so they would see two different operations and two different facilities.
That's why we looked into a third option, which is maybe a nanny service, which would require probably a booking fee. We spoke with different providers and usually what they require is a contract with the employer. In this case there's no employer. Depending on the provider, there would be a booking fee on a specific booking, or a booking fee that would be paid on an annual basis, and then paid by usage.
We're looking at different providers, and in that context the services could be provided here in Centre Block, or be provided in the family room, in the member's office, their home, or even a hotel room. That's much more flexible, and that's where we're looking.
That's obviously because they've been sent to other witnesses and will frame a lot of our discussions with the witnesses we do have here. I wanted to focus on those to some degree.
There is a series of six of them I wanted to ask you about. I have three questions about each of them, and we'll go through them one by one. I'll give you an idea ahead of time as to what I'm looking to get your feedback on.
In each of these areas I want to get a sense of what you think might be the potential unintended consequences of any changes we make in each area. I want to get a sense as to what you think some of the costs might be in the area. Most importantly, I want to get your sense as to what kind of impact changes in each of these areas might have on our constituents.
I'll go through them one by one. Hopefully, we'll have enough time. If not, maybe I can get another round and continue to ask about the the other parts.
The first one is in relation to the House considering shortening or compressing its sitting week, or otherwise altering its sitting calendar. For each of those three themes, could you give us some sense as to what you think the unintended consequences might be, and the costs, and what impact there might be on our constituents?
Thanks very much for being present. I indicated earlier that I was going to focus on one area. I will acknowledge right up front that part of it is a pet peeve in terms of my experience here on the Hill, but it does lead to what I think are matters that are far more substantive than my feet getting cold.
It's about what we call the “green bus service”. Now even that's changing. It's no longer going to be the green bus, I guess; it's going to be the white bus. Anyway, there have been cutbacks. I've been around here going on 12 years now, and it has been cutback, cutback, and cutback. That's not to say that there aren't times when you can make changes and improvements and when cuts are even warranted, but my experience is that with the expansion of Parliament Hill now spilling over more onto Queen Street and Wellington Street, and with the opening in the last few years of what is now the Valour Building, we're actually going off the Hill.
There was a time—and you can tell I'm getting old—back in the good old days.... But there was a time not that long ago when you got on the green bus and it came very quickly and very efficiently. One bus took you everywhere, because there were only a handful of locations. It's very different now. It's far more widespread. At a time when we have more destinations, the vehicles now have to leave the Parliament Hill precinct and go onto the public streets of Ottawa, particularly along Wellington and Queen, and get all the way around the national monument to get over to One Wellington. At a time when we have an expanded need for the service, there have been more and more cutbacks. Now, I'm not saying that there hasn't been some expansion, but relatively speaking, in my view, there's been a diminishment of the service.
I'll just get this off my chest and then I'll move to what is the more substantive matter. From my perspective, the amount of efficiency and productivity lost by the number of times people have to wait for a bus, and by how many times committee meetings have been delayed, or by staff people having to use them to get around when they're bringing things for the members because something has changed, or the agenda has changed, or you need information.... On the efficiency waste, if you had experts look at it, I have to believe—and I'm no expert—that they would tell you that this is a false economy and that you may be saving on the one budgetary line item that says “transportation on the Hill”, but if you look at the effect on the efficiency and productivity, not to mention just the frustration level....
I'll get to the point: it's cold in Ottawa. I'll say parenthetically to my new colleagues that I'm from Hamilton, and I knew it was cold when I got here and the people from Winnipeg said, “Aw, Dave, it's really cold here.”
Some hon. members: Oh, oh!
Mr. David Christopherson: It is cold in Ottawa. It has bugged me that the ones who are driving around in the limos and staying nice and warm are the ones directing the rest of us poor schmucks who have to stand outside and wait.
Now, all of that is a bit light-hearted, but it has some meaning, as you can tell. However, far more important and germane to those points is this: staff and members who have physical impairments. The buses used to go longer and further. Now, on the parking lot.... It's lucky for us MPs, of course, as we're treated very well here on the Hill. Everything exists to support the members and the work of the House, so my parking spot is fine. I don't need a bus to get to my parking spot unless I'm leaving from here, but some people have a long way to go. If it's not that late at night but into evening, it's dark and cold. If they have a bad knee, a bad leg, a broken leg, arthritis, or whatever impairment, or if they're just getting older and slower when moving around, I don't know how those folks are getting around. Are we paying for cabs? Do they have to arrange for rides? Do they have to change their personal life to have somebody come and get them?
Then there's the fact of.... For instance, last night I attended a meeting here in the Centre Block that started at 7:30 and went until 9. I had to leave a little early. I got lucky and got on the last bus as it was leaving at five or ten minutes after eight, but for everybody else who was at that meeting, staff included, there was no bus.
I know there's more security around. Sometimes it's like an armed camp from what we see. But I have to tell you: walk around the Hill at night and you'll easily see opportunities where members are alone and walking. I'm not even talking about those who are maybe more vulnerable than others, but just about MPs who are walking around in the dark, late at night, and relatively alone. There may be help, but it's a little further away. Wellington's not that far; you can get access. As a safety concern, I'm worried. So for all those reasons....
I accept that most of what I just said, Chair, was a rant, fair enough. But I've been waiting a long time to get somebody in that seat so I can have this rant.
I realize you can't comment on the cuts, and I don't expect you to. You're the embodiment of appropriateness, fair enough. But from a management point of view, you also have a responsibility. It's your staff in many ways as much as it's our staff, and I'd like your thoughts on this.
I'll make it easy for you, Marc. I would like your thoughts on any part of what I've had to say, including being dismissive. I'm prepared to accept that, but these are my feelings about this and I'd like to know what you think.
That said, there's no doubt that the bus operation is a very complex proposition, for the reasons you've outlined. The precinct has gotten bigger. Committees are meeting in different places. Trust me when I say that, Benoit. I have had numerous conversations about this. It's not an easy puzzle to resolve, particularly given that the decisions around levels of service were made in the context of a general restraint era. All parts of the broader federal government were affected, the House included. We reduced our expenditures by 7%. That was one of the services affected.
That said, we must remember that the buses are there not for the staff, not for the employees, but for members. The reason they're there for members is so that members can get to the committee meetings they're supposed to get to, and to the chamber that they need to get to for votes and whatever other reason. That is the reality.
From a safety angle, I have had a very good conversation with the Director of the Parliamentary Protective Service on that subject. Sometimes trying to plan exceptions for a service like the bus service is not the most efficient way to go. Making individual arrangements, such as having a hotline you can call for an escort or whatever, if you really feel your safety is at risk, may be something to explore.
I know I haven't addressed all the points you've raised, but I've tried to cover as many as I could.
I just want to make a little statement, which is directed more at our analysts than anybody else. It comes from the exchange between Mr. Christopherson and Mr. Bosc. It's just this: Mr. Christopherson was pointing to the exceptional cases that require the green buses, for people who are not capable of walking around or have some form of a mobility issue.
I just want to suggest that the best way of dealing with that, when it arises, is that we not try to change the rules, not try to change the green bus system, but try to change our intra-party cultures. Each party ought to try to move those individuals to Centre Block so they don't have to travel around very much. Then we ought to work on making the committees they are members of meet in this building, as opposed to a different building. That would actually resolve the matter for the period between now and when we move to West Block. It will be a different story then, but I suspect it could be accommodated there.
That's what we did with Steven Fletcher, who was, of course, a quadriplegic. He had an office on the first floor of Centre Block. I suggest that this would be our first line of attack, and it could be dealt with immediately, whereas changes to the green bus service would be several years in the making.
Thank you, Mr. Clerk, and everyone, for being here today.
I'd like to start by saying that we're here in this committee trying to figure out how to make Parliament more efficient, more modern, and more family friendly, and this is not a position that all Liberals have taken. It's a position that for years and years has been talked about, has been discussed, and we're trying to figure out how to come to a solution now.
There are many Conservatives and many NDP members who are also in favour of having constituency days on Friday, and many, many spouses.
I appreciate and agree that the impact we were talking about on the constituents might be quite good, because my constituents whom I oftentimes hear from think that I'm not working when I'm not there. I hear that concern quite often. They have to wait weeks to get a meeting with me because they want face time with me, not with my staff, because they have a very serious concern in the riding. Because of that, I end up having to meet them. I take time to try to get back on Fridays mostly, just so that I can meet them and keep my constituents happy, or meet them over the weekend along with attending various events. It leaves very little time for family and children, but that's something that each individual MP takes on.
So, having days in the constituency would make them quite happy, so they wouldn't have to wait weeks to meet with me, but every week they'd know there was a day when they could come and have face time.
I would like to know what your opinion is on the easiest way of doing that, if we were to choose to do that in the end, in your expert opinion. Would it be the parallel chamber? Would it be moving hours around? What is your opinion on that?
Here again, bearing in mind the theme of family friendliness, it should be remembered that all parties run a roster system in the chamber for House duty. The lost hours on a day that the House would choose to not sit could be made up on those other days. This has been the pattern in the past when the hours of sitting of the House have been modified. The parties have chosen to make sure that those hours aren't lost. In fact, in some cases they've been increased.
Sitting later doesn't necessarily mean that all members are affected. It really only means that certain members are affected, and not all the time, because House duty shifts change. Sometimes you might have to work a Thursday afternoon once a month or whatever. That's the kind of arrangement that the whips try to make to accommodate members. So the impact of eliminating a day and reapportioning those hours should be manageable, in my opinion, from an individual member standpoint.
The real key, though, is the issue of predictability, and I spoke about this the last time I was here. What really helps members plan their activities and their lives is knowing when things are going to take place. Having votes at three o'clock, as the House has started doing, is a great amelioration of the uncertainty that members used to face: “There's a vote tonight. Well, no, there's an extension because of a ministerial statement, so it's not going to be at 5:30, but 6:00. Oh, no, it's 6:18 that the bells will start.” It was a moveable feast. Members never knew when, plus they had to wait for the time of the bells.
With having the vote right at 3 o'clock, everyone is there. Boom, you do it and it's done. It's eight minutes, nine minutes, and you can get on with the rest of your day.
Now, we haven't been faced with multiple votes yet, and that will challenge that model somewhat. With a parallel chamber, again, it's the same argument there. If you have a parallel chamber, it only affects certain members: the ones who choose to be there. If the quorum is low, like it is in Australia and Great Britain, it's not an issue from the whips' standpoint and the other rules that are put around that.
If you look at it from that prism, thinking of the individual members taking turns where it's required, it becomes manageable.
I asked to be included in the speaking order because I wanted to make some of the same points Mr. Bosc just made. The parallel chamber idea originated, as I understand it, in Australia. It may exist elsewhere. I love Australia. I admire Australia. I used to live in Australia. I was once a permanent resident of Australia.
However, the purpose of the parallel chamber, we should be clear, is to allow people to pretend dishonestly that they spoke before the whole House of Commons when they did nothing of the sort. They speak to an empty room that has a special quorum requirement so that virtually nobody has to be present, and which is running at the same time as the House is running. That means that in fact they are talking to nobody, but they could make a claim. I think that's dishonest. I would oppose having a parallel chamber.
We do have a system of S. O. 31s, where you can bring up any issue that is of importance to you. It happens right before QP, when everybody is present, so you are actually saying it when people are paying attention. That is the beauty of our system. If we have a problem that members aren't getting enough chances to appear before their colleagues, then I would suggest expanding the S. O. 31s from 15 minutes to some longer period of time, maybe starting them at 1:45 p.m. instead of 2 p.m., to double the time, or something like that.
On the subject of taking a parallel chamber and having it set up on Friday, you wouldn't need a parallel chamber because the House of Commons would be available. But I can't think of anything more antithetical to being family-friendly: “Now I must stay in the House of Commons on Fridays if I want to address these matters that are of issue to my constituents.” I would strongly oppose that too.
There are a whole bunch of ways of doing better than this, but I suggest that we start expanding the number of S. O. 31s if you really believe this is an issue. I didn't have a question; I just wanted to make that statement.
Thank you very much for all your feedback.
I also wanted to comment on having Fridays off. I think the flexibility we have as members of Parliament is to arrange our schedules so they best serves us, our constituents, our staff, etc. I have a very large riding, about 10,000 square kilometres. It's large compared to some, but if you compare it to the chair's, or Larry's, it's a bit different. But you work your schedule around it. I find that I'm meeting constituents on Saturdays, if I have to, in-between events and those sorts of things. So I think there is a lot of flexibility.
I still question whether you look at what's happening in Alberta. People are losing their jobs in Alberta and our salaries were raised, and now we're looking at taking a day off. I think that's the wrong message to send. We heard comments from the parliamentary spouses and some of them said in their survey responses that having Fridays off would be a bad thing, The member from the NDP who was speaking also said it was a bad idea.
I agree with Mr. Reid. I think if there are ways to rearrange the schedule and that those are smaller changes that we can make, rather than just overhauling the entire system. We may be working in our ridings Friday, but I think it gives the wrong impression.
Again, that was more of a comment than a question. We went through a lot already.
How much time do I have? I just want to make a few more comments.
Just to piggyback on the comments of my colleague, Mr. Schmale, we had the pleasure of having the Parliamentary Spouses Association here this week, and they indicated that they had sent out some surveys. However, we also have to remember that only 12 people responded to those surveys, so perhaps they weren't a great snapshot of everyone's wishes and opinions.
That said, there was one comment that I felt was quite interesting. When the spouses spoke about the travel point system, they indicated that some spouses sometimes don't want to use the privilege of coming to Ottawa to visit their spouse because the expenses are posted. Of course, we want all of our expenses to be transparent; we feel it's very important. But some individuals whose travel costs are much higher feel that perhaps their partner's will be penalized during election time or whatever about spending an awful lot of money. Could you expand on that and see if any other option is available that could avoid that type of situation?
None come to mind, Madam Petitpas Taylor. The reality is that there was a decision by the board to be more transparent on members' expenses. Those are divulged on a quarterly basis, as you know.
I tend to think that even though the numbers get bigger, particularly for members who live far away and whose travel expenses are greater, there is a discernment out in the public that there is an allowance made for members, let's say like Mr. Bagnell, who lives in Yukon. It's going to cost more to get to and from Whitehorse, just as it will cost less for someone who lives in Toronto. I think the public are discerning enough to see that difference.
The trouble with transparency and disclosure is that you either do it or you don't. You can't suddenly say, “Well, for this category we're not going to disclose it” for this or that reason. That's the reality of disclosure, and that it's out there and it's up to the members to explain it if required.
I know I'm not going to be able to say much in three minutes. I assume we're going to go around again, so I won't worry about rushing things.
In no particular order, but on Ginette's last comment, I thought that was a valid point, too. I underscore that. If you recall, I was the House leader of the third party at Queen's Park when we didn't have the point system, but it was pure dollars. The unfairness of it speaks to Mr. Bosc's point. It was there, it was open, and it was transparent, but the politics of it were horrible. That's why we adopted the federal system.
Now we're hearing that there is still an issue, and I think there is merit in that. I gave the example of the difference between Mr. Bagnell and me, or the difference in the distance to Hamilton versus his distance. There is also the question of the number of family members, how old you are, and how many dependants you would have. I think in the element of fairness—I like the idea, and I hope we pursue it—we need to find some way of coupling the total dollars so there is total transparency. The points used are still there, but it's just not that stark differential, like, “Hey, Christopherson, you only spent...and MP Smith over here spent five times as much”. As a stand-alone political statement, that's not helpful. That's not the kind of headline you want to see in your local paper. You've done nothing wrong or different from any other colleague, and yet because of our reporting mechanism, you're left in a negative political spot. It seems to me that in terms of fairness, those of us who don't face that should be the ones who are pushing the most. Otherwise it looks rather self-serving.
As one of those who benefits from this, I'm willing to keep on pushing for the same reasons I did 20 years ago at Queen's Park—fair's fair, and there seems to be an element of unfairness. It's going to take some work and imagination. We have to maintain the transparency. Nobody should interpret this as a desire to hide anything, but we're trying to find a way.... Just like the move from raw dollars to the point system was meant to introduce an element of fairness, there is another element here that's not quite fair.
We may be limited by the transparency and disclosure, but surely creative people can find a way where we don't lose that, but enhance the fairness just as we did at Queen's Park when we looked around, saw the federal system, and said, “Hey, there's a way to go. Let's do it by five times in one month you went back and forth to your riding, stacked up against somebody else and how many times they went”, and not by how much money they spent.
I hope we continue to pursue that.
Before I lose the floor, I'm going to jump out of my order. I want to apologize, Mr. Bosc. I shouldn't have said what I said to you, and I regretted it as soon as it was out of my lips. I think it comes from the Attawapiskat issue where there was a thought that, “Well, why don't you just move?“ When you said, “Why don't you just walk”, I took it the same way, and I know you don't mean that.
By the way, I want to say to all your staff that my issues are not with the way you've managed it. My issues are political ones in terms of the money that's allocated. I know you can't address that, so I was asking my question in a way where I was hoping you could make my case from a practical operational point of view, and then I would go back and do the political stuff and do all that kind of stuff.
I do apologize, sir. I know that you and all of you care greatly about the staff, and I retract what I said and apologize. I feel bad.
My purpose in asking for the microphone again was to continue the debate with Ms. Vandenbeld.
Regarding the idea of having a parallel chamber sitting on Friday, I repeat the thought that if the House isn't sitting, if we change to a four-day week, which the Liberals really seem to want to do, then you'd effectively have the House free, and you could just have the House deal with all of this business. I'm not recommending this. I'm just observing that you wouldn't need the parallel chamber. The parallel chamber is to allow something else to be happening at the same time the House is sitting, in the same way that we can be in this committee right now while the House is just around the corner sitting and dealing with some other items of business. So there would simply be no need for that.
Again, the purpose of the parallel chamber, as I said, is to engage in a dishonest exercise of pretending you spoke to an actual audience when you did not actually speak to your colleagues, which I just disapprove of on principle.
Finally, on dealing with issues like private members' business in a parallel chamber, well, you can't deal with anything that involves actual debate or votes in a parallel chamber. You can only do it in the House, because only in the House are we not going to find ourselves engaged in House business somewhere else while that item is coming up. Only statements can be made in a parallel chamber, in the empty room to a non-audience. Nothing else can happen there.
Finally, if you did put all private members' business on Fridays, whether in the House itself by changing the Standing Orders, or in a parallel chamber, you'd wind up creating a situation in which members who wanted to deal with that would have to stay on Fridays, including any members who wanted to address those items. Private members' business is the most subject, thanks to trades, to change from one day to the next, meaning that we'd have fewer predictable schedules, and it would be that much more difficult for anyone to get out of the House on Fridays. That is true whether or not we go to the four-day week that the Liberals want so much, or whether we stick with the five-day week.
That's all I wanted to say on that.
Just very briefly, Chair, I want to come back to the points.
I have a very large riding. It's almost the size of the state of Vermont, which gives you a sense. My constituency offices are 135 kilometres apart. I run out of points well before the year is up. For bringing family back and forth, we're lucky we can go by car; my riding is not very far from here. But I just put the idea on the table of having a point attached to the member and the spouse and dependants. The cost is declared, but one point gets you and your family to Ottawa.
I'd like to have the elimination of the distinction between special and regular points explored as an option. In my riding, I run out of one category and still have lots left in the other category, because every day of my life is a point. That's the reality of a 20,000-kilometre riding.
I have just one more quick note on the parallel chamber, which I think is a fascinating idea. To the analyst, perhaps we could consider recommending further study of this in the eventual report, as opposed to it being something we can resolve here. I think it's a big enough issue that it could require its own study to really deal with it.
On the comments of Mr. Reid on Fridays, I think that what happens right now is that on those days you could have dilatory motions. The quorum of 20 applies anytime the House is sitting, because that's in the BNA Act. Just a few weeks ago, at 2:10 there was an adjournment motion and everybody had to run into the House and have a vote. What happens as a result is, for instance, that I'll have to spent four and a half hours sitting in the lobby or at my seat even though it may not be a debate that I'm planning on weighing in on, and I could spend those four and a half hours in my constituency meeting with constituents.
I think what we're talking about is efficiency. If we were to talk about adding those hours for government business, and everything Mr. Reid talked about, to the other days of the week, you add those four and a half hours, but then in addition, so that we can be more efficient, we could have a parallel chamber on those Fridays—if the chamber is empty, why not have a parallel chamber?. Then people who do want to get on the record can get on the record.
I can just say that there may be a debate happening that I'm interested in when I'm in committee, but when I'm in the chamber, it might be something that's less relevant to my constituents. We have technology. It's not the old days when you had to be physically present or read Hansard afterwards. On one topic I was very interested in, I went to my office and looked at ParlVu, the video, of other statements that members made when I wasn't in the chamber. I was then able to go and engage those members about that. Because we have technology, we can watch happens in the chamber even when we're not in the chamber, and I think more opportunities to get on the record and speak to Canadians—not just to each other, but speak to Canadians—would be very useful.
But I do have a question and a clarification for Mr. Bosc.
Mr. Reid indicated that on Fridays, if there were a parallel chamber, we would not be able to do anything other than members' statements, S. O. 31s. Is that the case? Or could it be that we would choose to do government business, but just not have votes, where people could get on the record?
Oh, don't I always see to? Thank you.
Fridays—I don't know why the government is continuing to natter on about this. The official opposition has made it clear that it's not interested in taking Fridays off, as far as I know. The third party has made it clear that we're not interested in taking Fridays off. I don't know why the government is going on about it. It should be a non-starter.
Regarding the second chamber, I'm like Mr. Graham; I find it a fascinating subject. It tweaked my interest the second I heard it. I didn't know it existed. But I suspect both of us are parliamentary wonks, and we really like the machinery of Parliament and how it works. I have to say that Mr. Reid's comments had some resonance with me too. I'd still be interested in pursuing it more, as an interest.
I'm not sure it's going to end up being anything practical. Therefore, as a precursor to that discussion, I'd want to get an initial report back to see how much time we want to dedicate to it. I'm not sure, based on what Mr. Reid is saying, where the practicality is. But I still continue to find it a fascinating adjustment to the way the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy works. So that's that.
Back to the parking, back to the bus, I want to thank Madame Vandenbeld for commenting. You can only assume you're speaking for someone else so far, and then someone else has to speak. So I'm glad to hear that, because it's an issue.
I want to finish my thought, because I don't think I finished my thought on that meeting last night. My point was that I got out in time to catch one of the last buses. It was here at Centre Block. It was just after 8:00 p.m. and my office is, of course, down in the Justice Building. But it's more to the fact that everybody else who was in the room, regardless of what their next move was, had to get to the parameters of the parliamentary precinct on foot.
Again, if they were able-bodied and bundled up for the weather, fine. But if not, or if there were any other concerns—security, etc., because it was dark—they were just kind of left out in the cold. It seems to me that if there's real....
I grant you, it was not committee business. It wasn't House. It was caucus business. We were doing briefings on a matter. We had staff and members there. Nonetheless, it was legitimate parliamentary business. It was here in Centre Block. In fact, it was just in room 112 downstairs, and it was just last night. It's a perfect example of when people, members and staff who work here, were working until 9 o'clock at night, which is not unusual, as everyone knows, yet there was no availability.
Again, when I was talking about the efficiencies, I didn't mention the fact that it used to be fairly easy to get from one committee meeting to the next—number one, because they weren't so far apart physically, because of the locations that both Mr. Bosc and I have mentioned; but also, because of the regularity of the buses. I could pretty much assume that, if I had to talk to Mr. Chan about something, I had time to run over, have a brief chat with him to finish off something in this meeting, grab my staffer, and head out the door; and I knew I needed to wait only a couple of minutes and I could get on a bus and get to the next meeting, even if it was way over on Wellington Street or on Queen Street. That falls apart when I get to the part where I'm running out the door and waiting for a bus for 10 of the 15 minutes that I have to get from one committee to the next. I still find that unresolved.
I'm just a little out of order. I apologize. I made some very quick notes.
I just wanted to mention this, too. Mr. Reid had mentioned about moving a member to Centre Block, and used one of our former colleagues as an example. That is all fair enough, all to the point, but that doesn't speak to somebody who is temporarily disabled—for example, who breaks a leg. I have a knee from an old judo injury that every now and then flares up, and I have a heck of a time getting around. But it's a minor thing. It's only around for maybe a week or two, and then it clears up. We're not going to move me to Centre Block.
I find that fine when we have a permanent situation, but doesn't work on a temporary basis. With a disability, whether it's permanent or temporary, when it's affecting you, it's real. I wanted to say that.
I wasn't clear, Mr. Bosc, on the staff. I hope I'm not opening a can of worms. Or if I am, I'm going to make sure I stay on top of it, to keep it fixed. Staff are on the buses, as they should be. My staffer, Tyler, gets on the bus all the time. I know that there's House of Commons staff too; I see them early in the morning coming from the parking lots.
I think about those very folks in the morning, who have the bus service there; the concept of the employer, Parliament, providing that service is there, but it's not there at the other end of the day, if they happen to have to stay late. That still leaves me with a bit of a question.
May we have your thoughts on that?
May I respond to that, Chair?
Thank you very much. This is what we want. I appreciate it very much, but here's the thing: sometimes it's not a formal meeting of caucus. It's not unusual for me in my capacity and for our caucus to have to meet with our House leader and whip. Many times it's in that same timeframe. After everything is done, we'll all gather in the House leader's office, and we're there until 8:30 or nine o'clock. We have staff—I don't go very far without Tyler—and there are support staff.
I don't know whether you would call that special enough to call up a bus. Even I am asking whether you would call up a bus and a driver for five or six people. Yet those five or six people are doing legitimate parliamentary work, they're here in Centre Block, it's late at night, and they don't have access to the bus. If they're a support staffer whose car is parked far away, they have to walk even further than I do, because I'm an MP and I get a privileged spot.
It's not so much about me in that case. There's this element of unfairness in terms of the infrastructure. I know it costs money, but the service used to be there and the principle of making sure that you could move people, whether they're members or staff. Let's not differentiate; they're people on the Hill moving around.
Now we have a bigger area, committee meetings are further apart, the service is less frequent, and it's cut off earlier than it used to be.
Thank you. I appreciate that.
Chair, with your indulgence, I'll make one last statement, then I'll back off this, because it may end it, actually.
What I want to know is whether there's any support around the table for some of this. If there is, then maybe we should ask for a report, something so that it doesn't go away, something to give us a focus. I'm at the point now that I've had my opportunity to have my say and my rant, and I don't feel that I've been shut down. If I'm the only one who really sees this as a cause célèbre, I'm quite prepared to back off, believing I've done my bit, and I'm prepared to leave it at that, Chair.
For the record, let me to simply thank you, Mr. Bosc, and your entire House administration team for your professionalism, and for the fact that you've made it very clear and have demonstrated time and again that you and your entire team work ultimately to serve the members and whatever decisions the House makes. You carry it out with tremendous professionalism. I simply want to put that on the record.
I want to briefly address some of the points by Mr. Reid, and then I want to get back to a very specific question. I might wander past by a couple of minutes, but I haven't spoken yet.
Mr. Reid, I want to get back to first principles. The point the government made in the campaign with respect to making the House more family friendly is more a function of trying to make this place a more attractive place for all Canadians to feel they can fully participate and become members of the House of Commons. What we're trying to do is to find that sweet spot where we remove as much as possible the structural barriers to participation.
I'm going to say on the record—and I know Ms. Vandenbeld shares this particular view—that there is not unanimity in the Liberal caucus on the elimination of Friday sittings. I think some of the members who have been here longer than I have, those who have served as staff, understand that the practical reality is that when we signed up and became members of Parliament and we have the privilege to do the work that we do, it is a 24-7 kind of job. No matter whether you have a four-day House sitting week or five-day House sitting week, we're going to be working a lot, no matter what.
What we're trying to do is to find an opportunity where we can have full participation and recognize the incredible impact this job has, particularly for those of us who have families. You and I share that particular reality. I simply wanted to address that.
That gets me to my substantive question that I wanted to raise with the clerk and his team. I'm ultimately concerned about its impact in terms of its interplay with the Standing Orders. I wanted your thoughts, perhaps—and we haven't raised this yet—on changing the concept of sessional days to perhaps.... I note in some of the papers the analysts had prepared that over time, the time for debate has been reduced in the House through changes to the Standing Orders.
I've observed, frankly, that a lot of members now, in the standard 20-minute allocation of time, split their time to 10 minutes. What's your thought on further reducing time for debate and changing from the concept of sessional days to maybe sessional hours, and how would that have an interplay with respect to the Standing Orders so that we could perhaps get through the business of government and the business of private members perhaps a little more efficiently?
The Chair: Mr. Bosc.
I was going to say that from my experience as a staffer sitting next to Tyler, when I learned that he is the more expendable of the pair between him and David, there are a number of things that we used to have that I kind of miss. One thing, Clerk, is the one-stop shop. It would be very useful. It doesn't really fall in the category of this study, but I would really like to see the one-stop shop come back. If I need basic office supplies, why should I wait three days to get them? If I need a pen, why can't I go downstairs and get a pen? That's the way it was.
Tying back to what we were talking about before, here is another idea about after-hours, or members' access members to get back to the parking lot, for example. In particular circumstances at night, members perhaps could have the opportunity to use the Mounties to get down the hill. It would provide the protection that they would request in certain circumstances. The vehicles are already there. There are no major logistical problems with that. It's an idea to put out there, nothing more than that.
There is one other thing, on the Standing Orders. We haven't talked much about them today. Standing Order 14 is about strangers in the House. Perhaps it could get a subsection specifically exempting the care of infants. It's food for thought.
I also wanted to come back to the calendar thing we started the meeting with. Right now calendar-sharing between staff is difficult enough. My staff cannot view and edit my calendar on their phones, which I think is very frustrating.
If you want to take the logical step of enabling families to see our calendars, I would like the whole office to have a properly integrated calendar so we are not stuck, as we are now, using Google calendars. You are talking about security issues as one of the concerns. We are already circumventing the security issues because of the limitations. Yes, you can make it secure, but if nobody uses it, it's pretty useless. I'll put that out there.
You are the one who gave us that compliment, and so I'd like to thank you for it.
I'd like to talk about perception versus reality a little bit, because I feel there is a lot of politics being played and some closed-mindedness on the side of the opposition as to the Friday sittings.
I'd like to know how many ministers, not just in this Parliament but in the last Parliament and in the previous Parliament, are actually there on Fridays. What does question period look like? How many members are actually present on Fridays? What are the hours like on a Friday?
I don't want us to be closed-minded to this, and I am not saying I'm completely for one thing or another. We've just heard my colleague Arnold Chan say that even the Liberals.... We are just trying to figure it out. There are people who are for it or against it. They are trying to see what's best to make Parliament more family-friendly.
I have to say, for myself, before knowing that you could probably trade off House duty and all that, it was a very difficult decision for me to make when running for a member of Parliament, for this position, because I have a young family. I used to play a very prominent role in the child care, so we had to switch things around at least for the first year or two of my child's life. I got in the game, in the race, got out of it, and then got back in after a year. It was a struggle.
I don't want there to be a deterrent factor for other people with young families who might want to participate and become members of Parliament. After all, we do need a diverse Parliament. We need to make sure that their voices are heard.
That is why I would really like to focus on this idea of perception versus reality. How much are we actually gaining by these Friday sittings? Would we be losing anything by not having the sittings, by switching the hours around but still having the same number of sitting hours, depending on how we change things? How much would we gain in our ridings, and how much might our constituents gain from our being there?
Could you shed some more light on what the reality of our Fridays looks like right now?
Far be it from me to agree with Mr. Christopherson twice in one day, but I do want to say that he had called on those members who aren't affected by travel points to talk about this issue. I live 15 minutes from here. The furthest reach of my constituency is, at a maximum, a forty-minute drive from here, and I don't have children or caregiving responsibilities.
I would like to echo that I think it's only fair that those who have to use more points because they have larger families or travel greater distances not be perceived as spending more money—the only caveat being that if we're going to say how many trips they took, we should also indicate if it was economy class or business class, and whether they took the most efficient, direct, and economical route. We don't want people to think that since we're not putting down the amounts, they can just go business class every single time.
Now back to the issue of the parallel chamber on Fridays. I think that if we were to sit half an hour early and half an hour late, Monday through Thursday, we would make up the 4.5 hours we sit on Fridays for all the business we do in the House right now.
Here's what happened to me just this past week. We have four days of debate on the budget. On the very first day, I asked to be put on the list. There were 80 members who had already asked to speak on the budget during those four days, so a lot of members don't get to speak on the things that are really important to them.
I hear what Mr. Reid is saying about Fridays being just for members' statements. I think we should allow it for members' statements—and for any bill that is before the House, perhaps members could give a twenty-minute speech on that subject on Fridays. We could even do it longer. We could have six hours on a Friday.
We'd be adding more time, but being much more efficient in terms of when we're here and when we're away, so that when we are here we are doing the things that we know matter to our constituents, and we don't have to be here just sitting in the lobby if there are other things we could be doing.
Can you comment on whether that would work, for instance on a Friday.
If I could, I would like to go with the motion I proposed first. I don't think this is controversial, but I could be proved wrong. So perhaps I'll move it now.
The motion is:
That the Chairperson and federal members of the Independent Advisory Board for Senate Appointments be invited to appear before the Committee before the end of May 2016, to answer all questions relating to:
their mandate and responsibilities,
the Report of the Independent Advisory Board for Senate Appointments Transitional Process (January - March 2016) that was submitted to the Prime Minister on March 31, 2016,
expenses incurred during the period of the report, and
anticipated future expenses.
Mr. Chair, I'll be very brief in summarizing the rationale for this. In the past, there was resistence to inviting the members of the advisory board. Yes, it was from the Liberals. The arguments presented against doing so included the fact that they would be submitting a report and that we ought to wait for that and ought not to put them in a position of having to report to us prior to doing their report to the Prime Minister. That's no longer an issue. We now have that report.
We also have some other information. We have information that their costs were a good deal higher that I would have thought would be reasonable, although it may be that they are reasonable and I'm just not seeing what the reasons are. But you can project that, if it costs this much to appoint seven, it's going to cost about three times as much to appoint the remaining 22 vacancies, and obviously that is a concern. Thus there's a desire to find out more.
As well, there is one oddity. The advisory board indicated that it had misplaced the list of organizations it contacted. I'm having some trouble, in the age of endless electronic copies of things, understanding how that could have occurred. The advisory board thought it was important enough that it wanted to present this information, but was unable to get a complete list. So getting that from it as well would be part of what we'd want to hear, or I would certainly want to hear.
Anyway the proposal is to get the advisory board here before the end of May, and I'm reluctant to raise this issue if we wind up having another meeting where we've got six witnesses and I'd be crowding them out through discussion of this motion. So that's why I raised it today, Mr. Chair.
I'll chime in quickly, to the extent that I'm not going to oppose it. We'll support it.
But you know, for us in the NDP, in the context of our position, this is all just polishing the deck chairs on the Titanic before the darned thing goes down. We're not all that interested in perfecting an overall system that makes appointments in a democracy the reality. However, it is the reality, and if anyone wants to continue poking around in this area, we'll be supportive, but always in the context that none of this should be happening. It's a wart on the body politic of Canada that we have this thing, and all its various permutations of appointing people doesn't change the fact that it's an appointment process.
Also, I remind the government that it's not 2015 now, but 2016, and the idea of an appointed upper House is still the antithesis of anything anyone would remotely call a democracy.
In that context, we'll support it, but we won't be leading the band.
I appreciate that. I do have a wrinkle in my email system too, which may lead emails going to an account that doesn't regularly come before me. I did noticed that others had maybe not seen the email either, so I feel a little better, thanks.
I have been on this issue for quite some time and in different iterations. Mr. Richards is absolutely right, it is still not clear. I would suggest that we get out in front of this and invite her back in.
She's always had a suggestion that she didn't much like them, and I hope I'm not putting words in her mouth. Mr. Reid's been around the mulberry bush on this from the inception, I believe, so he knows more about it than probably anybody in Parliament. She had claimed that if we really want to make things simple, then we should just have a dollar amount where any gifts below that amount are considered okay and nobody would question these, and above that amount, there should be a reporting mechanism. I think she had suggested $35.
I would defer to Mr. Reid's expertise in this area, but it seems to me that from a common sense approach—and I guess this speaks to where Mr. Richards was too—we still have conflicting interpretations that leave it unclear. There's still no ability to look at it at a quick blush and understand what it is. For the life of me, I don't know why it evades us. We should be able to find a way that's nice and crystal clear, and yet we don't have it and it's so important.
I'm suggesting that maybe we ought to jump out in front, say yes that we're going to deal with it on the agenda, and invite her to come in and have that discussion and keep chasing this thing until we finally get it clear.
Those are my thoughts.