I would like to extend my sincere thanks to all members of this committee for asking me to appear before you today.
As members of this committee, you have a unique and important responsibility with regard to how the House of Commons conducts its work.
It is clear to me that all of you have a genuine interest in ensuring members of Parliament are able to represent their constituents well and do the job they were sent here to do.
I am thankful for the commitment you have shown, and I respect you all for the work you do on this committee.
I am pleased to be here to provide an overview of the changes that our government proposes to the Standing Orders and to answer your questions.
As background, I would like to remind members of the committee of some of the key steps that brought us here.
Two years ago, as Canadians were preparing to cast their ballot in the general election, the Liberal Party released its campaign platform. That platform promised real change and pledged to give Canadians a voice in Ottawa.
The platform said:
For Parliament to work best, its members must be free to do what they have been elected to do: represent their communities and hold the government to account. Government must always stay focused on serving Canadians and solving their problems.
Among the specific promises that were made in the platform: introduce a Prime Minister's question period to improve the level of direct accountability; end the improper use of prorogation and omnibus bills; provide better parliamentary oversight of taxpayer dollars; and strengthen parliamentary committees so that parliamentary secretaries do not have a vote on committees.
On October 19, 2015, Canadians went to the polls and made their decision on the type of government and the type of Parliament they wanted in Ottawa. The result was clear: Canadians elected a government with a mandate to strengthen Parliament. The is committed to making that happen. It is important to note the instructions he has given me in my mandate letter.
The letter says:
As Leader of the Government in the House of Commons, your overarching goal will be to make Parliament relevant again and to ensure that Canadians once again have a real voice in Ottawa. Parliamentarians must have the information and the freedom to do their most important jobs: represent their constituents and hold the government to account. It is your job to help empower all Members of Parliament to fulfill these essential responsibilities.
Mr. Chair, as we move forward, I would like to stress that this is our main goal.
Our intention is to give more powers to members on both sides of the House. We want to provide them with the tools they need to do their work.
We want to ensure the Prime Minister and members of cabinet are held to greater account in the House of Commons, not less. This spring, I released a discussion paper in good faith to foster a dialogue on additional ways that we could modernize the operations of the House of Commons. I had sincerely hoped we could all participate in a conversation on behalf of Canadians about how to improve the place where we work. That did not happen, and I regret that.
Members expressed heartfelt and legitimate views and concerns about some of the ideas in the discussion paper. Those disagreements had an impact on the work of the House, and indeed, of this committee. As you know, because the political will did not exist in the House of Commons to proceed with that dialogue on modernization, I informed my Conservative and NDP counterparts that we would not be moving forward with many of the ideas in the discussion paper at the present time. However, there are some changes that we committed to Canadians to making. They involve implementing the specific platform commitments that I mentioned earlier. All of these changes will strengthen the House of Commons and make the government more accountable.
I have always been committed to dialogue among House leaders about charting a path forward on these ideas. In recent days, I have been pleased by the constructive dialogue I have had with my Conservative and NDP counterparts on this issue. We have worked together collaboratively, in the spirit of what's in the best interest of Parliament and our country. Now Canadians expect us to act.
Our government will soon come forward with specifics of our approach on how to make the House of Commons a better place. I would like to provide a brief overview of what to expect.
On the Prime Minister's question period, our is firmly committed to being more accessible to all members of Parliament in question period. Our proposal to introduce a PMQP would significantly enhance the parliamentary accountability of the Prime Minister. Here's what it would mean: when the Prime Minister attends question period on Wednesday, he would answer all the questions that day. This special question period would be in addition to the other days of the week when he attends the regular question period to answer questions with his cabinet ministers.
Already our has shown that he is committed to this reform. He has attended six special question periods on Wednesdays, answering a total of 233 questions from MPs on those six days alone.
The prorogation of Parliament signifies the end of a session and can occur with justification during a mandate. There have been times, however, when governments have improperly prorogued early to avoid politically difficult situations. If that happens again in the future, Canadians deserve a formal explanation in Parliament. We would like to build accountability into the process and force the government to justify its decision and let the House pass judgment on it.
Next comes omnibus legislation. Our government is committed to ending the improper use of omnibus legislation. I am not speaking here of responsibly drafted budget implementation bills that contain changes stemming directly from the budget. Rather, I am referring to what should happen when a government introduces a non-budget omnibus bill that contains entirely separate and unrelated themes. We want to ensure that MPs are not forced to vote against some things they believe in as they cast their vote on a bill. We want flexibility for MPs in these instances.
With regard to the estimates, members of Parliament are responsible for keeping track of how the government intends to spend money. And yet the financial accounting system that they are expected to use is inconsistent and unclear.
We need a better way. We want to better align the budget and estimates process so that the data means something and is truly relevant and timely for members.
Concerning committees, our government believes strongly that committees provide the backbone of much of the work done in Parliament. It is there that MPs can do some of their best work, scrutinizing legislation and hearing the views of experts, stakeholders, and Canadians at large. Indeed, it is at the committee stage that proposed legislation can be improved, and members from all parties can constructively work together towards that end. We believe there is a role for parliamentary secretaries to be members of committees, but we also believe that those parliamentary secretaries should not have the right to vote on committees or move motions.
In summary, Mr. Chair, our proposals all stem from promises we made in the last campaign to improve Parliament. Canadians gave us a green light to move forward. They are waiting for us all to make the reforms they want. I believe we can work together to make that happen.
With that, I'd be pleased to take any questions.
Thank you, Minister, for being here.
I have one question on one particular issue. Thank you for explaining what was in your mandate letter, but I'm going to veer away from the mandate letter for just a moment. You and I had a few discussions about what was in your discussion paper and my motion here, before I became the skunk in the room with the filibuster. That's fine; it's all part of debate.
There was, however, one element of that discussion paper that at first blush made me think to myself that I didn't think we should go there.
I had a chance to go to the United Kingdom, and I spoke to a woman by the name of Margaret Beckett. She was the House leader for Tony Blair and was the one who brought in the idea of government programming, which at first some people might say is just time allocation in disguise, or as they call it a “guillotine” in disguise.
I asked her if she had brought this in because Tony Blair thought it was the right thing to do. She said, “No, I did it because Margaret Thatcher convinced me this was the right thing to do.” She had a bill about poverty reduction, and it was guillotined just before she could get her best points out there during the course of debate.
Since she brought it in, there have been several governments and several leaders, and each one—and they set up a committee to review it—accepted this. There are problems with it, yet they all accepted it. I spoke to the Liberal Democrats; they accepted it. The Labour Party accepted it. And the Conservatives.... It will be interesting to see what happens now that they're back in a minority, but even when they had a Conservative minority with the Liberal Democrats, they still accepted this idea of government programming.
The reason is that it does two things. It allows people to see what the debate is about, providing transparency without doing time allocation, and they can see how it will unfold. It also, however, allows the government to be efficient in putting its mandate through in legislation.
Okay, that's a long question, but I would like to get your comments on government programming and how you feel about it vis-à-vis time allocation.
Perhaps, then, we could also make the request of the various House leaders. If they're willing to share the responses they gave to you, we can add those to the mix. That would be very reasonable. I can't really ask you to provide those to us, because of course those presumably were sent back to you confidentially, and that would be putting you in an awkward position. We'll make that request of the various House leaders.
I want to deal with something you said in your comments today in the theme you expressed. You said that, “Canadians elected a [Liberal] government with a mandate to strengthen Parliament”. That's a direct quote from you. I'm not in a position to dispute the accuracy of that, but I am in a position to say that when it comes to the appointment process, your government has been failing at this, and failing very badly.
The example of Madam Meilleur and the way in which consultation, which is legally required, was handled is the paradigm example here. It was after-the-fact consultation. It was actually advance notification, so before the House gets to find out, the leaders of the other parties get to learn what decision has been made, which is not the same thing as consultation. Consultation involves the ability to say no.
With regard to Charles Robert's proposed appointment, something very similar has occurred. He has been presented to us in the dying days of this Parliament. We have had a meeting foisted upon us so quickly—of course, as soon as you leave, he comes in and we meet with him—that we have had no opportunity to do proper research and to determine the right kind of background information that will be helpful. This has been an enormous frustration.
I told the chair that I did not give my consent to changing the agenda of the meeting to include Mr. Robert today. I asked for it to be set off until Tuesday. That was overridden, and I can't believe that was overridden at the sole discretion of the chair himself.
This is an enormous, enormous frustration for us. What I need to hear from you is that you will give us the time to have the hearings we need—I propose next Tuesday for the two clerks—so that we can then get back to you with a yes or a no as to the proposed nomination. Would that be acceptable to you?
Thank you, Minister. I appreciate your kind comments.
A large part of your opening statement dealt with the subsequent aftermath after things sort of fell.... As I said, I think there was probably a willingness to discuss substantively the aspects of the discussion paper, because even during the filibuster much of the conversation centred on the issues we were trying to engage members on. The only unfortunate part was that we had wanted the opportunity to bring expert witnesses, particularly from other jurisdictions, who I think could have helped inform this committee, with respect to different ways in which we could approach the operation of the House and the operation of committees. But whatever happened that...whatever occurred, it subsequently occurred.
What I'm more concerned about, Minister, is that we subsequently moved to a discussion about the areas that we were committed to in the electoral platform. It is your position that we have a mandate to move forward on those issues, regardless of whether there is consensus or unanimity among all of the political parties, because we were elected on that particular mandate. You eloquently laid out the different aspects of those items—the prime minister's question period, prorogation, estimates, omnibus bills, and the operation of committees.
Many of those aspects, with the exception, I think, of estimates, do not necessarily require a change to the Standing Orders. They can basically be done by practice and by convention. Do you have a particular view on why it's important, for example, for there to be codification of these other aspects in the Standing Orders—like the prime minister's question period, like prorogation, like omnibus bills, and like the operation of committees—that would strengthen and improve accountability of future parliaments?
—but she seems to have taken that role on herself. I think that role is rightfully with you, Mr. Chair.
This is despite the own “open and accountable” government rules—I use those in quotes, because I'm not so sure about them—which say that “ministers and parliamentary secretaries must not accept sponsored travel”, which includes “all travel, non-commercial, chartered or private aircraft for any purpose except in exceptional circumstances” without the approval of the Ethics Commissioner.
The himself has stated that he didn't consult with the Ethics Commissioner prior to the trip. Finally, on May 15, after months and months of questions from the opposition and an open investigation by the Ethics Commissioner, Kate Purchase, director of communications to the Prime Minister, released the following statement:
Effective immediately, the Prime Minister has recused himself from all matters related to the appointment of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, given the ongoing inquiry into the Prime Minister's family vacation this past Christmas.
In the stead, Minister, you have been made responsible for all matters related to the appointment of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, or at least that's what the Prime Minister expects us all to believe. Having said that, as we know, the Governor General appoints the cabinet, which is chosen by the Prime Minister. That is, Minister, you serve at the pleasure of the Prime Minister.
Can you explain to us exactly how, and I hope we can do it without platitudes, you intend to screen yourself from the on choosing this appointment for the Ethics Commissioner, given that he has the sole power to be able to choose whether you remain in cabinet or not? How can we be expected, in what world can anyone be expected, to believe that he's not the one actually calling the shots?
I'm honoured to be here today. I have to confess that I am a bit excited but also nervous. It was on Tuesday that the government House leader, the , tabled in the House of Commons a certificate of nomination designating me to be the next Clerk of the House of Commons.
What a rewarding journey the pursuit of this objective was for me! The process began last January when the position of Clerk of the House of Commons was announced in the Canada Gazette. I submitted my application before the end of February and I was interviewed by the board at the end of April. Then my references were checked and I had a psychometric assessment. I was delighted to hear of my appointment earlier this week.
The position of Clerk is a big job. It is the most senior position in my profession in this country. I am humbled but, I believe, also ready to take on this enormous challenge.
I believe you have a copy of my CV, but I would like to provide you with an overview of my background. I started my career—Andre will be glad to hear this—in the Library of Parliament. I worked for almost 10 years here in the House and for the last 26 years have been working in the other chamber. The end result is that during my career, I've had the honour of working for both houses, and of working for the Library of Parliament, which provides an invaluable service to both.
I began my career more than 37 years ago as an employee in the Library of Parliament. I then acquired a real interest in the work of Parliament, its traditions, its practices and its procedures. I quickly realized that there is nothing better for Canadian democracy than the Westminster parliamentary system, and I wanted to be part of it.
In the early 1980s the House of Commons was expanding its procedural services. This was when the table research branch was established here in the House. I applied for a position and was successful. I was in. I still remember the very first research paper that I wrote. It was on grievances and the history of the notion of grievances before supply.
During my time in the House, I was lucky to work with some of the giants in the administration of the House, former clerks, senior clerks, principal clerks, and deputy principal clerks. It was also a time of Speakers such as Jerome, Sauvé, Bosley, and Fraser. I had the good fortune to learn from all of them.
It was also an exciting time to be on the Hill and working in the Commons. The Constitution was patriated, and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was enacted. There was also the then-unprecedented bells episode, delaying a vote in the House for two weeks. That was also the day that Bob Rae left the House. In fact, this event was the subject of my first published article that appeared in The Table.
After several years in table research, I moved to other procedural operations, committees, and journals and became totally immersed in the services they provide to support the work of the House of Commons. I embraced the opportunity to take on the administrative part of these jobs.
Canadians, if they recognize us at all, see us sitting at the table in the House from time to time. You, however, as parliamentarians, know that more than two-thirds of the job takes place behind the scenes in the important area of administration. Without this, none of the rest would work.
In 1991 I took the opportunity to expand my knowledge and experience in our bicameral Parliament and accepted a position as a committee clerk in the Senate. I thought it was a great chance to learn how the Senate, in the words of the Supreme Court, exercises its role as a complementary body to the House of Commons. From committees I became the EA to the Clerk of the Senate, and working in his office had the privilege of getting an important bird's-eye view of the way the entire place worked. I subsequently became a deputy principal clerk and table officer. I also assumed managerial responsibility for various procedural support services in the Senate, including journals, debates, and procedural research.
Again, the sound administration of each of these areas was an important factor to the success I had in achieving my goals of building a strong team and producing positive results.
While fulfilling these responsibilities, I continued to write and publish, with a particular focus on parliamentary privilege. I also became involved in different outreach activities, and joined some associations that promoted knowledge about Parliament and our democracy. I was involved in the initiative that established the Teachers Institute, and subsequently Many Facets. I became a member of the executive of the Canadian Study of Parliament Group and the Forum for Young Canadians. I also joined the editorial board of the Canadian Parliamentary Review.
To improve knowledge of the Senate and its rules and practices, as well as to enhance the skills of senators' staff, I led efforts to develop different tools and activities—procedural seminars, procedural notes, and, after many years and too many iterations, publication of the Senate manual Senate Procedure in Practice. I also worked closely with a small team of senators from the rules committee, who rewrote and reorganized the rules of the Senate, making the text clear with a more user-friendly format.
I should also mention that as a senior table officer since 1996, I was part of the Clerk's management team. A big part of the job of senior table officers is providing leadership for the logistical and support functions necessary to the operations of the Senate. I was also able to realize first-hand the great importance of the responsibility that comes with coordinating and directing the activities of the different components of administration and the legislative sector so that they work together in effective collaboration to enable senators to carry out their functions as efficiently as possible.
This isn't just about pushing paper. It's about setting the tone and the atmosphere necessary so that all staff can strive to improve, to be better, to always be on the lookout for ways that allow parliamentarians to fulfill their responsibilities more thoroughly and successfully.
My involvement in the management of Senate administration became deeper when I was appointed as Acting Clerk of the Senate and Clerk of the Parliaments at the beginning of 2015.
During that same period, the Standing Committee on Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration created the executive committee, made up of the Clerk of the Senate, the Chief Corporate Services Offices and the Law Clerk and Parliamentary Counsel and Chief Parliamentary Precinct Services Officer. Using that model, we work closely together to manage all aspects of the administration and thereby to provide senators with better service.
My experience in the executive committee was similar in approach to the manner in which I have managed throughout my career. I believe that being open, inclusive, and transparent leads to collaboration, and that collaboration is the only way to get the best out of everyone. One bit of advice that I received years ago, when I was working as a junior procedural clerk in the House of Commons, has stuck with me: always be mindful of morale. The take-away from that advice was that good morale is essential to effective administration. It is absolutely key to solid performance. Without the support of motivated and dedicated employees and teams, no leader, no clerk, can really achieve what is required to sustain the work of the Senate or the House of Commons.
Having said that, the buck stops somewhere, and that is with me. When decisions have to be made, I accept and will accept full responsibility and, if confirmed as Clerk, full accountability.
Let me conclude with some thoughts on how I see my role as Clerk of the House of Commons should you support the nomination and recommend that the House vote for my appointment. I am here to work for you and with you, to make sure that you have the best support as parliamentarians in a modern, safe environment. The rapid pace of development of communications is transforming our appreciation of democracy and public engagement.
This is already having impact on your work as MPs as you represent your constituencies and legislate for the benefit of the nation.
While we need to keep up with these developments and incorporate them into our models of work, we can't lose sight of the traditions that still retain their meaning, that provide an anchor for purposeful advancement. The renovations under way throughout much of Parliament Hill provide a good image of what I mean. These projects, updating these wonderful historic buildings, including this one, show how we can embrace the future while remembering and valuing the past.
Thank you for your time.
I suspect I may be ready now for some questions.
Thank you, Mr. Chair, and thank you, Mr. Robert, for being here today.
When I first was put on this committee, I thought procedure might be quite boring. I wondered what parliamentary procedure was going to be like, but, being a lawyer as well, I had quickly learned that if you don't know the rules of the game, no matter how good a case you have, no matter how well-intentioned your client was or is, it doesn't really matter. Without a knowledge of legal procedure, you cannot effectively defend or represent your client. Similarly, I've learned since being a parliamentarian that no matter how good your intentions may be, if you don't know how Parliament functions and you don't know the procedural rules, you cannot be an effective representative of the people.
After looking over your CV and hearing your introductory remarks, I can see that you are a man who understands procedure very well and has a lot of experience with the rules.
I'd like to get to know a little bit more about your intentions and your vision for Parliament. There has been a lot of discussion at this committee and elsewhere about changing the tone of Parliament, about making it more inclusive so that we better reflect and represent the population of Canada. I would like to know your thoughts on how you can bring your experience from the Senate to the House of Commons.
I know you have been in the Senate during a unique transformational time. With what you've learned and how you've adapted to the new way the Senate works with all the independent senators, how would you apply this experience to the House in order to encourage that co-operative environment?
The anchor for any practice followed by any parliamentary body is going to be its rules, and the rules normally have an organic history. They are created in response to circumstances that arise and develop that have meaning over time and will occasionally shift and have to be adapted or changed.
But rules are just rules. Their ability to promote the objectives of the institution depends also on goodwill. That has been true, and it was observable when I was working in the House of Commons as I am working now in the Senate. It matters. All parliamentarians are motivated by the same objective of trying to achieve good for the country, and that will always be the driving motivation, which will sometimes lead to friction. More often than not, we would hope that it leads to co-operation and shared objectives because we're all here for the same reason.
I had the opportunity to speak to some members when I was briefly in Africa last year. They were some of the 200 new members, and I thought I was living back in the 1960s because it was really a period when you saw the members energized by their commitment and their ability to participate in something like a parliamentary environment. That is a good that should be exploited as much as possible.
I know that at the beginning of every Parliament, there is a well-programmed orientation week where you learn some of the ins and outs of parliamentary behaviour. In the Senate we know that's not enough. We have to do more. That's why we brought into place things like procedural seminars. We invite senators' staff into the Senate chamber and explain to them and answer questions from them about various aspects of parliamentary procedure. Right now, two days a week, in the Senate, at the end of every sitting except this week when the sittings have gone rather long, there will be a collection of senators who will ask some of the principal clerks about the practices. What happened? How did that just occur? Why was it done that way? Why did the member try to do something like pull an adjournment motion? What was the real—was there something behind it?
Trying to inform the members within the parameters that we are allowed to describe how the system works is one way that we can make you as parliamentarians more informed and, I suspect, also more effective.
Mr. Chair, because of the shortened time frame for questioning this witness, we are faced with the awkward situation that it's unlikely that a Conservative MP will have the floor again. There are seven minutes for each of the first two questioners, and seven minutes as well for the third from the New Democrats, and then five more minutes for the Liberals before it comes back to us. That takes us past 1:45 p.m., which is when we wrap up this piece of business.
This is relevant, Mr. Chair, and I know that as someone who knows the rules well, our witness, Mr. Robert, will understand the practical limitation that imposes on us. I am able to move the motion of which I gave notice earlier, without 48 hours' notice as long as it is dealing directly with business now under consideration. That's under our rules for this committee, which this committee adopted on January 26, 2016, that 48 hours' notice be required for any substantive motion to be considered by the committee, unless the substantive motion relates directly to business then under consideration.
So with that in mind, and because I have no other alternative, I apologize to our witness for the fact that instead of asking questions, I'm instead moving this motion. It's literally my only opportunity to do so since I must do so with the floor.
So I therefore move:
That, in relation to its consideration of the proposed appointment of Charles Robert to be Clerk of the House of Commons, the Committee invite former Clerks of the House of Commons, Robert Marleau and Audrey O'Brien, to appear in order to gain a better understanding of the role, duties and responsibilities of the Clerk of the House of Commons.
Understood. I'll try to be as brief as I can.
The reason for moving this is we feel it's important to have a full discussion prior to making an appointment as important as this one. This is placed in the hands of this committee so that it can carry out full discussions, and the best way of doing this is to have former incumbents of this position, of which there are two at this point, giving testimony so that we can determine the appropriateness of the government's choice.
I did ask the minister earlier whether she thought this was acceptable to do. You heard her response, which sounded to me like she was saying there was no problem. We are our own masters. It's reasonable to do that. I did ask her if she was going to override us and simply introduce a motion in the House, as she is allowed to do, should we not have come to a conclusion. She was, frankly, not clear on that, but I had the impression she is willing to supersede us. She didn't say no, so I have to assume she meant that, yes, she is willing to do that.
At any rate, one of the things that means is while I think that would not be appropriate, the government does have that way of achieving its goal if it chooses. I wouldn't advise it, but it is a possibility, so this allows us to be better informed. It allows the House to be better informed when the decision comes for the House as a whole on this recommended appointment.
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
I want to echo the comments from Mr. Reid about the importance of this fulsome analysis.
We have had an acting clerk in the House of Commons now for the better part of three years. Our previous Clerk did retire, I believe it was in December 2015, or she announced her intention in December 2015, so it's been a lengthy process up to this point in terms of this nomination and appointment process. Now we are in the dying days of this session, the dying days before the summer recess. I know everyone is eager to return to their ridings and do the good work in our ridings that has been mentioned earlier, but I don't think it would be appropriate for us to do so without fully studying this process, studying the responsibilities and the role of this position.
Hearing from the former clerks, as Mr. Reid has mentioned in his motion, would be appropriate. This is a position that does not come open often, and rightfully so. The Clerk of the House of Commons, like the Clerk of the Senate, is a position that we want to have for a significant period of time. They are the guardians of a great deal of institutional knowledge and expertise. It is a position that we want to have preserved for a long period, so when we have the opportunity to have this appointment, we need to take it upon ourselves to fully examine the process, talk to the former clerks, find out from them what their experiences were, and what their thoughts are on both the process and the role itself.
We're going through an evolving time right now in both houses of Parliament. We have this opportunity now to have this discussion going forward. We need to take our time. We need to have the opportunity to have a full debate and discussion. That's why it is important that we vote in favour of this motion, that we have this opportunity before we rise for the summer to have this fulsome debate.
I'm not going to take any more time. I'm not going to filibuster. I simply just want to have that on the record as well.
Thank you, Chair.