This is meeting number 19 of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs in the 1st session of the 42nd Parliament. This meeting is held in public. Today we continue our hearings for our study of initiatives toward a family-friendly House of Commons.
For the first hour we welcome Clare Beckton, the executive director of the Centre for Women in Politics and Public Leadership at Carleton University, and David Prest, a long-time staff member with the Conservative Party on Parliament Hill, to make sure that we're inclusive of everyone involved with our decisions. In the second hour, we'll have Mr. François Arsenault, director of parliamentary proceedings at the National Assembly of Quebec.
We welcome Joël Lightbound to the committee. I'd also like to welcome a former city councillor from the city of Whitehorse, Ranj Pillai. He is right at the back, experiencing another order of government.
Just so that people know, from a discussion that we had recently, the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner's term ends this June. As we're making decisions on that file, there may be a new person.
I appreciate your raising this.
To the best of my knowledge, she's an officer of Parliament, an agent of Parliament. When we went through the process of hiring the new Auditor General—there were so many fires going on at the time that we could only spend so much time on it—I was not very pleased with the process.
It is Parliament that decides who is hired for these positions, and it's only Parliament that can remove those people from their positions. Yet the government of the day completely owned the process; the opposition was not engaged. There was maybe a little bit of perfunctory consultation about what sorts of things we were looking for, but it didn't amount to a real consultation. By comparison, when we hired the Sergeant-at-Arms when I was at Queen's Park, because that person was hired by the provincial parliament, there was an all-party committee struck, and it was totally non-partisan all the way through.
What we do here federally, at least with the last big appointment.... The government did all of it. They did the consultation, they did the interviews, they did the selection, and then they offered up to Parliament a name, and it was vote yes, vote no. The process just didn't seem to me to be consistent with the notion that the person is an agent of Parliament. It's deliberately structured that way so that the government of the day can't order these particular people around, people such as our Privacy Commissioner, our Auditor General.... We have a number of them; I think there are 10 or 11, actually.
The process should support the notion that Parliament is doing the hiring, and yet the other process was not that way at all. It was rather like: “Oh, by the way, do you mind giving your thumbs up, yes or no?” If this process is going to kick in again, I would very much like us to engage, in some fashion. I don't even know where we'd begin, Mr. Chair. I just lay this in front of you. The new government seems to be interested in doing things differently. This is one opportunity by which we could right-side Parliament by giving Parliament back control of the whole process of hiring these agents and officers, which is then consistent with the notion that it's Parliament doing the hiring and that Parliament is the only one that can fire someone. The reason is that if the prime minister of the day, no matter who, is upset with an Auditor General's report, he can't fire them. It takes Parliament to do that.
I would ask that we engage early in this and look at doing things differently, consistent with the government's indication that they want to do it differently.
Thank you for inviting me to appear before you.
I'll just make a couple of short remarks, because I know you like to ask a lot of questions.
I'm pleased that the committee is looking at the issue of a friendlier Parliament that recognizes the need of members of Parliament to meet family responsibilities as well as their home responsibilities. Needless to say, that is not an easy challenge, as we know from many sectors.
Creating a more family-friendly environment requires mechanisms to support and ensure practices and actions that reflect gender equality. Currently about 26% of members of Parliament are women, which contributes to an environment that does not fully recognize gender equality. There is a need for leadership from political parties to continue to augment the number of women running for office, including being fair and not putting them in unwinnable ridings, which happens. Having more women, I must caution, does not automatically create equality, but it contributes to changing the culture.
I know the term has been “work-life balance” here. I always use the term “work-life integration”, as I believe that this striving is for a mythical balance that doesn't exist. I've never found it in my life, and it has never bothered me that I didn't. Instead, we need to look for ways that permit members of Parliament to serve their country as they wish while still having time for their families, which can include child care support that recognizes the needs of members of Parliament while in Ottawa.
Male members of Parliament need to be encouraged and supported as well as female members in meeting their family responsibilities.
Orientations for members and chairs of committees should include how to create a respectful environment and, for committee chairs, how to schedule to accommodate members' needs as well.
Also important is having an environment of respect that allows members and their staff to get work done without fear of harassment and disrespectful behaviour. House rules, education, and processes can assist in making this happen, along with modelling of the desired behaviour by party leaders.
For political participation to be equal, the environment and the House processes need to an ensure an equal voice for men and women and have peer processes for resolution of any complaints.
Efficiency of processes in the House is certainly one way of helping to reducing Parliament.... For example, reducing Parliament to sitting four days a week could be one option that might better reflect the need of out-of-Ottawa MPs to return to their ridings and families. Electronic voting, in the age of technology, can certainly assist, as it may allow someone to vote while still caring for a member of the family, if that is necessary. While eliminating evening sessions may not be possible, they can be reserved for urgent or emergency debates and votes, for example.
Being mindful of sittings on major school holidays is another thing that can be looked at.
These are just a few possibilities, and I welcome your questions this morning.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Thanks for the invitation, committee.
Just by way background, I'm currently with the opposition House leader's office. I've worked for House leaders and whips for some 35 years, in government and in opposition. I have been a parent for 25 of those 35 years. I have six children and I still have young children at home, the youngest being eight years old, so I may qualify for this family-friendly discussion. Just don't ask me for advice about family planning.
Some hon. members: Oh, oh!
Mr. David Prest: I would first like to comment on the calendar and the number of days a year and days a week that the House sits. I will be advocating for the status quo. I lived through the open-calendar days when there was no end-time and no indication of how many days the House would sit and when it would sit. Our current fixed calendar is much more family-friendly than the open-ended calendar.
In examining the particulars, the House calendar needs to accommodate things such as the number of sitting days required to get done what business needs to be done, the number of days the government is available to be held to account by members of the House, and the number of days members can spend in their constituencies and be with family. It has been my observation that the current calendar strikes the right balance. Increasing one item while taking away from another may not get us where we want to go.
I have some suggestions, though minor ones.
Last year, before we adjourned for the summer, we settled the sitting days for January, February, March, and April 2016, instead of waiting for the fall, which is the usual practice. The committee might want to recommend an earlier decision on the calendar as the normal practice, as I'm already booking things for February and I'm not sure whether I'll be able to go now; I have to wait until the fall.
Also, when providing input to the Speaker in drafting the next calendar, I would avoid scheduling long periods of House time together, particularly the five-week blocks. When my in-laws were organizing a family reunion in Vermont for this July, on the question of how many days it should last I gave the same advice. People are enthusiastic at first, but after a few days somebody is going to cry. It's the same sort of thing here.
I have a comment with respect to the hours of the House. Most extra-curricular activities for children begin before the House adjourns on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. I miss a lot of these activities when the House is sitting, and my kids are late a lot for soccer and baseball. When they get into competitive sports, they are penalized for that, so when the House is sitting, my kids are on the bench a lot. I think the committee could look at altering the hours of the House, perhaps starting earlier and ending earlier.
I like the fact that the whips are now scheduling votes following question period instead of in the evening, and the continued use of the application of the votes by the whips frees up more time for members and their staff. Consolidating votes on one particular day of the week would reduce the number of days the House sits late as a consequence of those votes' taking place after question period.
Finally, I asked my oldest daughter Wrenna what her thoughts would be about this study, and she addressed something I didn't think of, maybe because it had nothing to do with the rules of procedure. She suggested that we have more organized family-friendly events and cited the time I took her to a Christmas party organized for children of staff and MPs. It had quite an impression on her, and she obviously has fond memories of that experience. When I had my office on the second floor here in the Centre Block and I would head home on a Tuesday or a Wednesday, I would walk through a gauntlet of organized events and receptions on the way to the car. Every room and every corner of the Centre Block had a reception going on or some sort of event. Obviously we have people who are very good at organizing events, so perhaps it would not be too much of a bother to organize more family-friendly events, perhaps one per season.
By happy coincidence, that is exactly what I was going to do with my colleague Mr. Schmale.
First of all, I want to thank David Prest for attending as a witness. David has unparalleled experience in our caucus, working up here through all kinds of different circumstances over three decades and, of course, in various stages of life: as a young parent and then as a parent of a growing family, and so on.
My first question, David, is for you. Regarding the family-friendly events, I agree with you. I have a sense that the reason these things tend to fall apart is that we get periodic tsunamis through here. Good ideas come along and become part of the culture, and then you get 200 new MPs out of the total number and many of the good ideas are just swept away and have to be rediscovered.
Thinking of what you suggested, I just jotted down possibilities for four possible events. One is doing it from when our year begins, which is September—that is, something in the autumn. I was thinking of maybe a Halloween party. We used to do one with the help of the Speaker—that's after the confectioners shut down theirs. Anybody who has kids who have been loaded up with candy knows that too much candy is not family-friendly, but there could be a Halloween party.
There could be a Christmas party that's child-oriented.
We tried one year doing something in February with the co-operation of the Speaker. February is the period when the blahs set in.
Finally, there could be something either on the lawn or maybe in the East Block courtyard—outdoors, anyway—in June.
Does that strike you as a reasonable number of things, or would you suggest different ones?
Thank you, Mr. Reid, and Mr. Chair.
Thank you to our witnesses once again for your contributions. This is very informative indeed.
I want to pick up on one thing you mentioned about guilt: it's regardless of gender. When I'm at home I feel as though I need to be at work and when I'm at work that I need to be at home. I think it's everyone. Maybe women feel it more, but I know I get that feeling. I think it just goes with the job, but if we can find a way to lessen it, that would be great.
I want to mention, before I get on to my next point, the family-friendly events and bringing families here. This is something we talked about in a previous meeting: the use of travel points for some of our spouses who live out of province or out of driving distance, that type of thing.
I think we all supported disclosure, but I think we all came to an agreement that maybe we should or could look at ways to reduce the impulse of the public to then say, you're flying your spouse everywhere on the taxpayer's dime. I think that may help; I don't know. Nonetheless, in order to get them included, I think everyone has agreed, on every side of the aisle, that getting your spouse here and seeing how the place works and showing what you do is actually of benefit, because they can understand.
I don't know whether you want to comment on that before I get to the next part.
Thank you, Chair. After you've been here for a while, you can do anything with 20 seconds, trust me.
Mr. Jamie Schmale: I could have kept going.
Mr. David Christopherson: That's all right.
Thank you both very much for your attendance today.
The first thing I want to do is pick up on what Mr. Schmale said regarding guilt. I've been doing this for over 30 years. I remember a staff rep with the Auto Workers. We were at a retirement, and he was giving his good-bye speech, and said, “You know, everybody over the years has said to me”—meaning him—“'Oh, thank you for the sacrifice that you made for the union members, for the cause, to make the world a better place.'” He said: “You know, the truth of the matter is that it wasn't me who made the sacrifice. It was my family who made the sacrifice, because I was off doing what I enjoy doing; I was able to pursue my passions of speaking out on matters of injustice and fairness, so I was getting a return on what I was doing. But the wedding anniversary, the children's birthdays...”.
Do you want to talk about guilt? It's awful. But that's the truth of the matter: it's the family who pay the sacrifice, because quite frankly, many times you have a choice. It sounds awful, but this is the dilemma; this is what we're talking about, the real life of being an MP. We're still people, and that guilt, when you have to go to a major event—for whatever reason, you have to be there—but your partner is saying, “It's our daughter's birthday. How could you possibly make anything else a bigger priority?” There is such guilt.
I guess talking about it may be one way of dealing with it. I always thought that was a profound observation that Frank Marose made, that the sacrifice really wasn't his, although everyone was saying “Thank you for your sacrifice”, but that it was his family that made those sacrifices.
Second, Peter Stoffer, one of the most amazing parliamentarians to ever darken the doorways around here.... One of the things he was known for was the "All-party party”, which blew me away, because I have to tell you, if my whole reputation from this Hill back in Hamilton were that I was the organizer of a major party, I'd be in for one term. But Peter pulled it off. He was a one-off guy, and people loved Peter.
Maybe it's time to find somebody. There's a unique opportunity. We have a lot of rookies. There's a vacuum there to step into. He literally was all about pulling us all together.
Mr. Prest, everything you were talking about.... That was Peter. That's what Peter was about. The examples you were giving, I think, were mostly Peter: the Christmas one, the "All-party party”; then there used to be the “Hilloween”, which Mr. Reid has pointed to. I'm glad you raised that, and this is something we'll look at.
I want to comment again that I can't believe the difference it has made to have the votes after QP. How many evenings are not destroyed by that? And by saying this, I don't mean that we get to go back to our apartments; I mean that then we can finally go to the meetings we're supposed to be at and the receptions we want to get to, and yes, sometimes spend some social time with colleagues we don't really get to know all that well.
That was a simple thing, and I think it has made a huge difference.
While I have the floor, I want to mention the House and the tone with women. I've defended heckling as an important part of the culture of Parliament, but of course by that I mean one-offs that are like political cartoons, which are meant to be funny and biting and to make a point.
I experienced something yesterday, and I didn't rise to make a point of order, but I did make a point of going over and talking to the Speaker afterwards.... I sit right across from the Minister of International Trade. Now, the Minister of International Trade happens to be a woman, and she happens to be a small woman; she's petite. She sits right across from me, as David is here, and I have to tell you, the drowning noise coming from, I'll just say, “opposition benches”, was so loud that I could hardly hear her. That's not heckling. That's not an intelligent contribution. That's not an emotional response reflecting something that's of value to you that you had to speak out on. No, that's just plain rude and ignorant and unacceptable. Hopefully, when we talk about heckling, we can separate the difference between what is meant to be a pointed contribution to a debate, remembering that our debates replace fighting on the battlefield, so that there has to be some letting go, and just plain drowning someone out because you can, particularly—and I'm going to say it—just because you're a man and you have a bigger....
I have a big, loud voice. To use it for the sole purpose of shutting down a colleague is the antithesis of an intelligent, civilized, democratic debate, and I think we're going to see the Speaker continue to do what he can to stop that.
I do have a question here.
Mr. Prest, you have the unique advantage of having been on both sides as a staff person. With all your experience, just give us your thoughts on the differing impacts on staff—and I've been on both sides, in different houses—from your perspective as this place affects staff, depending whether you're in government or in opposition.
Mr. Prest, I have a few questions for you as well.
This has been covered a little bit already, but you made mention in your remarks of the votes being after QP, and I think you made it fairly clear that you believe there still needs to be some flexibility there. I don't disagree with you on that, but the fact that we've been having more votes after question period is something that I would say, from what I've seen, has been pretty nearly unanimously, or maybe even unanimously held as a positive thing,
I want to get your perspective as a staff member. You mentioned that one of the challenges you have is for your kids in extracurricular activities—sports and arts and things like that—and that it's difficult for you to get them there on time when the House is sitting.
Does having the votes after QP help? Obviously, that can reduce the length of time the House sits somewhat, sometimes, because we're eliminating at least the bells portion of a vote. Has that been something in which you've noticed a difference? Has it been helpful? Have you been able to see your kids get a little more time on the playing field and a little less time on the bench as a result?
Thank you, and you pronounced my name right. That's great.
First and foremost, I want to thank both Ms. Beckton and Mr. Prest for being here today. We appreciate your taking time to help us with this really important portfolio that we're looking at.
To start off, probably six years ago I was approached to run provincially in my province, and at the time my reality was very different from what it is now. Back then I was taking care of a mother who suffers from dementia, and I really wanted to be there and needed to be close to home, so I quickly made a decision that the timing was off.
At the time when I was approached to run, they had indicated that first of all they were looking for more women to run provincially and also wanted to make sure we had younger women run. That was one reason I had been asked, and also that I was involved in my community.
Fast forward six years and here I am now. My mother is still living—she's in an assisted facility—but when I reflect upon why I made the decision not to run, it's that there were some obstacles put in the way.
If I look now, I guess that as Canadians we want our Parliament to really reflect our Canadian population. I guess my question—to both of you, really and truly—is how do you think the status quo will encourage or discourage more women from running, or also getting more young people to run to ensure that we have a more inclusive Parliament here in Ottawa?
My time last time ran short so I wasn't able to get on that, which was a good thing. I wasn't going to touch on that, but now I have another round.
Just to briefly focus on the heckling part, as I said before, whether you put 338 lawyers in a room or 338 real estate agents, if you are debating a very hot topic—and I've seen it in high school debates—I think you're going to get some tempers rising.
I do agree that there is a limit to heckling, but I also agree that it is a part of the atmosphere, especially when in opposition you ask a question and you believe the answer you get is totally off what you think it should be or it's a non-answer. I think maybe we have to have general question period reform before we get into removing the heckling altogether, but I do understand that being heckled, over and above an acceptable level, can be intimidating for some.
I know some provincial legislatures have taken steps to bring that down and get it under control, but again, I think it's a question of the level of sensitivity of some of the issues we're dealing with as well as the passion that's involved in some of these debates.
I don't know what the right answer is. I don't know who said it at the previous meeting, but I don't think that sitting as though we're in church is acceptable either.
On the schedule, I agree that having an advance schedule is a good thing.
I know, David, you did touch on how having too many sitting weeks in a row could be problematic for people with families. As Mr. Richards said, I don't know if there's a magic number here, but personally that two-week constituency week was great. I got events in, and I got family time, and it was very good. I felt when I came back that I was in a better place and ready to tackle the issues here.
I do recognize personally that when there is one week on and one week off and one week on, it isn't comfortable and I feel as though I can never get settled and I am moving from one place to the next. I like the idea of getting a schedule that we can see in advance, which has somewhat of a pattern if possible, recognizing holidays and that sort of thing. I think that's important too. I like that idea.
I touched on this before, but I think having family-friendly events is very important. I think that is a way to get people involved and it leads to better happiness all around. When you have your spouse here, it's always a better thing too.
I don't know if you have any more tips on that you want to touch on now before I....
Thank you for being here, Ms. Beckton and Mr. Prest.
I heard both of you say that when you add more women to politics, you change the culture here. I've also heard it said the other way: why don't we just change the culture and perhaps then we'll be adding more women to Parliament? That's exactly what we're trying to do at this committee here today as we explore ways we can change the culture.
I haven't been hearing a whole lot of concrete ideas. I'm hearing a lot of let's keep the status quo, and it's fun for kids to come up here on the Hill sometimes, but I don't think that's necessarily what we are getting at. Whether we can have a fun event with kids...we should be having those, and I think that's a great idea and I bring my kids up here as well. But it's about getting representation and about making sure the people we have here, whether staff or politicians, end up staying here for the long run as well and not deciding to leave their jobs for particular reasons.
My question is more to you, Ms. Beckton. Could you elaborate a little bit more about what other barriers or challenges you see? You're saying we're at 26% right now. How can we do better? What things should we do? You talk to women every day. We have our own stories, but what are some stories you would like to share?
I think one of the things that is important is that women need role models, particularly young women. It's important that they see members of Parliament who are women, see what they're doing, and see that they can behave authentically with who they are, and that they don't necessarily have to act like men. That makes it very hard. If you feel you have to be in there heckling and shouting, which is not your normal way of doing things, it can be very discouraging if you come into an environment where that's expected.
It's also about being able to authentically be who they are, speaking to young women, and being encouraging. I think men can encourage women by inviting them to come to the table, because women don't always come to the table on their own. This is something we can certainly work on. I think they need to feel that they have an environment of support. The women's caucuses are important. The cross-party caucuses can play a strong role in telling women when they come, “You will have support, you will not be alone here”, because it can be very lonely when you're trying to find your way into that space.
I think there is a culture around harassment, and we should make sure there is a safe environment and that you have a place where you can report harassment if it happens. You know that it has happened on the Hill. We know it's happened to MPs, and we know it's happened to members of their staff. That is not the kind of environment you want.
The whole environment around respect means that when you see people acting in a respectful manner that does encourage women to look.... Something I hear all the time is that “I don't want to be part of that kind of behaviour”, and “I don't want to have to be treated by the media the way I see the media often treating women”. Those are things that discourage women. There is a certain awareness of what it means to be an MP and what things you can contribute and how valuable that is to our country.
There is no objection? Okay.
Just so the committee knows, so we don't have to take time later, we've asked the Clerk to come to our next meeting on Tuesday. Then in the second hour on Tuesday, we'll have the clerk from the Ontario assembly. Then at six o'clock Tuesday evening, we're having the Australian delegation.
You have to change the schedule in front of you. It's pretty important. Don't show up on Tuesday night, because it's been changed to a week later. You'll get a message anyway. Australia is on the 17th, not on the 10th. The schedule has Australia on the 10th, and it's actually on the 17th. On the 11th it is New Zealand, as you see, at six o'clock in the evening.
Then next Thursday, Elections Canada has invited us to an informal briefing.
Okay, I'd like to welcome François Arsenault.
He is director of parliamentary proceedings at the National Assembly of Quebec.
Thank you for your participation today.
You may begin. You have five minutes.
Good morning, Mr. Chair, ladies and gentlemen of the committee. My name is François Arsenault. I am director of parliamentary proceedings at the National Assembly of Quebec. I wish to thank the committee for inviting me to speak with you. I hope that what I have to say will be useful to you in your work.
First of all, I should mention that, in 2009, the National Assembly adopted major parliamentary reforms involving several issues being studied by this committee. The objectives of the 2009 reform were to: spread out legislative work over time, balance constituency and Assembly work, limit extended sitting periods, avoid long winter and summer breaks, incorporate private members' business in the calendar, and make enough time available for the government's legislative agenda.
I will begin by talking about the sitting schedule and the parliamentary calendars.
The calendar in place since 2009 lengthened each parliamentary work period during the year while cutting the number of sitting hours per week and adding designated constituency weeks. In practical terms, Assembly sittings start and end earlier in the year. The number of hours for routine proceedings was significantly reduced. However, the government still has a lot of leeway for moving its legislative agenda forward, while a lot of time still goes unused.
As well, each sitting of the Assembly now begins with routine proceedings, since that is when the largest number of members are in the chamber, the Salon bleu. The Tuesday sitting, usually the first sitting of the week, starts in the afternoon so that members working in the regions can return to the Assembly.
Lastly, the number of sittings with extended hours was cut in half, from four to two weeks per work period, a total of four per year and, during this period, the Assembly and committees do not sit as late in the evening.
On page 3 of the document you have received, you will find a summary of the calendar that is in effect until June. One period of 16 weeks begins on the second Tuesday in February. The other period, 10 weeks long, begins on the third Tuesday in September. There are then extended sitting hours for a total of four weeks, two weeks following each regular session. The calendar also provides for work in electoral districts: three weeks during the session starting in February, one week during the session starting in September and one week following the end of period.
On page 4, you will find the calendar of Assembly work. By that, I mean the hours during which the Assembly sits. I will spare you a reading of all the hours listed there. I do apologize, however, for a small typo. This is an older version, with 9:30 a.m. indicated as the starting time, which is now 9:40 a.m. after an adjustment to the standing orders a few months ago. This is the calendar of both ordinary hours and extended hours.
Parliamentary committees are also included because, except for constituency weeks, committees may meet at any time during the schedule on page 5. You can also see that committees can meet on Monday afternoons and Friday mornings. Up to four committees can meet simultaneously. This number increases to five when the Assembly is not sitting.
I would now like to deal with voting procedure in the chamber or in committee.
Electronic voting or remote voting is not permitted in the National Assembly. Members must be present to exercise their right to vote. However, there is a way to avoid holding votes at less desirable times in the chamber, such as late at night. These are known as deferred divisions and they allow the government to defer any division until the routine proceedings on the next sitting day. Divisions may be deferred only upon request of the government house leader.
As for child care, there have already been discussions to consider opening a child care service within or near the Parliament building for parliamentarians and their staff. This was not pursued, in part because Parliament Hill is well served by several child care facilities and members did not want to open such an exclusive service while not all Quebeckers have access to subsidized child care.
As well, the vast majority of members do not have their primary residence in the Quebec City area, so parliamentary child care would not help make the assembly more family-friendly. Remember that the Assembly meets 26 weeks per year for an average of just under 80 sittings.
Like the rest of the province, parliamentarians technically have access to parental leave, although so far this type of leave has never been used. Members hold a publicly elective office and are deemed to be exercising the duties of this office as long as they remain in office. A member's seat becomes vacant only under the circumstances outlined in sections 16 and 17 of an Act respecting the National Assembly, for example, in the case of resignation, electoral defeat or imprisonment.
Since the voters in the riding elect members for a maximum five-year term, the member's duties cannot be delegated to someone else. If a member took extended absence for parental leave, who would represent the constituents? Could a member's absence from a vote end up changing the outcome? Should members on parental leave be counted for a quorum? Who would sign official documents on their behalf? Who would have authority over their staff?
Section 35 of the Code of ethics and conduct of the members of the National Assembly states that members must “maintain a good attendance record in carrying out the duties of office”. They may not be “absent from sittings of the National Assembly for an unreasonable length of time without a valid reason”. How would the Ethics Commissioner view an extended absence for parental leave?
I want to comment briefly on technologies to improve work-family balance.
Of course, the National Assembly uses technology to allow parliamentarians to do their work efficiently, especially by providing them with various tools such as laptops, iPads and smartphones.
Another tool is the Greffier website. I see that my time is flying. I will just say that Greffier is an intranet site accessible to all parliamentarians, wherever they may be in the world. They can access various parliamentary documents, such as schedules, briefs submitted by groups for upcoming hearings, texts of bills and amendments. This all may be found on Greffier, in the Assembly or from home.
You will find attached a few statistics on the parliamentary work at the National Assembly that may be of interest to members of the committee.
Of course, I am available to answer your questions.
Thank you for your question.
There is a major difference. The time allocated for each of the legislative stages is not calculated in days, but in individual speaking times for each of the members.
When the work schedule is established in the National Assembly, I would say that, in theory—it may be a little different in practice and I will explain to you why—it become difficult to predict, because there is no fixed length of time for the a bill to be passed in principle. For example, the standing orders do not say that it will take five hours, 10 hours or two days to go through the process of passing a bill in principle. Instead, it is done on the basis of the hours or minutes anticipated for each member.
In practice, of course, for most uncontested bills, the parliamentary leaders talk to each other and try to set an informal schedule that is not made public. For example, in setting the time need to pass a bill in principle, the official opposition may say that it will have three speakers and that they will speak for about an hour in total. Then the second opposition group says how long they will take, and so on. The standing orders themselves do not stipulate a specific duration, except when exceptional procedural motions are being discussed.
As for the participation of women, there are presently 36 women out of the 125 members, a little less than 29%. In 2012, 27% of the members were women. I do not have the 2009 figures with me, but essentially, we have seen no significant difference since the 2009 reform. There has not been a greater representation of women in the Quebec National Assembly. That’s point number one.
As for point number two, the impact of these rules on the work-life balance. As you can see in the media, that is currently making headlines in Quebec. Even before the events of this week, the subject kept coming back with parliamentarians. It did not solve all the previous problems. If you asked parliamentarians for their opinion about the current calendar that I showed you and what proposals they might have about it, you would probably get 125 different proposals from the 125 members. There really is no consensus on this issue.
Parliamentarians who live in and around Quebec City may see significant advantages in finishing work earlier and not sitting so late in the evening, because they can go home to their families. However, it is different for those from the regions and from outside the Quebec City area. If the National Assembly finishes its work at 6 p.m., it is impossible for a number of them to go home to their families. Some would therefore feel that, by contrast, the National Assembly should concentrate its calendar even more and sit for longer, over a much shorter period of time, so that they could go back to their constituencies.
Really, I would add that there are always discussions about Mondays and Fridays. When you looked at the national assembly’s calendar, you saw that it does not sit on Mondays unless there is a government motion. That is quite rare. In addition, it does not sit on Fridays except during the extended hours.
However, there is an impact on parliamentary committees. Some parliamentarians would prefer the National Assembly or the committees never to sit on Mondays and Fridays in order to make sure they could go back to their ridings and take care of their family obligations and their constituency work.
Thank you very much for being here with us today. I have a few questions for you as well.
First of all, I want to say that I appreciated your remarks with regard to parental leave for parliamentarians. You raised a series of questions, and I think one of the things we always have to be conscious of when we're talking about these kinds of reforms is the impact they will have on constituents. Constituents vote for someone to be their representative, and they believe that that's the person who would best represent the constituency. For someone to take parental leave would leave those constituents without a representative.
I've appreciated some of those questions you asked. Who would represent the constituents? Would that absence end up changing the outcome of a vote? There's a whole series of other questions, and I think those are important. It is important we remember that we're here to serve our constituents. It's a crucial thing.
I want to follow up in a couple of areas. In the exchange you just had with members from the government, I think I was understanding where you were going, but when you made your reforms, you made the decision—I think, if I'm understanding correctly—to go with more sitting weeks, but shorter weeks in those sittings. It sounded like that was currently being looked at, or reviewed, or there had been some discussion about it at least.
Could you elaborate a bit on why? One of the challenges for us in Ottawa to look at something like that would be the significant cost, particularly for people coming in from the west. If you have more weeks, but shorter weeks, that would increase the travel costs to taxpayers. I'm wondering if that is part of the reason you're looking at it. I know that the context is a bit different at the provincial level, but I'm wondering if that's one of the reasons why this is currently being reviewed, or if there are other reasons, and if you could elaborate on them.
There are many reasons why these issues are being studied again. In terms of travel costs, Quebec’s territory is smaller than that of Canada as a whole, and, therefore, the issue is perhaps a little less important.
Furthermore, before the 2009 reform, the Quebec National Assembly began its work in mid-March and ended a little before Saint-Jean-Baptiste, towards the end of June. In the fall, it began its work in mid-October and adjourned around Christmas Eve, which parliamentarians complained about. They actually argued that, between the end of the Assembly’s proceedings and the Christmas holidays, they had very little time to do their work in their ridings. This is why the schedule was changed. We now begin our work in September and end in early December. The same principle applies to the spring period.
Another decision was made to introduce what the standing orders call constituency weeks during those periods of parliamentary work. Those are weeks of parliamentary recess during which the Assembly and the committees cannot sit. That is especially the case during the spring period, which is the longest. The parliamentary recess periods coincide with school breaks, often in March, and with Easter. There is already a statutory holiday on Monday of that week. In addition, there is another week, which is flexible and can be moved. This year, it is this week. Right now, we are in parliamentary recess. Last year, it was combined with the school break I mentioned. We finish the work earlier, but we start earlier too.
Another important fact is that the sitting hours are shorter, especially during the extended sitting periods. Previously, during those periods, the Assembly and the committees sat until midnight four days a week, but now the meetings are adjourned no later than 10:30 p.m. This is indicated in one of the appendices. In fact, they end at 10:30 p.m. only on some nights. Otherwise, they end earlier. It was agreed that 10:30 p.m. is late, but at least parliamentarians do not finish their day at midnight. Because of the long working hours and lack of rest, they found it difficult to do their job as parliamentarians and to balance work and family.
It is difficult for me to give you a clear answer mainly because I am not a parliamentarian. Common sense tells us that people should be more efficient and less impatient when they are less tired. It's human nature. People sometimes tend to forget that parliamentarians are human beings more than anything else. Break weeks can be beneficial.
As we can see in our current parliamentary calendar, in February, we resume work for a very short time before our first constituency week. All goes well. However, toward the end of the parliamentary session, in the final sprint of the somewhat extended sitting periods, there is more tension at times, probably because people are tired and the stress has accumulated. That said, parliamentarians would be in a better position to talk about it.
In your study, you need to determine how many weeks the government needs for its legislation. I always say the government, but there is clearly the opposition, which must also play its part. The issue of parliamentary control is also very important. You must determine how much time is needed and how Parliament can operate effectively. That is a very difficult thing to do, and it depends on the measures and bills that are challenged. Bills on which everyone agrees usually move forward quite well and quickly. However, when the opposition decides to fight tooth and nail against a bill, whether for ideological or other reasons, the government is happy to have those time slots to move the work forward.
In addition, even though the exceptional legislative procedure, like a gag order, is still an option, governments, at least Quebec's, are desperate to avoid using it. Having more time may help some bills to finally be passed, sometimes with opposition amendments, because the government wants to end the debate and reach some sort of consensus.
I sat in the Ontario legislature for 13 years, and a study might show it to be different, but I don't recall the number of bills going through the House being that much greater.
Thank you for your comments on that.
I want to move again, and I may need some assistance from our analysts here, so I'd ask that they be on standby. You mention on page 6 of your opening remarks that your code of ethics empowers the ethics commissioner to determine whether a member's absence violates the code under section 35, and I quote: “A member must maintain a good attendance record in carrying out the duties of office. He or she may not be absent from sittings of the National Assembly for an unreasonable length of time without a valid reason.”
Through you, Chair, to our analyst, I believe, and correct me if I'm wrong, that we have an actual number of days, and you are either okay within that number of days or if you cross that threshold, you're into another scenario. Can you help me out, please?
I would say yes and no. Let me explain why.
The answer is yes because we think parliamentarians are happy to be able to finish the work earlier in the year. That gives them a little more time before Christmas and before the summer.
However, in reality, there is a lot of discontent, particularly with respect to the parliamentary committees. The committees may sit when the National Assembly is sitting, but they also meet a lot when the National Assembly is not sitting. When the National Assembly is not sitting, the parliamentary committees have more time to sit.
In Quebec, many parliamentary committees begin their work quite early in the year. As a result, that forces the members of the committees to be in the Assembly for very long periods of time. So that adds up to much more than 26 weeks. That may be a somewhat negative effect of the 2009 reform.
It is difficult to assess the situation. Does this have to do with the change in the calendar or the fact that committees sit more? It must be said that there has been an increase in public hearings held by parliamentary committees.
If we were to survey parliamentarians on how satisfied they are with the current calendar, we would not get a very high score. As I explained earlier, there are probably 125 different viewpoints among the parliamentarians. Which calendar should be used?
In some ways, things have improved, but not in others, especially in terms of the parliamentary committees. A lot of parliamentarians tell us that they spend too much time in Quebec City and that they don't have enough time to do their work in their ridings. However, other parliamentarians would probably tell you something different. It depends.
We are seeing that we need a lot of time for the committees that are sitting. That does not affect all 125 members, but it affects many of them. Take August for example, and that's my final comment. From mid-August to the end of August, parliamentary committees are starting to sit. Clearly, that's never very popular with parliamentarians for obvious reasons. If the parliamentary committees have long mandates and they sit from mid-August to the beginning of the National Assembly sittings in September, those members will not have a lot of time to work in their ridings. Clearly, that applies more to the members from outside the region.
That's an excellent question.
Some parliamentarians have had children, just like the general public. Actually, a member has become a father in the past few weeks.
Officially, no parental leave has been requested by parliamentarians. Would the whips allow it? Some members may be absent from the National Assembly for all sorts of reasons. It is rare for 100% of the members to be present in the National Assembly. Some have permission to be absent, whether to participate in parliamentary missions, to work in their ridings or to make ministerial or other announcements.
Do whips allow some members to be absent, for a relatively short time, from the National Assembly? They probably do. Clearly, that is not done at our level, but surely an exception may be made for some. However, to date we have not seen parliamentarians absent from the National Assembly for months because they became parents. That has happened before, but they were not officially on parental leave. It may be the case informally, but not officially.