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View Xavier Barsalou-Duval Profile
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
I'm pleased to be speaking to the committee today because my party doesn't often have the opportunity to do so. I know my colleague had a great deal to say, and I want to thank him for letting me take part in the discussion.
The members of my party don't often have the chance to speak. We have little or no speaking time in committee meetings. The only exception was when the Special Committee on Electoral Reform allowed the Bloc Québécois to sit on it. Since the last Parliament, we haven't been able to sit on any other committee. This is a major problem for us. Each time a bill is submitted and we have issues to raise, we can't do so. We also can't suggest amendments. We sometimes manage to do so, but often, we can't do so the way we would like to.
This causes specific problems. We're members like all the other members in the House of Commons, meaning we were elected by the citizens of our constituencies. There are 11 members in this situation in the House of Commons. No, there are now 12 members because a former Liberal member is now sitting as an independent.
The mandate from our constituents is the same as the mandate given to the other members by their constituents, which is to represent them in the House of Commons. It's unfair because we can't represent our citizens the same way the other members represent their citizens.
The committee should look at this issue to ensure that it's taken into account in the possible changes to the Standing Orders. The members must be able to express their views in all the House committees, and not only in the committees dealing with the Standing Orders of the House and the changes to the democratic rules for committees.
The democratic rules were discussed in a committee that studied the change to the voting system. I appreciated the openness to us and the fact that we were allowed to share our views. I think it was essential. When the rules of our democracy are changed and certain people aren't invited to the table, democracy is denied, because these people are part of the democratic process.
In this case, the situation is similar since we're talking about changes to the Standing Orders of the House of Commons. Obviously, the Standing Orders play an essential role in the parliamentary process. When it comes time to change the lives of parliamentarians, it's important to hear what all parliamentarians have to say on the matter. On that note, I appreciate that the committee is giving us the chance to speak. However, I don't think it's sufficient to give us the chance only on this occasion. We should also have the opportunity to speak on other occasions, in all the committees.
I don't think we should implement a practice of automatically assigning a member to a committee. We're 10 independent members, since you don't want to recognize us as Bloc Québécois members. Since there are more than 10 committees, we can't sit on all the committees, given the number of members in our party. Nevertheless, whether one or 11 independent members are elected to the House of Commons, we need to look at the possibility of those members sitting on the committees—no matter which committee—and participating in a meaningful way. It's a key way to allow everyone to participate in the democratic parliamentary life.
I'm sure the parties considered independent could agree on who would take the place of independent members on a given day. For example, I'm sure the member from Saanich—Gulf Islands would regularly sit on the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development. I'm sure she would often leave us her place on other committees. When we would have issues to raise in the committees that interest her personally, there wouldn't be any problem either. I think it would be something positive.
It would be all the more desirable because, in a democracy, we talk about the proliferation of views. Having views from all the parties is even better for the House and for all the members.
We each received in our offices a document that was released to the public. The document is a policy paper from the government describing the changes it wishes to make.
One of the changes is to sit four days a week instead of five. It's an interesting option to explore, but it involves many risks.
First, all members must be able to spend time in their constituencies, but they must also spend enough time on the Hill. If we decide to sit four days a week, for example, would members seen as independent have their number of questions reduced? Currently, each independent member has the right to ask one question a week. The Bloc Québécois has 10 members and can therefore ask 10 questions a week. The Green Party has one member, so it can ask only one question a week. These members mustn't lose the opportunity to ask their questions. They already can't ask many questions, and they may ask even fewer. I think the current system is already completely dysfunctional. Regarding the questions, it's not right that parties with fewer than 12 members aren't recognized. Parties should be recognized whether they have ten, five, four, two or one member.
The policy paper we received talks a great deal about London. The example of the British Parliament is provided. The British Parliament doesn't always sit five days a week and the Prime Minister sits only once a week to answer questions, as proposed in the policy paper. However, in London, the parties with two or more members are recognized, whereas here the parties need 12 members to be recognized. Great Britain has a population of 60 million and Canada has a population of 35 million. If we establish an equivalency based on the number of inhabitants, a party should be recognized starting at a single member. If the equivalency is purely based on how the British Parliament works, that's what must be done.
It isn't right that the members don't have the same resources. Recognition means the ability to ask more questions. In a question period where over a hundred questions may be asked, the party that's unable to ask questions can't even be included on the agenda and comment on what's happening on a given day. All political parties must be able to speak every day about key issues. Things are happening in society, and when the members of these parties can't be heard, their views aren't heard at all.
If we were to sit four days a week, we would sit for more weeks to compensate and to ensure the government sits for the same number of hours. We can look at this, but we're wondering what would happen to the recess weeks. Would the parliamentary recess weeks be eliminated? Would we sit more often? All members must have time to spend in their constituencies, especially the constituencies that cover a large area.
Important dates must also be considered. Sometimes, the House sits on June 24, which we find completely unbelievable as members from Quebec. June 24 is Quebec's national holiday, and it's an extremely important day for people in the province. All Quebec residents expect to see their members in their constituencies, to meet with their them, to celebrate with them and to share this important time. June 24 must be free so that Quebec members can go to their constituencies. I'm sure the Quebec members from the other parties would agree. The national holiday is very important for everyone in Quebec.
The policy paper also refers to the possibility of independent members sitting on committees. We're pleased about this, but I want to point out that members need preparation time to sit on committees. When members seen as independent are invited to committees, the time required is demanding. It's often said that time is money. These members need additional financial resources, because they currently don't have enough to prepare to sit on committees. Sitting on committees results in additional responsibilities, and financial resources must be allocated accordingly.
If ever there is a reform that allows independent members to sit on committees, or parties to be recognized in various ways—for instance, we could recognize a parliamentary group without acknowledging it as a party, or recognize parties on the basis of a lower minimum threshold—then budgets would also have to be made available at a lower threshold. Members will not be able to take on bigger workloads without having the financial resources to do that work. I think this is the most important point we have made today: additional financial resources are essential.
Currently, our Bloc Québécois members have to cut their riding office resources in order to be able to do parliamentary work. That means that they are not on an equal footing with the other members from recognized parties. All of the members should be able to serve the citizens of their ridings without having to amputate their constituency budget to do parliamentary work. What is happening currently is very difficult for our members. I think it is important that everyone be able to provide reasonable service in their ridings and on the Hill, both with regard to constituency files and parliamentary work.
Electronic voting is also discussed in the document. We view this with a certain amount of interest. However, there seems to be a certain ambiguity as to how this electronic voting would proceed. The document says that the members could continue to work in their ridings and vote electronically, or while continuing to work at the House. We are wondering how security measures could be put in place to ensure that the member who is in his riding has the proper context to allow him to vote for or against a bill. How can we ensure that the vote has really been cast by the member? For instance, it is not normal to have someone who is travelling vote without anyone verifying his identity. I think that the security systems have to be very reliable. We really need proof that this would be concrete and effective.
Whether we like it or not, there is a history that explains the way we vote now. The history behind the way in which the vote is carried out currently is an important symbol for a lot of people. If a change is made to the way in which we vote, I think it would be important that on certain important occasions, such as the vote on the Speech from the Throne, the budget or other such occasions, we be allowed to vote in the traditional way. That is part of our tradition and history, just like the way the pages, the Speaker of the House or some of the table officers dress. We should be able to continue to vote in the traditional way on certain special occasions.
We have not yet made up our minds about the idea of sitting four days a week, but we are open to the concept, as well as to the electronic vote. I think it is important to talk about it, and that it is a good idea to submit this to our committee so that we can discuss it today.
However, there is something that concerns us in the document that was presented. It concerns time allocation. It seems to open the door for the government to resort more easily to time allocation, that is to say that the House will be forced to take a position on certain issues and debate will be cut short, both in the House and in committees. We are concerned about that because according to the way things are done currently, we cannot even take a position on many bills, or debate them in the House. That too is a problem.
In other parliaments of the world, such as the National Assembly in Quebec for instance, when any member wants to speak, he or she has the right to do so. He can express his opinion on all of the bills that are introduced, and on every topic that is discussed.
We think it is abnormal not to be able to express ourselves. If a bill is tabled, it is important that all of the members be able to speak on it. With 10 members, it is not true that our group is so small that it should not be allowed to speak. There are parliamentary groups made up of 12 members. With only two additional members, they are allowed to speak on all topics, whereas we are not, although we have 10 members. There is quite simply something wrong with that picture. It is important that changes be made to that way of doing things. If it becomes easier to resort to time allocation, we fear that this will adversely affect members who, like us, already have trouble making their views heard in debates.
Traditionally we have always voted against time allocation because we think it is a way for the government to cut the debate short.
We think that cutting debate short is dangerous. It is important that the members be able to put forward their points of view. There are 338 members in the House of Commons and I think that if 338 people speak on a bill, it is not the end of the world. It is in fact interesting to hear about the vision of each of the members of Parliament on every bill.
You know, some members belonging to the same party may not have the same position; after all, people vote for a member, first and foremost. That is how our system works and it is important that this still be recognized today.
View Xavier Barsalou-Duval Profile
We are very concerned by time allocation. Indeed, this is not something to be taken lightly. When you muzzle parliamentarians, it is because you want to prevent them from expressing themselves. However, we have been elected to Parliament precisely in order to be able to express our viewpoints. And so we have some serious doubts about the use of the guillotine, and we are anxious to see what form this will take. It is a dangerous instrument that has to be used with caution. Democracy consists in giving everyone a voice. Preventing people from expressing their opinions on issues alters democracy directly.
We also note that the document expresses the government's concern regarding the fact that the way motions are dealt with sometimes results in changes to the orders of the day it establishes itself, or which other parties establish occasionally. In my opinion, it is important that we maintain the possibility of introducing such motions. If urgent situations arise in current events, it is important that Parliament be able to deal with them. This can be a terrorist attempt or a major food crisis, for instance. There are all kinds of emergency situations Parliament has to be able to discuss.
These situations are not always to the government's liking, but Parliament must nevertheless be able to engage with these issues. The opposition has to be able to put the government on the spot occasionally. This is part of the roles of Parliament and of the opposition parties. It does not mean that the opposition is not doing good work. I think, on the contrary, that the fact that the government is sometimes put on the spot indicates that the opposition is playing its role properly. Indeed, the government must be transparent at all times and the opposition has to help it respect that obligation.
The document also refers to the possibility of the Prime Minister only being present one day a week in the House, and we consider this problematic. There is a seat reserved for him in the House. We understand that due to circumstances he sometimes cannot be there, but question period only lasts about an hour. There are 24 hours in a day and 5 business days in a week. Therefore I think that it is not unreasonable to expect the Prime Minister to be present in the House five hours a week. It is very little, considering the number of hours in a week. I think the Prime Minister must be accountable and that it is a matter of transparency that he also be present in the House. In my opinion, the ministers should also be there as often as possible. Quite often the ministers are not present in the House. Questions are not always addressed to the Prime Minister, they are often addressed to the ministers as well.
I would now like to speak about private members' bills. The parties introduce motions, but they also introduce bills. Members who are considered independent may also present bills. All of the members follow the same processes. However, very little time is allocated to debate private members' bills. We think there should be more time for this and that this is important. Parties and the government have a lot of weight, but private members' bills must also be heard. They sometimes raise important issues and can make significant breakthroughs possible.
Bills are not always partisan in nature. Of course all of the members have their own ideas and these are generally in keeping with those of their party. It is normal that this tendency is reflected in private members' bills. That does not mean that these bills are not interesting and do not deserve to be debated. We need to increase the amount of time set aside to debate them. It is all the more important because members cannot introduce very many.
For my part, for instance, I will probably not be able to introduce a single one in the course of my entire mandate, since the number I drew in the lottery is higher than 200. I will not have that possibility, even though this is my first mandate. It may be the only one in fact, even though that is not my wish. But the fact remains that if this is my only mandate, I will have been a member for four years without having been able to have a single bill debated in the House of Commons. I think that is not normal, and that it should not be possible. That is nevertheless the system we must work with at this time.
The fact that votes often take place during the day is another thing that concerns us greatly. Members have a lot of work to do and they must often work in their offices in Ottawa during the day.
Moreover, the votes happen sporadically. After question period, we return to our offices only to find out, often enough, that a vote is being held and that we have to return to the House. Sometimes a whole day can go by when we are unable to work on our files.
Of course, for the parties that have a lot of members, that isn't as serious because they have a lot of people to call on, a real army. And many public servants also work for them.
However, in the case of the smaller parties, the members have more work to do. When there are five, six, eight or ten votes in the same day at various times, we spend the whole day going back and forth between our offices and the House. And so this prevents us from working on our riding files and our parliamentary dossiers. Since we have fewer resources, we are more penalized than all of the others. It would be important to think about those members when things are being organized. I don't know exactly how they could be organized, but I think it is important that we plan the day better for the members, because everyone has work to do.
Sometimes we meet with citizens, groups, or the representatives of Quebec organizations who come from our ridings. It can be an association of chicken producers, egg producers, or pork producers. All sorts of associations can come to meet with us. We make appointments with these association representatives, and they expect to see us. When there are votes at all times of the day, it is not easy to have productive meetings with them. We need to be able to plan our time more easily; that would be an improvement. It remains to be seen how that can become concrete reality, and we are anxious to see it.
It's the same thing for those who answer questions. I mentioned earlier that the Prime Minister should be present more often in the House in order to answer questions. We think that the obligation to answer questions should not apply only to the Prime Minister. I think that the ministers also have a duty to be present in the House to answer questions. Quite often the answer is given by a parliamentary secretary. A lot of parliamentary secretaries are certainly devoted and interested in the files they are given, but like it or not they are not the ones who make the final decisions. In the final analysis, the minister makes the decisions; he is responsible. The minister must be able to answer members' questions when they are addressed to him. I think that is fundamental.
I don't know if there is a mechanism that could force the person to whom the question is addressed to answer it. Often, people who are not familiar with the dossier at all answer the questions simply by reading a memo, which does not move the debate forward. Such answers do not help anyone to gain a better understanding of the issue. And so we are forced to ask the same question five, six, eight, ten or twenty times and every time it is difficult to obtain an answer. If it is difficult to obtain an answer from the minister or the Prime Minister, imagine what it is like when another member or a parliamentary secretary answers us. We always hope that he is providing a good answer, which sometimes happens, but I think it is important that the minister be present.
It would also be important that these regulations state that the ministers must also spend a minimum amount of time in the House. These rules should not apply only to the Prime Minister.
This week we also discussed omnibus bills. This topic came up again. As we know, these bills were a specialty of the previous government, but we are finding that the current government has also developed quite a fondness for this type of bill.
You will remember Bill C-29. In it we found a measure that affected consumer protection legislation. This would have meant that the banks would no longer have been subject to that provision. We think that is unacceptable. There should be a restriction on omnibus bills so that when a different issue or department is involved, a different bill must be introduced. It is not normal that bills touch on 200, 300 or 500 different topics.
As I mentioned earlier, a smaller parliamentary group has fewer resources and it is more difficult for it to review an entire bill. Imagine the situation when a bill has 200, 300, 400 or 600 pages; in the case I am referring to, with fewer resources, it is much more difficult not only to have a complete and informed position, but also to find the points in the bill that are of interest to the people in our ridings. In light of that, I think it is essential that a limit be placed on the size of bills.
I don't know how that could be done because certain bills are complex. At least there should be a way of understanding the content of bills. Little poison pills should not be scattered throughout a bill either because that is the problem. Little poison pills scattered throughout the bill do not improve the government's image because, when these poison pills are discovered and discussed in public, the public is not happy and the government is in the hot seat. So the government should really never do that kind of thing.
As to the debates in the House, it is difficult at this time, as I noted, to speak to bills. In some cases, we cannot speak at all. There is a procedure to break up members' speaking time, that is, to break up the 20 minutes into two blocks of 10 minutes—which is interesting—but it should also be possible to break up those 10 minutes into blocks of 4 or 5 minutes, to give members from the smaller parties the opportunity to speak. Once again, it is important for various people to speak.
There is another issue regarding members rising to speak: it is also important to be able to ask questions to someone taking part in a debate. I submit this issue to you very humbly. I think we have to think about it. I am looking for ways to give all members as much speaking time as possible. A member might repeat themselves in 20 minutes, but perhaps the member would be more concise in 10 minutes. If more people are given the opportunity to speak, the discussion becomes more constructive. So that is something that could be considered.
Another aspect, which is an irritant right now, pertains to question period. During question period, right now our questions are systematically relegated to last place. We understand that the parties with more members are allowed to speak first. I think that is part of protocol and the way things work. At the same time, however, we believe that systematically having the last question of the day makes it difficult to capture the public's attention because, as question period wears on, people grow tired and are less attentive. If you and I become increasingly less attentive as question period progresses, the same is true of people watching the parliamentary network. This is even more so the case with journalists. In the interest of democracy and the diversity of points of view, members from the smallest parties should also be able to ask questions before the very end of question period.
Those parties' questions could be scheduled at another time, perhaps after the first blocks, because there is a block for the first opposition group and another block for the second opposition group. Blocks could also be set aside for the other opposition groups. That would provide a more balanced approach, especially as to the number of questions. The status quo seems completely unfair to me. The small opposition parties must also be entitled to ask more questions and to receive more resources. It is not normal for certain parties to receive millions of dollars for research, while we get no research budget at all.
I think there is a party in the House right now that has about thirty members. We have about ten, one third the number of that party. Yet we are very far from being able to ask a third the number of questions that party can ask in the House and very far from a third of its budget. So I think some major changes are in order in this regard. In my opinion, it is essential for us to be able to express our views as much as the other parties.
View Xavier Barsalou-Duval Profile
I will conclude my remarks here.
Some people might argue that we have fewer members and that this is how it has always worked. Fewer members does not necessarily mean fewer votes, however, as was mentioned earlier. It was pointed out that, although the current government did not garner 70% or even 60% of the vote, it has a much stronger place in Parliament than the percentage of the vote it earned.
In the 2011 election, we won 23% of the vote in Quebec, yet we won just 4 of the 75 seats in the province. The number of members did not at all reflect the number of votes we received. When the number of members a party has does not at all reflect the number of votes earned, the budget allocated to that party in Parliament is not fair to the people who voted for that party either. That should be considered. The number of members elected should not be the only criterion; the number of votes must also be considered. In the last election, more than 800,000 people out of 8 million people in Quebec voted for the Bloc Québécois. That is a significant number that should not be overlooked.
Forty percent of Quebecers are separatists and the Bloc Québécois is the only separatist party in Ottawa. Forty percent of Quebecers want to hear our point of view and are interested in it. We must therefore have the necessary resources to make our point of view heard.
I am not arguing for my own interests alone. Some people will say that the Bloc Québécois has 10 members and that we had four before. Let us not forget that the NDP once had nine members and the Conservative Party had only two. All parties can end up with fewer members. It is normal for budgets and speaking time to be reduced when a party has fewer members. The problem is that it is not proportional. It has to be proportional. Unfortunately, that is not the way it works at all right now and that is extremely unfair to all those voters and people who support us.
Mr. Chair, those are the points I wanted to raise to the whole committee. I hope they will be considered and that we will be invited to speak more often, because we have a lot to say to you.
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