First of all, thank you very much for asking me to appear in front of this august committee. I hope everybody is aware that it has been some years since I was Speaker of the House of Commons, but I've kept a pretty close interest in what is going on in the House of Commons and I am very much intrigued by the motion that has brought this committee together.
I don't want to go back through all the history of the House of Commons and the history of the Speaker's office; I'm not going to try to do that. I've had the advantage of reading most of what Audrey O'Brien gave in testimony and also her abbreviated notes, and I do have the elements of the motion in front of me, which all of you know and I don't need to repeat.
There are a couple of things I would like to say. First of all, things have probably changed quite significantly in many ways since I had the privilege of serving in the House as Speaker, so I do not speak with any intimate sense of what problems the Board of Internal Economy has had to deal with in recent years. But I am very intrigued that there are some who think that the Board of Internal Economy should either cease to exist or be transformed into a commission of some sort to make it more independent and to satisfy those who feel, understandably so, that there ought to be greater transparency in the activities of the Board of Internal Economy.
I have to say that raises some very interesting questions: exactly what form would this new commission take, and who would be included in it? If it were independent and all the members of it were not related in any way to their duties as members of Parliament, what would that do to the sensitivity of such a commission? Who would appoint the commission? Is it the government? Is it the House of Commons? Who makes that decision, and what are the requirements for those who would serve on such a commission?
Some of you may have answers to those questions, and some who have appeared in front of you may have given those answers, but I haven't heard them, for whatever reason. Those are clearly issues that all of you on the committee will have to deal with.
I want to go back some years, because I did ask Audrey O'Brien, when she had research done into the history of the Speakership, if I can use that worn phrase.... I couldn't remember, in all the years I was there, any major problem we had in the operation of the Board of Internal Economy. For the most part, in fact, I don't ever remember a situation in which we had a serious difference of opinion. We always seemed to work things out among us—again to use an overworked term—on a consensual basis.
One of the most important parts of the Board of Internal Economy was made up of members of Parliament. It was made up of both government and opposition members, and of course the Speaker had the duty to chair it.
As far as my memory goes—and I have not been able to go back through the years and look at any minutes, so I don't have exact details in my mind—we seemed to function pretty well, and we didn't seem to come in for very much criticism.
There's another point that I'd like to at least raise for your consideration, and that is, if we're going to have a commission that does what the Board of Internal Economy did or does, what's the role of the Speaker? Is the Speaker part of the new commission? To what degree are the obligations of the Speaker, which is fundamentally, as I'm sure you're all aware, first of all, of course, the administration.... Well, his first jurisdiction, of course, is the House of Commons, the rules and procedures, and order in the House, etc., but as I'm sure you all know, the Speaker's office and those around the Speaker have an enormous administrative responsibility, and also a responsibility for security, in conjunction, of course, with other people.
Those are major responsibilities. I don't know right now whether the notions behind a commission are going to change dramatically the role of the Speaker, especially the two main roles that the Speaker, up until now, has had. The first, of course, is the House of Commons, and the second is the administration of everything on the Hill.
The last thing I want to say is this. I pay attention to the media and to public comment about the House of Commons, and of course more recently the Senate, which I don't know very much about anyway, and I am deeply distressed at the degree to which so many Canadians seem to think that anyone who goes into public life is, potentially, at least, unworthy of their votes or unworthy of their support.
Now, as I say, I'm speaking about many years ago, but my experience as Speaker was that for the vast majority of members I knew—and it didn't matter which side of the House they were sitting on—most of them cared a great deal about the country, first of all, and most of them were putting a tremendous amount of effort into trying to do the job they got elected to do: looking after their constituents and their problems, and dealing with the issues of legislation and committees and all that sort of thing.
One of the things that a lot of people don't want to face up to is that there's a great variety of ability among the people we elect to the House of Commons. Some have never had an office in their lives, and some of them have never had a secretary or a staff. Some of them, on the other hand, have had very important administrative, entrepreneurial, and academic positions. So you get a considerable difference in basic ability. Some rise to the occasion. Some do the best they can, but they don't become outstanding.
But all of this is part and parcel of the democratic election system we have, and I think I can say that in my experience, both as a member of Parliament and then later as Speaker of the House of Commons, most members of Parliament were pretty aware that their obligation was to the country, to their constituents, to the House, and to the public interest.
Now, I don't know to what degree an appointed commission is going to be able to be sensitive to these things. I can't tell, because we don't know who would be on it, or how many people.
Again I come back to this: would some of the duties of the Speaker on the administrative side be put off to the commission? Would others remain with the Speaker's office? But those are questions that I'm sure all of you on the committee are acutely aware need attention.
I'm not particularly enthusiastic about an appointed, so-called independent commission, but I suppose I could be persuaded.
The last thing I want to say is this. There's an old saying that before you change something, you'd better be awfully sure that you're going to come up with something better. There's another saying that goes with it that says if you're going to change something, identify what it is that is the cause for needing the change. That has to be more than just somebody writing a letter to the editor or some media person with a deadline to meet, knowing that criticism or something dramatic will get more attention than otherwise. I think this has to be kept in mind.
The last thing I want to say is this. Instead of a Board of Internal Economy that meets on its own in camera, I suppose you could have a commission that meets in camera sometimes when it is appropriate and also sometimes meets in committee in private. But what I haven't seen yet in the discussion is whether we are going to have a situation where we have a commission and the members come, and then it's open to the media and questions from the public. Is it going to be a wide open arrangement? If it is, what happens when the members feel that some matters are delicate enough and appropriate enough to be discussed in camera? Are we going to get the same criticisms that we get against the Board of Internal Economy?
Those are thoughts that I have. I don't want to go on too long, but I'd be very pleased to hear what members have to say and try to respond to any questions you might have.
Again, I want to express my appreciation for being invited to come before you, and I apologize for being a bit late.