Great. Thank you, Chair.
I'm glad that we're able to get a little bit of business done, because I did say that I wasn't deliberately trying.... My sole purpose wasn't just to delay things. I have, I think, a relevant point.
I hope that the government's had a bit of a change of heart, given that, again, this really doesn't need to be an issue. It's both nothing and big at the same time.
The situation is this. We're talking about our committee, which is the only body that can make a decision. We create a steering committee, sometimes called a subcommittee, but we call it a steering committee here. The whole purpose of the steering committee is to make the business of the committee move more efficiently and more quickly.
At the steering committee, we deal with things like the order of witnesses we'll agree upon, or the time frame we'll set aside for public hearings versus going in camera. In other words, what we really do is map out the work plan and the details. Do you know the old expression about the kind of letter you get when a committee writes it? It's the same sort of thing. There's so much detail that for all of us to do it just bogs us down and takes forever, so we leave those kinds of things with the steering committee.
Here's the thing, and this is why I said at the outset that only PROC, as a committee, can make decisions. The steering committee, or subcommittee, is not a decision-making body. Whether or not we agree with the voting or consensus issue that I'm raising, at the end of the day, even if there's a voting system—which I'm arguing we shouldn't have at that level—that committee can't make a decision to order coffee. They have no authority to make any decisions.
With any recommendation that's made when it's a consensus model—which is what I'm pushing for—if there's unanimity among the three representatives of the three parties at the steering committee, that recommendation goes to the committee. Normally, it comes and everybody's just fine with it, because their representative has looked at it. There are some cases where it's a little different, but for the most part, when a unanimous recommendation comes from the steering committee.... In fact, usually the entire report is accepted in terms of the recommendations made, because each of us knows that our representative was there, speaking on behalf of our vested interests as individual caucuses, while at the same time working for the betterment of the entire committee. That works best when there's consensus.
The other rule is that if you don't have unanimity, nothing goes to the committee. There are no recommendations. There's no politics. There's nothing to defeat. If there's no unanimity, it comes directly to the committee as if it had bypassed the steering committee. That's the impact that it has. It goes to the committee, it's discussed. If there isn't unanimity, then it comes right to this committee, acting as if it never went to the steering committee. The only thing that the steering committee does is try to come to an agreement on the details of the business that we do.
Again, if it were the Conservatives, with the greatest of respect, I wouldn't even try to make this argument, because on the committee that I chaired in the last Parliament, they eliminated the steering committee. There was no point in talking about the minutiae and details of a committee when the government of the day just stood there, folded its arms, and said, “It shall not be” and that was the end of that.
We know how well that attitude went over after enough years, culminating in the election we just had and culminating in the election of the new government with a new mandate and a new vision. Part of what this new government promised—and this is the only reason why I'm making this an issue—is that one of our jobs as the opposition is to hold the government accountable. I understand that rules aren't very sexy and they're not very appealing, but I've been around long enough to know that with the rules we agree to today, when we get into crises down the road, go into our various corners, and have pitched political battles—that doesn't happen all the time on this committee but it happens from time to time on every committee—when that happens, we'll thrash it out.
But there's one thing we know for sure, Chair. No matter how controversial the issues are here, the government wins every vote 10 times out of 10. Every vote, they win. I've been in a majority government. It's a great feeling; you walk into a meeting in the House and you know you're going to win every vote, no matter what. This is a government that ran on a platform that said, “We're going to be different at committees”.
We really like the mother ship, the Westminster model, and the way they do committees. People who go there to watch them say that it's difficult to tell the opposition members from the government members. That means one of two things. Either you're in a democracy where there is very little democracy, everything is decided from on high and the opposition has no power or doesn't want power, but you do not have a dynamic democracy.... Most of us who've been here for a while have been to those countries, and we know first-hand what that looks like.
It's either that situation, where you can't tell who's government and who's opposition, or the situation where there's a stranglehold on everything. I won't name countries, but we could all put titles to that thought. They're actually functioning in a way that means they're there as parliamentarians and their partisan membership is secondary to trying to do the work of the committee. What they do, very successfully compared to us, is to try to remove some of the partisanship that's in the House. When they get to committee, they act as parliamentarians.
When everybody is focused the same way on an issue or a problem, if you're just observing and it's hard to tell who's the government and who's the opposition, that's a good thing. At most of our committees if you came walking in, within three minutes you'd know who's government and who's opposition, because our speeches can be and often are laced with partisanship. The government ran on a platform of saying, “We don't like that, it's not the kind of democracy we want, and we don't think that reflects the values of Canadians.” I'll say to the government that there were an awful lot of us in the NDP who shared that sentiment.
So the government got elected, okay? The dog chased the car and the dog caught the car. Now what? Well, so far, it's the same old same old.
We came here to our first meeting after the government ran on a platform of openness, transparency, new independence, and certainly removing parliamentary secretaries from the chokehold they had over the government majority. We walked in here on the first day and what did we see? We saw Mr. Lamoureux, whom I quite like; I've served with him for quite some time now, but this is not about him personally. Mr. Lamoureux, as the parliamentary secretary, was sitting right where used to sit, who used to be the parliamentary secretary to the government House leader. It was the very system this government ran on, saying that they were going to change it. That was the first meeting. They completely threw everything they said in the election out the window and just went back to normal: “We'll do it just the way Conservatives did”.
So we called them on it. I called them on it. He moved down a couple of seats. We called him on it again and he moved down a couple of seats more, so we're making gains. He's getting closer to the door, but he's still here. At that first meeting, the blues will show that he spoke, by my estimate, probably 80% to 90% of the time, which used to be the problem. The parliamentary secretary would roll in here, tell the government members what the marching orders were from on high that day, and regardless of what debate we had, that was the way the vote went.
That exact thing is what the government said they were going to change. They said that they were going to give committees more independence, that they were going to let go of some of the power that the previous government corralled. Okay. That's good stuff and is part of the reason why the government was elected and got as many seats as it did.
Now we're talking about the steering committee in that context. All I'm suggesting and asking and putting forward is that we...because remember, there's no set rule. Most committees go by consensus. I don't know any steering committee where they actually take votes, which is the point.
The government says, “Well, we won't do it very often and we're not looking to do that.” No, no, no. First of all, I started out negotiating collective agreements 40 years ago and I've been in politics ever since. That stuff is not going to wash. Once we get into our corners, and fighting on partisanship, those rules are what we have to live by. The government stands by every letter of them in order to maintain the control they want.
As a sign of good faith...and I really thought this was an easy one. I thought I was handing Mr. Lamoureux a ball that he would pick up and run with all over the bloody court, because he could say, “Oh, we're honouring our commitments. Mr. Christopherson's putting the pressure on us, but make no mistake, we want to do these things. We're willing to do that, blah blah blah.” I was worried that I had given him all that, and instead he digs in. In fact one of his members even tried to shut me down. Talk about shades of the previous government.
Back to the point, the steering committee...and here's the thing. If you don't live inside this stuff every day, it sounds like, “What the heck? You're just going on and on, trying to take up time.” I accept that this is some of the criticism. Fair enough. It's not true, but it's a fair criticism that can be made.
What happens if you have that voting dynamic? A number of things, Chair. You've been around a long time. You're back now, but you've been here before. You know how this place works.
If we're going by vote, well, now we're into the partisan parliamentary games that happen. They're all legal, but they're games, such as waiting until somebody leaves the room so that you can move a motion. That sort of thing happens even in the House, where House leaders and whips are keeping an eye on who's in the House, who isn't, and whether they can gain an advantage and grab control of the House. It's been done. If you're in a committee where voting matters, then it also depends on winning that vote, because now you have a positive motion going forward. Once you introduce voting into the dynamic of a meeting room....
Again, those of us who have been doing this kind of thing...and it doesn't have to be politics. It can be anybody engaged in community work who understands the difference between working towards something on a consensus basis versus a voting decision. Remember, all of this is in the context that this committee is the only body that can make decisions, and that the government wins these votes 10 times out of 10. All we're asking is that we remove that irritant—that's all it really is—from our steering committee and subcommittees and acknowledge that they are consensus. If there isn't unanimity on an issue, it won't go forward to the committee with a recommendation, and if there is, it does. It's nice and simple.
This is the thing I'm having trouble with, Chair. What I'm speaking to means that the government gives up nothing, really, especially when they argue that they're never going to use the voting. Since it can't be a decision-making body, we're not taking.... It would be hard to measure the amount of power that's being taken. “Power” is not the right word. It's influence, nuance, advantage, but it's not power because that body doesn't make decisions. Even when they're unanimous, they are only recommendations. The subcommittee cannot make decisions for this group.
I come back to the fact that this was an easy one. My problem looking forward, as somebody who has been around here for a bit, is that if they're not willing to loosen up on things that really don't even matter, where there isn't any real power to give—it's more of a nuisance, a nuance, an influence, call it what you will—and they won't even give that up, then really how sincere is the government in terms of doing things differently from the last Parliament?
So far, all I see is same old same old. Nothing has changed. The faces have changed, but I'm still sitting here facing a majority, with the parliamentary secretary possibly still calling the shots.
Also, on the first real attempt to modify anything, a tiny little thing like this, the government is digging in their heels and saying, “Oh, no, we can't do that.” Well, you can't have it both ways. You can get elected on sunny ways but that alone isn't going to carry the day. We have to see some change. I'm not getting any indication of that.
I was kibitzing with Mr. Lamoureux in the House yesterday hoping that would provide him a chance to come over and say, “By the way, Dave, we're not going to make an issue out of that other thing.” No, that didn't happen so unless I'm hearing something different, and I'm getting no indication the government is going to change, it doesn't look like they're going to acquiesce on this. If they're not going to give on this, then a whole lot of Canadians need to understand that the government is serious about parliamentary change only when it suits them, which, of course, is the antithesis of the point. The point is to try to make this less partisan, but here we are.
I thought I was rather generous. I gave Mr. Lamoureux a Christmas gift when I identified to him what he was giving me as I saw it unfolding. I asked Mr. Lamoureux—I'm paraphrasing myself—why he was doing this. I said, I'm going to keep talking about this until the end of the meeting and that means it's going to carry over into the Christmas and New Year's break, that means when there's a slow news day somebody is going to pick up that little thread and say, “Oh, here's something interesting. I have to give my editor something today. Here's something that's legitimate and real. It's not that big but it's something.” Sure enough, that's what happened.
I'll repeat myself from last year. Why on earth would the government want to take a hit on one of their key signature pieces, which was democratic reform, especially, as the government said, in the area of committees? They said they wanted them to be more independent, less under the control of the PMO, less partisanship, more camaraderie, more working together, more acting as parliamentarians rather than partisans.
Sure enough, it wasn't big, but it was big enough. They took this hit and they're continuing to take this hit.
Every time they stand up and brag about their other democratic reforms don't think that this isn't going to come back. This is only one, because my sense is that this government is not prepared to be serious about change. It's going to be drip, drip, drip. The government can make their big headline announcements and then it's going to be drip, drip, drip. At the end of four years if this continues, there's going to be a whole lot of Canadians saying, “Wait a minute, what happened to all that change that they talked about? What about injecting new life and dynamism into our democracy and into our House of Commons?”
Remember that the government said, “particularly in the area of committees”. I don't understand it from a procedural point of view. I don't understand it from a reform point of view. I don't understand it from an efficiency point of view. I certainly don't understand it from a partisan point of view, especially when the government says it really doesn't want to use voting.
Why are you maintaining that the voting system even exists there? Why?
There's only one answer. I believe Mr. Chan referred to it. I stand to be corrected. I think he made a reference that “there may be times”. Okay, here we go: “there may be times”. That's why these things matter now because we get one kick at this in four years, just one. Some committee rules get changed, Mr. Chair, as you know, over the course of Parliament, but for the most part once committee rules are set that's what you live by. That's why I'm making an issue out of this now because it's the only chance we have.
Mr. Chair, I would be interested before I completely relinquish the floor to see if there's a response from the government. If they're willing to say they agree, then I don't need to go on and I don't need to summarize. If they aren't, then I will move on to summarize because I'm not going to die on this political hill.
From a partisan point of view, we've already gotten more from this than anyone would have any right to expect, because of the government's pigheadedness.
Anyway, Chair, with the understanding that I still have the floor, I would offer colleagues on the government side a chance to respond to what I've said so far, and I'd still like a chance to have the floor back.
Am I hearing from the government side that they're going to stick with demanding 12 minutes? Is that...? Here we go again.
Here we go again on the easy stuff—the easy stuff—and I say that as somebody who benefited from this. I appreciate it, three minutes or 3%, whatever it was. Everything is relative, right?
But I have to tell you this. To demand a 12-minute run? Even Harper didn't demand that. Apologies to present company, but it's about the most anti-democratic, other than.... After I left the Harris experience in Queen's Park, it took until I ran into Harper to find anybody nearly as undemocratic, and they didn't try to do this. Twelve minutes is a big, big, deal.
The government just won't.... Here we go again. They're all looking down, talking to each other. Once again, this is the way.... The government wants to do things differently, but what I'm telling you is that you're exactly like the last government. They did exactly the same thing. They made their arguments that they thought were reasonable and shut up and wouldn't say anything more. They buried their heads in their books and played with their smartphones and their iPads and chatted with each other, but would not engage seriously because they'd made up their minds.
Again, this is the easy stuff. What evidence is there that this government is at all serious about democratic reform? Even their preferred voting method, which they're talking about now, everyone is acknowledging is skewed in their favour. We'll see how that plays out.
Here we are again at committee, the one area where the government said they were going to be more transparent, with more accountability and less partisanship, and at every turn where we've tried to get them to recognize that there's a little more fairness that can be brought to this very easily, it's “No, no, no, we've made up our minds, we've decided, that's it, we don't want to hear any more”. They go quiet, like Harper's people did. They'll sit there and say nothing, and we have two choices over here. We can filibuster, and you can't filibuster everything, or we just acquiesce.
Then this goes away as an issue, and for the next four years we live with the government getting a 12-minute run. Let me tell you, when the government is under attack because of the witnesses who are coming forward, having a 12-minute run to take the public away from where the last series of questions and answers had them to where they want to be is a gift directly from heaven. It doesn't get any better. Trust me, that's from somebody who has a measly three minutes at the end of the second round, which likely I'm going to be lucky to see.
But as much as I'd like this to be about us, it isn't. It's about fairness. Again, I say to the government that a 12-minute run, when we measure these things by the minute and when percentages are all calculated to the decimal point, is a big deal in terms of how we run our committees.
I see a lot of activity over there, but I don't know whether that's the next issue they're working on and this one is already old, or whether there's still hope that the government may decide that maybe they'd let a little fairness in.
Mr. David de Burgh Graham: [Inaudible—Editor]
Mr. David Christopherson: Well, it's nice to hear you speak, though. It's nice to see you jump in. We appreciate that. It gives Mr. Lamoureux, the parliamentary secretary, a chance to get a rest from being the one who's leading all the discussions, which is another reform that they've already broken, by the way. I mean, you're racking them up pretty quick around here: boom, boom, boom.
But I have to tell you this. I'm defending the opposition, but really what I'm defending is fairness. This is not fair. It is so not fair that even the Harper government didn't attempt to ram through this kind of scenario.
Now we know why they threw a few crumbs to the NDP and a couple of percentages to the official opposition. It was because they hoped that would be enough to buy them this incredibly lucrative political gift of having the floor for 12 minutes straight with a witness or a series of witnesses. It's not fair. This government said fairness would matter. When are they going to start showing it? When?
Because they're not showing it yet. It's all talk. It's talk, talk, talk, sunny ways, talk, talk, talk, sunny ways, change, democracy, transparency, non-partisanship, talk, talk, talk. When it's time to do something, it's nope, and arms crossed, no way, end of debate: “We'll just wait and use our majority to shut down the pesky opposition again”. That's where we are, and you know what? We just spent 10 years in that, and this government was elected with a mandate to be different. Where's the difference?