Thank you, Mr. Chairman and members of the committee. I'm glad to be here this morning. I have a short statement, and then I'll be happy to take your questions.
It's a pleasure for me to be here to provide you with assistance as you consider parliamentary reform initiatives that strive to create a more inclusive and family-friendly environment for members.
Today, I will have a few remarks to make at the outset, and then I will be happy to answer any questions you may have and to come back if you wish.
My remarks will focus on general principles and concepts, and will contain a few references to the historical evolution of the Standing Orders relevant to the subject before you. I will also highlight areas for reform the committee may wish to consider in this study.
Before I begin, I wish to convey the good wishes of the Speaker as you carry out your important work. He has asked me to let you know that he looks forward with interest to what the committee will bring forward as recommendations, not only those in the area of family friendliness but also, in due course, any recommendations about improving question period, decorum in general including applause, and making the work of members even more meaningful in the House and in committee.
Time is the most precious commodity any of us has. This is especially true for members of the House of Commons, whose lives are extremely busy with countless commitments and pressures. As all members know, a key factor that adds to stress is unpredictability, which makes planning infinitely more difficult.
Time and its availability, or scarcity, as well as the predictability of how it is used, are critical for individual members. This also holds true for parties and caucuses and their roles and responsibilities in the House, and for the executive, given its obligation to bring before the House the program it has committed to advance.
Historically, the House has shown itself to be responsive to changes in the needs of members. The rules and conventions by which the House of Commons has chosen to govern itself have been in constant evolution since 1867. As such, while the fundamental business of Parliament has remained largely unchanged, the context in which members carry out their parliamentary responsibilities and how they fulfill them has led to regular adaptations. Standing orders and practices have changed in ways that are at times subtle and at times more obvious, often with a view to increased efficiency and the needs of members.
Such changes were brought about in different ways. In some cases, the House adopted committee reports recommending certain changes. In others, the House considered a government motion inspired by committee recommendations, and in yet others, changes were made on the initiative of individual members, or the government, acting alone. In all cases a simple majority of the House is what is required to make a change to the Standing Orders.
In the 1960s, changes in the Standing Orders at last brought a measure of certainty to the supply process, such that the total unpredictability of when the House would adjourn for the summer was greatly diminished. Clearly this was a family-friendly change.
In 1982 the House adopted two key measures to make the House more family friendly. It eliminated evening sittings and it adopted a parliamentary calendar setting out sitting and non-sitting periods that allowed members to plan constituency work more effectively.
Additional changes in the 1990s further refined the times of House sittings to closely approximate what they are today.
The possibility of having votes at 3 p.m. was codified in the Standing Orders in 2001. More recently, the use of autopilot mechanisms has been resorted to in order to bring a greater measure of predictability to the work of the House.
Co-operation between House leaders has long been beneficial as a vehicle for coordinating the day-to-day business of the House. By meeting regularly to consult on the sequence and timing of certain aspects of parliamentary business, a greater degree of predictability of the business of the House becomes possible.
Advances in technology have also been used wisely by members to help relieve some of the pressure to be here at all times. The e-notice system, a portal for electronic filing of notices of motions and written questions, is the perfect example as it provides members with an alternative to being present in order to file paper copies with original signatures at the journals branch. With this technology, they can submit notices wherever Internet access is available.
Today's desire to look at ways to adapt is no different. Advances in technology, an increasingly high demand on members' time, the need for a work-life balance, and the heavy stresses of frequent and long-distance travel all contribute to the impetus for an examination and modification of the work day, week, and life of members of the House. Your invitation to me today is an indication that we may be at a point where there is a will to further refine the schedule and procedures of the House.
Rather than immediately get into the details of particular standing order changes, today I will set out three thematic areas that the committee may wish to explore as it pursues its review. Having read the transcript of the 's appearance, I realize that some of this has already been touched upon, so forgive me if some points seem repetitive.
First are votes.
Here the committee could look at the timing of votes, the way in which they are taken, including electronic voting, the duration of the bells, the way votes may be scheduled or deferred, and so on.
Second, the committee may want to give consideration to the days and times of sittings. Factors to consider here would include: days of sittings, specifically the impact on parliamentary business of not sitting on Fridays, for example; the number of hours per sitting day; the start and end times of sittings on particular days; the possibility of two sittings on the same day; the total sitting hours in a week; and, of course, the calendar as a whole and how many weeks should be sitting weeks in a given year.
Third, and again with a view to alleviating some of the time pressures we are talking about, the committee may wish to examine the usefulness of a parallel chamber, a practice followed in Britain and in Australia, and perhaps elsewhere. Here, the committee could look at whether it would want to recommend such an alternate venue and if so, how it could function, when it could be convened to have its sittings, what limitations could be placed on what it could and could not do, and so on. In other words, would it exist for debate purposes only or for more?
In its consideration of these thematic areas, the committee will want to be mindful of consequences as varied as the impact on the progress of legislation, supply proceedings, private members' business, statements by members, question period, notice periods and requirements, committees and caucuses, parliamentary publications, special debates, and so on. It is a long but not insurmountable list.
As can readily be seen, each of these thematic areas carries with it numerous and complicated implications and consequences. Indeed, experience has shown that unintended consequences are probably likely.
Regardless of what changes may be adopted, a certain degree of unpredictability in House proceedings is likely to persist. There may be valid reasons from an opposition or government perspective for votes to occur unexpectedly, or at times, outside the norm, or for the House to sit longer than originally expected. This is likely to continue to be a reality of the parliamentary environment.
That said, changes can be made, and we will of course bring to bear whatever knowledge and resources the committee requires to thoroughly flesh out whatever proposals it chooses to make. Our role is to help the committee, and ultimately the House, to accomplish what it wishes to accomplish.
I'm happy to take your questions.
Mr. Bosc, I always appreciate your thoughts on these types of issues.
I think of it in terms of members of Parliament wanting to better serve their constituents both here in Ottawa and in their constituencies, and we factor in the importance of families at the same time. There is validity to looking at Fridays, as other provincial legislatures have done, yet provincial legislatures are more local than Ottawa is for the vast majority of ridings, so I think it is a responsible thing for us to be at least looking into it.
I learned something when you talked about this whole parallel chamber. I had never heard of that before.
Let me throw a thought that just started to evolve as I was listening to others speak. You say that you can divide up the questions. You can divide up the S.O. 31s and you can put them in that Monday-through-Thursday slot. The concern is with the debates and to a certain degree private members' hour. Technically we could have a double, and we often have two private members' hours in one day. That currently happens quite a bit, so we could actually designate a day, say Tuesday, as the day for a double private members' hour.
I don't know anything about this parallel chamber, but maybe you could have the parallel chamber sit on Fridays. You indicate that typically there are no votes and that it's just more of a debate day where you debate government business, which allows for ongoing supply motions, opposition days, private members' hour, everything that is done during the week. Then you could start off at 9 in the morning and go until 3 in the afternoon. In fact, we could have it increased by a half-hour or an hour to accommodate debates.
The votes seem to be of critical importance. If this were to prevent votes from occurring after, let's say, 4 o'clock on Thursdays, then every vote would be suspended until the following Monday.
On something of this nature—both aspects that I just finished talking about—can you give a personal opinion? Are you comfortable giving a personal opinion on something of that nature, as I qualified it at the beginning?
I'd be interested in your thoughts on that.
Mr. Chair, I'm going to start by saying that I don't think it's in the spirit of what the government proposed initially that parliamentary secretaries, who are not supposed to be members of committees and not have votes on committees, are nevertheless taking up question and answer time on committees. I'll be raising that with the House leaders when we have our meeting later today. That seems to me to be a violation of that intent, and I'm disappointed to see it happening here.
Turning to Mr. Bosc, thank you for being here. It's always a pleasure to have you at our committee; you are so well informed.
We've had a lot of interest in the subject of this parallel chamber, as it's being described. As a former resident of Australia who used to spend time in Canberra, I get the impression that they actually had quite a large purpose-built room for this, which was where this kind of debate would go on. Some kind of consideration was given to things like ease of access from that chamber to the chamber of the House of Representatives so that one could go back and forth.
In other words, if we were to do something like this here, I think having it at One Wellington Street would be less than ideal. Once all the renovations are done, having it over in the room that the Commons is going to be shifted into might be very much ideal, or in some other space that people can get to without having to brave the Ottawa winter. That's a thought I throw out.
In the absence of such, because all of this isn't going to happen until after a few years have gone by, had you thought at all about the issue of where we would put a room like this? I think it has to be a purpose-built dedicated room, with all the permanent simultaneous translation booths and so on, and assigned staff as well, I guess.
Thank you very much. We really appreciate your help.
I just want to make sure we have our agenda set for the next meeting or two so we know what we're going to do.
One other piece of information that's available to us is that apparently, last year an all-party women's committee did a report on a family-friendly, inclusive parliament, which we could look at in one of our meetings to see what they were recommending.
As it stands, for Thursday we're going to get your report on other parliaments. We would ask that they include some of the questions you've been asking, on things like the Australian House and the parallel parliament, in which there seems to be quite a bit of interest here. Then we had scheduled to do committee business after that. Mr. Christopherson may or may not want to call his motion.
During this time, just as a reminder to anyone who's new here, the members here were going to go back to their whips and caucuses and House leaders to get any input from their caucuses by the end of the first week back, to give people time to get through two caucus meetings.
Under those circumstances, what would the committee like to do on the first Tuesday back after the break?