Thank you for the invitation to appear. I suspect I was invited because of an interview I gave questioning the idea of changing the parliamentary calendar to a four-day week. In fact, I think a good argument can be made for that change, but I have not heard it so far in your deliberations.
You don't lose much by not sitting on Fridays. There are no votes in the House. Committees normally do not meet, few ministers are in question period, and many members are on their way to the airport before the House rises. But the idea has not been well received in the coverage I've seen in the media. Perhaps my presentation can help to explain why.
In 1982 I worked for the committee that brought in the first parliamentary calendar. It was 160 days, which replaced an average of 175 days when Parliament operated without a fixed calendar. The present version provides for a maximum of 135 days, but in the last decade the House has only sat as many as 129 days on one occasion, and in many years it sat less than 100 days. Put another way, you have a calendar which at best provides for six months on and six months off. If you came back earlier after Labour Day and after the new year and eliminated all but two break weeks, one in November and one at Easter, you could have a calendar of about 160 days with no Fridays.
I know members are unhappy when journalists or academics refer to break weeks as holidays, and I know all of you work hard during these constituency weeks, but they are holidays from Parliament. They are holidays from holding the government to account, and they're holidays basically from committee hearings.
The break weeks may be much loved, particularly by ministers who don't have to face question period, but I suggest there are three things wrong with our very generous approach to break weeks, aside from creating the erroneous impression that you're on holidays. First, I think break weeks encourage obstruction, because if the opposition can delay a bill until the Thursday before a break week, they have effectively stopped it for 10 days, and sometimes more. The result has been a dramatic increase in the use of time allocation motions. Even the dreaded omnibus bills are partly due to the limited time that Parliament is sitting. If nothing changes, I suspect the government, despite its promises, will have to result to both extensive time allocation and, perhaps, even omnibus bills before this Parliament is over.
Second, I think break weeks are really part of the permanent election campaign and a huge advantage to incumbents. They are essentially the importation of an American practice instituted because congressmen are always looking for money for the next election, and they use break weeks for constant rounds of fundraising. We have a different system and different election laws. I believe if constituency events and fundraising were focused on Fridays and the House met with fewer interruptions, the result would be a more functional as well as a more family-friendly Parliament.
A third point, which is perhaps a bit theoretical, is that break weeks reflect a view of the member's role as a delegate who primarily represents the view of his or her constituents. This is perhaps obvious, but there is a more traditional view of the role of an MP, first articulated by Edmund Burke. He thought the role of a parliamentarian was to exercise his or her independent judgment on the public issues of the day. Of course, that judgment is informed by views of constituents, but in this age of communication and social media, is it necessary to be in the riding in order to know the views of one's constituents?
A final point regarding the calendar is that I think a good bit of family friendliness could be injected simply by using pairing, which seems to have fallen into disuse. This was mentioned briefly by the clerk at your last meeting, but I think it bears repeating. A member on either the government or the opposition side advises his or her whip about an unavoidable conflict. The whip calls his counterpart on the other side, and an agreement is struck whereby one member from the other party will absent himself or herself from the vote and this will be indicated in the journals as being paired. As I said, that could be used a lot more than it is, or has been in the last decade.
I don't have any great knowledge of dual chambers, but I looked at the British Standing Orders, and they appear to be used partly for what we call private members' business and partly for questioning ministers. In the Canadian context, I could see a dual chamber used for specific debates. For example, the budget debate could be split and take half the time. The same could apply to the throne speech. Parts of private members' business, excluding the vote, could be moved to the parallel chamber.
However, my real question is, what are you trying to accomplish? If you're looking for ways for members to get their views on record, you could accomplish this by allowing members to append their speeches to Hansard. However, if the purpose is to free up more House time for discussion of legislation, I think there are better approaches.
Why not limit second reading debate to one day? This sounds draconian, but that is the practice in Britain. After the minister introduces and gives reasons for supporting a bill and the opposition party critics give reasons for opposing it, I think you only need a few more speeches by interested members, and then the bill should go to committee. Of course, there could be and should be exceptions to a one-day rule when bills are matters of conscience and members have a legitimate interest in putting forth personal views that differ from those of the party leaders.
Finally, let me conclude with a couple of general observations. In the last decade, Parliament became the subject of many criticisms, “dysfunctional” being perhaps the adjective used most frequently to describe our most important democratic institution. I hope this new Parliament will address some of the issues that led to those criticisms.
One such area is question period. I'm not sure if a British-style Prime Minister's question period is part of your mandate, but I hope you can push that forward.
Another problem is non-confidence motions, because the timing is largely controlled by the government. This led directly to two unfortunate Parliamentary incidents in the last decade. This problem could easily be corrected by changes to the Standing Orders.
I'm getting away from purely family-friendly issues, so I will stop here. I look forward to your questions.