Madam Speaker, there is a lot of interest in the issue being debated. I am not surprised to see how government members are trying to defend a system that has served them well until now by controlling just about all the proceedings of this House.
The Prime Minister's Office not only appoints ministers, but also controls Liberal members during the proceedings of this House and even of the committees. This means that the exercise taken part in by voters, which consists in choosing democratic representatives, loses some of its meaning, since the powers are concentrated in the hands of a single individual, namely the Prime Minister, since he has the authority to choose, alone, just about all the holders of senior positions.
What we have seen in practice—I have been here since 1993—and the way things have worked until now, is that committee Chairs report directly to, or are chosen directly by, the Prime Minister. This cannot be obscured by the arguments we are hearing today. I will return to this point in greater detail later on. Everyone who wishes to maintain the present system, however, makes no bones about saying “Yes, but there are criteria that have to be taken into consideration, such as regional representation; committee Chairs have to come from different regions, and so on.” This is a confirmation that indeed someone, somewhere, is carrying out the exercise of examining people against these criteria when it comes time to chose committee Chairs, whereas the Standing Orders stipulate that committee Chairs are to be elected by committee members. But here they are telling us, quite openly and unashamedly, “No, there have to be criteria to ensure a balance between the various regions of the country as far as representation is concerned”.
This is an out and out admission of what is being done, which is that someone, in this case someone in the PMO—although he can delegate this to the party whip, the leader in the House, or someone else—is the one to choose the person who will hold that position. Then the MPs are told “Be obedient, vote this way, or else”.
That is why the idea has come up that we now have before us, about selecting those who will chair the committees of this House, of which there are several by allowing parliamentarians who are on the committee to themselves choose the person who will head the committee, and to do so by secret ballot. This is specifically in order to decrease the possibility of reprisals.
I hear the Liberals' argument, the same one they used when this was debated in the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs. “Yes, but the public has a right to know”. There is nothing stopping a member from announcing publicly whom he has supported, but this can also preserve the ability of individuals to make choices without having to face the negative consequences inherent in so doing.
I do not think that the voters in my riding have expectations when it comes to the candidate that I would support as Chair of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs. I do not think that people would necessarily ask me this question if I told them that members selected the Chair by secret ballot. Obviously, the criterion that should influence our decision is competence. We will select the most competent person.
The opposition parties acted in such good faith on this issue that they even accepted an amendment proposed by the member of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs for Mississauga Centre, stipulating that committees would continue to be chaired by members of the government party. At the very least, we would have liked to discuss the fact that, with two exceptions, committees are always chaired by Liberal members. We could have argued that point. I am not saying that things are perfect elsewhere but, in other places, this is not how they operate. At the National Assembly almost half of the committees are chaired by opposition MNAs. This does not prevent the committees from doing their work.
While we are on this, there seems to be total confusion regarding the role of committee chairs. Liberal members who are not ministers or Parliamentary secretaries think that if they chair a committee, they will be a part of the government or the executive. This is not their role. It is ministers who are included in the executive branch. The role of House committees is to study matters, to delve into them, to study bills after second reading and to report to the House. Committees area accountable to the House, and not only to the cabinet.
Committees are there for us. We work for all of our colleagues. People cannot sit on every committee. That is why there is a limited number of representatives on each committee. They must do their work and be as neutral as possible.
If we want there to be a balance of powers, the committees must be able to say to the government, “No, this is the wrong direction and there should be amendments to this particular bill”.
When the individuals who chair these committees are appointed by the Prime Minister, it seems obvious to me that a large part of this exercise becomes meaningless, because the outcome is known in advance. The argument used by government members is that “Voters gave us a mandate to govern”.
That is absolutely true, but it does not mean that they gave them a mandate to do whatever they want. This is why opposition parties exist. This is why, following a general election, the government is part of an institution that includes members who represent various political views and who were elected by voters. We are elected as democratically as government members are.
The public expects us to play a role, to have a say. It also expects those hon. members who are not ministers to have a say in the parliamentary debates, to have real power and influence.
No one from the other side can convince me that they truly believe that hon. members, particularly government members, have enough power in this House regarding all the tasks that they must fulfill.
There is a huge gap between what the public expects in terms of the role of an elected member of Parliament, and the actual role or influence that we have here.
The democratic deficit is such that one of the candidates to the position of Prime Minister is going around saying that one of his priorities is to correct the democratic deficit. So, he agrees that there is indeed a democratic deficit. However, will it be only Liberal members who will make the changes that are required, and will these changes only be made when they are prepared to consider them?
There is a proposal before us. It is not an earth shattering reform; it is about electing committee chairs through a secret ballot. The Liberals are in a frenzy; they are holding special caucuses; they are divided on the issue. There is some arm twisting going on to ensure that this report will not be adopted. We also have before us a stalling tactic, that is a proposal to postpone by 15 days the adoption of this report and to ask the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs to review the matter.
I have been here a number of years and we have had these debates in the past. It is not the first time that this issue has been raised, and I am not sure that Liberal members really want to examine it. On the contrary, I think they want to sway the few Liberal members who would like to support opposition members in their efforts to change the current way of doing things.
As a matter of clarification, let us be clear, the amendment before us, the Liberal amendment, has a very obvious strategic objective. It is asking that the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs consider the matter for another 15 sitting days before reporting to the House.
As it happens, by then, the deadline for setting up committees will have passed. By some strange coincidence, by the time the matter is brought again before the House, all committee chairs will have been elected.
It is pretty obvious, as difficult to miss as an elephant, that the government's strategy is to avoid the issue, put the committees in place and select the chairs. We will reconsider the issue in 15 days, but it will no longer matter. It is an issue right now because the committees have to be struck.
I might add that opposition members have been extremely cooperative with the government side. I repeat, we acted in good faith. We have agreed to let three committees start working. Committees are already sitting because it was recognized that urgent matters needed to be considered.
I am thinking in particular of the Standing Committee on Finance, which is conducting pre-budget consultations, although it is open for debate what influence, if any, the participants may have. The fact remains that we agreed to let that committee sit.
The Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs is also sitting. There is no need for lengthy explanations as to why; in the current context of international instability, we want the members of the committee to be able to consider, as they are doing this morning, issues as important as that of Iraq.
Also, the Special Committee on the Non-Medical Use of Drugs, established by the House of Commons, is currently sitting.
We have shown good faith. We have allowed a number of committees to start their work. The funny thing is that, in the media, I have read and heard the government House leader complain that the opposition was preventing committees from sitting and doing their work.
For the benefit of those listening to us, we have no legislative agenda before us, or none to speak of. Even if all the committees were struck right now, there is virtually nothing before the House, to such an extent that, for the first time, last Monday—and I have been a member of this House since 1993—if we had not had a take note debate, there would have been nothing in government orders for discussion in this Parliament. That is a pretty big deal. There are major problems over there. I realize they are in a leadership crisis and there is a leadership race going on, but they are having trouble functioning with any effectiveness.
In the background of it all, of course, those issues are part of the current debate, but the institution must take precedence over any partisan or non-partisan issues or any questions regarding the personal interests of the next leader or the future of individual members.
What is being proposed is a change, which will mean that, regardless of which party is in power, members of the House will be free to elect committee chairs on an independent basis without any fear of reprisal.
What, practically speaking, will this change, as far as the general public is concerned? Someone might say “Yes, I am listening to you, and it is all very interesting, but what is that really going to change for the rest of us?” That is a very legitimate question.
The public wants to see Parliament doing more debating of the priorities that concern them, they want to see Parliament having to deal with real and effective pressure. It is true that we have some powerful tools, such as oral question period and the committees, where we manage to get a certain number of things accomplished, but never as much as we could if the committees were far more independent, if they could do their real job, and if they were able to set their own agenda.
I do not mean to suggest that some of them do not do so, but there are not enough of them, and those who do are not given enough freedom. It is not right that members are pressured in this way. There will always be ways to influence people and ways to make them act in one way or another.
However ,when members who chair committees become accountable to their colleagues around the table, they will endeavour to work as effectively as possible for all of their colleagues, rather than simply working to satisfy the Prime Minister or the minister who got them the chairmanship of their committee.
This takes nothing away from the government's ability to make the choices it wants, subsequently. However, there will be credible public voices in Parliament that will have a say, committee reports will be more critical of government decisions and government members will be able to be heard more freely. All of this will give elected members more clout. At the end of the day, the government and the House will decide, but at least we will have a more credible and effective forum than we have right now.
Committee work may not be the part of our work that is the most closely followed, or the most glamorous, but it is nonetheless one of the areas where we spend the most time and energy.
Personally, I would like for this work to have more of an impact, out of respect for all those who spend so many hours defending their constituents and promoting the issues and concerns that affect them. Stronger, more accountable and more independent committees will improve the whole institution.
What we are proposing is a small step in this direction. As I already mentioned, we are not talking about a revolution, but a beginning. This will help improve the effectiveness of committees.
Other measures also need to be taken, but we cannot wait for large-scale general reforms that will never occur. A member of the Canadian Alliance made this proposal in committee. The proposal was studied and the report was passed by a majority of the members of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs.
I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the courage shown by the hon. member for Mississauga Centre, who voted against her Liberal colleagues. She did so primarily as a matter of principle. She made it very clear that she did not do it to please the opposition. Her attachment to her political party is very strong and I do not question it. This is a woman who has fought for her principles, for things in which she believes. She did it first and foremost for these reasons. I am convinced that she is the object of all kinds of pressures, which does not make it easy for her. This is why I think she was very courageous to do what she did.
I wanted to mention this, because if more people were to follow her example, we would all benefit. Sure, we have our political disputes and we have diverging views on many issues. But, beyond this, I think that the hon. member deserves to be commended for her courage.
When we dispose of the matter, when we vote, regardless of whether that vote takes place today or in the coming days, when we deal with the amendment brought forward by the government, which is trying to prevent debate, I hope that this amendment will be rejected and that we will deal with the substantive issue of whether or not committee chairs should be elected through a secret ballot.
We will see if others show the same courage. It is easy to claim left and right to want to reform institutions and make parliamentary business work better. However, we have a tangible example here. We will see where Liberal members really stand in this debate. I hope that others will take this opportunity to support one of their own. I am sure that many Liberal members think the same thing. I hope they will voice their support. The more of them that speak up, the less they will have to fear reprisals.
Then again, many things about a number of other aspects of our system would need to be reviewed to ensure that intimidation is not the only way to ensure efficiency. Allow me to repeat the line that irked me the most among those used by Liberal members in committee. This proposal did not come out of thin air. Here is what I heard: “We are in government. We can do whatever we want”. This basically sums up what I heard.
How arrogant to think they can do anything they want. Our political system provides for some balance to try to divide power to some extent to ensure that all the power is not in the hands of a single individual. This is why we do not have a dictatorship. We have a democratic system so that we can see the forces at play. There is a role for the opposition to play, and one for government members who do not want to be heard only within their caucus.
I can see that they would make the necessary efforts within their caucus to influence positions taken by their party, but they also have a role to play and a responsibility to take within this institution. They must be able to do this freely. A potential appointment as committee chair, parliamentary secretary or whatever, under the current reward system, must not be the sole motivation. Substantive issues must be what people are concerned about in making a decision.
I sincerely hope that they will seize this opportunity now before us to take real action when it comes to change. I know that on this side of the House, with perhaps the exception of a few benches near the Speaker that are occupied by government members, members will vote against the amendment moved by the government to refer the report back to committee. In practical terms, referring the report back to committee amounts to not resolving the problem now, but putting it off until later, and if possible, forever.
Those who have followed this debate closely in recent days have seen how much energy the Prime Minister, the House leader and the whip have devoted to ensuring that this measure does not go through. This shows how much they want to hold on to control of everything that goes on here.
Again, we are not talking about establishing a mechanism that would disrupt the functioning of the government. We are talking about giving members more freedom, more autonomy. I have trouble understanding how anyone could oppose this. Those who would rather vote by show of hands are free to state publicly how they voted. However, we should allow those who prefer to cast their ballot in secret the opportunity to do so.
I will conclude by saying that there is a fine example of this in the House, with the election of the Speaker of the House. Like the chairs of the committees, which are an extension of the proceedings of the House, the Speaker of the House needs greater flexibility in order to be able to represent all the members properly. The position of Speaker of the House of Commons is an elective position, and the Speaker is elected by the members. This has positive results, in that we have greater confidence in the integrity of the position and the person occupying it since we are involved in the process. It is not true that he is elected by the opposition; we do not all vote the same way. In the most recent elections, some of our members voted for one candidate, while others voted for another. It was democratically decided however, with Liberal members voting for one or the other. We have confidence in the position because it is an elective one.
In closing, I hope that more members will show the same courage as the hon. member for Mississauga Centre and add their voices to those of opposition members to ensure that a step is taken toward making Parliament, and democracy within this institution, work better.