Mr. Speaker, it is an immense pleasure to speak to the motion moved by the member for Hamilton Centre, whom I have admired immensely since arriving here in 2011.
I will quickly remind members of the motion, which states:
That, in the opinion of the House, a special committee, chaired by the Speaker of the House, should be established at the beginning of each new Parliament, in order to select all Officers of Parliament.
On October 21, Canadians and Quebeckers will vote in the next Parliament. The first and perhaps most important distinction to make is that, when people go to the polls, they will not only elect a government, they will elect 338 men and women who will represent them in the House and form the next Parliament.
Naturally, every member of every party works hard to ensure that theirs has the largest number of seats and forms the government because that is the system we have. However, we could very well find ourselves in a situation where, to keep the government going, several parties could be called on to collaborate if the people, in their infinite wisdom, decided to elect a minority government.
That speaks to the primordial importance of parliamentarians. First and foremost, Canadians will elect a Parliament; then, there will be a government, which will form a cabinet. We all know how it works. I just want to make it clear, because we hear so much nonsense about the role of opposition members. By the way, for anyone that follows my podcasts, that will be the subject of my next one.
The role of opposition members is different, but just as important as the role of government members. Again, in their infinite wisdom, Canadians want their government, regardless of political stripe, to be responsible and to allow all different perspectives to be expressed in the House.
When we talk about officers of the House, we are talking about parliamentarians' staff. For those who do not really know what is meant by “officers of Parliament”, I will give a few examples that should sound familiar.
First there is the Auditor General. If there is one report that people look forward to every year, it is the Auditor General's report. The Auditor General has the team and resources needed to keep tabs on the government's actions. He or she raises any issues of concern.
The Chief Electoral Officer is another example. Thank God we have a Chief Electoral Officer who ensures that our voting system is impartial, neutral and functional and that it operates without interference from foreign countries.
We could talk about the Commissioner of Official Languages. We could talk about the Privacy Commissioner, especially now, when personal information is such a sensitive topic. We could also talk about the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner.
I would like to make one very important point. We have been saying this all along, but it is still just as true, that in all situations, these officers of Parliament must not be associated with a conflict of interest or an appearance of a conflict of interest, so that they can do their jobs and also be perceived as having no ties to the executive.
What is happening right now with the appointment process? The whole process, or nearly all of it, falls entirely to the executive. It is all very well to say that the process is legitimate and fine, that there is no influence, that it is truly a coincidence that appointees are also on the Liberal Party donor list and that no one saw that coming. There is, at the very least, an appearance of conflict of interest there, which undermines the very credibility of these officers of Parliament, whose work is generally impeccable.
Before they can get to work, however, we need to make sure the appointment is impeccable. The existing process only requires the executive branch to consult the opposition parties. The word “consult” is open to interpretation. We recently saw that consulting can be as simple as sending the opposition party leaders a letter stating the name of the proposed candidate, not even a short list.
There is already a problem here, and there is an even bigger problem with the voting system, which needs to change. As we saw with the Conservatives, and again with the Liberals, a government is getting elected with 39% of the popular vote. That, however, is 39% of a total turnout of about 50%. That government suddenly ends up with 100% of the power and the responsibility of appointing 100% of the officers of Parliament. This is a clear procedural flaw that needs to be addressed.
Thank God we have this extremely simple proposal. Notwithstanding the member for Hamilton Centre's indisputable talent, his motion does not reinvent the wheel. We are not the first to notice this problem with potential conflicts of interest or apparent lack of neutrality. New Zealand and other parliaments have already taken steps toward what the member for Hamilton Centre is proposing, in order to give full authority back to elected officials via a multi-party committee.
We got a taste of how this could look when a committee made up of members from all parties was created to study electoral reform. Thanks to the NDP, this bill went a bit further to allow members of political parties that are not officially recognized in the House to serve on this committee. This brings all parliamentarians together and ensures that a single party is never making the final decision, which is instead based on a broader consensus among parliamentarians. This is, after all, about their employees.
These are our employees. When the government introduces a bill at 3 p.m. and I have to comment to the media at 3:45 p.m., it is difficult for me to analyze a 200-page document. Fortunately, the Parliamentary Budget Officer works full time, 365 days a year, minus vacation, on this and many other budget issues, to give us credible, objective and partisan-free information. We want more emphasis on ensuring that this information is free from any appearance of political involvement. This is truly a step in the right direction.
The member, in his infinite wisdom, particularly thanks to his experience in parliamentary procedure, and because time is running out as the session comes to an end, was not sure what the outcome of the motion would be, even if we all voted in favour of it. I have a hard time understanding why anyone would think this is not a good idea. I tried to find a reason, just to play devil's advocate. Perhaps someone would want to yield power to the executive in the hope of winning the election and getting that power to make choices. This would be a bad idea, since it would undermine nearly all of the principles I have been talking about today.
We could say that this is how it has always been, that it must be a British tradition and that we will not rock the boat. Well, no, we must move things along and go further. I believe that this motion is a step in the right direction. We could tell ourselves that we do not have the structure to do it. That is exactly what this motion does: it gives us the structure to do it, and it is up to us to find the means to move forward. I would like to point out that this costs nothing. All it takes is an ounce of common sense to recognize the merits of the proposal we are debating.
In my research, I could find no reason for voting against this motion. I look forward to hearing different points of view. What I am hearing so far already suggests that we seem to be headed for a broad consensus. However, I would like to present an amendment to the motion moved by the member for Hamilton Centre, who saw that time was passing and thought that perhaps we should move beyond the issue of principle and set up a pilot project that would take us further.
This is what the amendment says:
That the motion be amended by deleting all the words after the words “in the opinion of the House,” and substituting the following: “during this Parliament, a special joint committee co-chaired by the Speakers of both Houses of Parliament should be created as a pilot project to begin undertaking the selection process for the vacant Auditor General of Canada position”.
Note the term “Parliament” rather than “government”.
This is a golden opportunity to take the first steps towards this new arrangement and open the door wide for the next legislature.