Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to participate in the debate on the private members' business motion brought forward by the member for Haute-Gaspésie—La Mitis—Matane—Matapédia.
This rather lengthy motion would amend the Standing Orders to provide the following. House leaders, deputy House leaders, whips, deputy whips, and caucus chairs would need to be endorsed or elected by an absolute majority of party or caucus members. Each opposition member would be entitled to one question in each question period per week, with rules established for the transfer of that entitlement to another member if desired. Committees would be expanded from 10 to 11 members, or 12, if an independent member wishes to sit on a committee.
Members would indicate their desired committee assignments, and taking into consideration the proportionality of the parties and caucuses represented in the House of Commons, the right to pick committee assignments would be based on the reverse order of the lottery of private members' business. In other words, the last person on the list for consideration for private members' business would have the first choice of committee assignment.
The 40th and 41st Parliaments have seen a number of proposals to reform the Standing Orders. There have been proposals to reform question period, the rules on time allocation and closure, the means for electing the Speaker of the House and the chairs of committees, and the system of petitions.
I would like to speak first to the motion's proposal to reform question period. On April 24, 2013, the House debated a Liberal opposition day motion concerning the reform of members' statements. The proposal would have changed the Standing Orders to require an alphabetical rotation, subject to an exchange mechanism respecting each party's share of members' statements.
The key points that were raised during the debate on the above-mentioned opposition day motion applied to the debate on the motion before the House today. First, the proposal appears to fetter the Speaker's authority and discretion to recognize members. At pages 594 and 595 of O'Brien and Bosc, it states:
There is no official order for the recognition of speakers laid down in the Standing Orders; the Chair relies on the practice and precedents of the House in this regard. The Standing Orders simply authorize the Speaker to recognize for debate any Member who seeks the floor by rising in his or her place. [...] Although the Whips of the various parties each provide the Chair with a list of Members wishing to speak, the Chair is not bound by these. [...] While the Speaker has complete discretion in recognizing Members, the Chair may follow such informal arrangements as may be made...
The motion seeks to establish rigid rules on the operation of question period. The vast majority of the rules for question period are not established in the Standing Orders but rather in other practices of the House. The rules governing question period have developed through traditional and practice, and occasionally have been clarified through a Speaker's ruling.
For example, the current practices for the length and order of questions were developed in 1997 after consultations between the Speaker of the House and House leaders of the recognized parties, and are renegotiated at the beginning of each Parliament. Specifically, the motion's proposal to reform question period would provide each opposition member with the right to ask at least one question per week, and members could exchange that right with another if they so desire.
The result would be considerably less control over question period by parties. It would thereby reduce an opposition party's flexibility to manage questions by its members as part of its role of holding the government to account, including limiting the central place of party leaders and critics in an opposition party's question period strategy. If adopted, the proposal could create an uncoordinated and possibly ineffective series of unrelated questions to the government, with little to no opportunity for supplementary questions.
Further, the motion does not contemplate any extension of question period beyond 45 minutes, as is the current allocation. This would have the effect of limiting or, worse, reducing the time allocated to party leaders and recognized parties more generally.
The proposal would appear to hamper each party's ability to manage its internal affairs and could potentially disrupt the effective functioning of the House of Commons. Of course, these points are directly applicable to the opposition parties, so I will be listening attentively to see what views they will be sharing on these matters after I sit down.
The first point to make with respect to the effect of this motion on the effective functioning of the House of Commons is that two hours of debate is not a lot of time to assess the implications of the motion. As we have seen with other private members' business motions concerning changes to the Standing Orders, those motions have called on the procedure and House affairs committee to study proposals.
Let me turn next to the portion of the motion related to the participation of independent MPs at our committees.
The Standing Orders provide that any member may participate in the public proceedings of any committee but may not vote, move motions, or be counted for the purpose of quorum. Moreover, independent members have had increased participation at committees. For example, each of our standing committees has adopted a motion that allows independent members to submit their recommended amendments for consideration during the clause-by-clause study of a bill at that committee.
Last year, when the procedure and House affairs committee was given an order of reference to study the role and mandate of the Board of Internal Economy and its potential for replacement, the House made special provisions to allow independent MPs to participate in that study, given that the changes to the arrangements for members' offices could have had an unforeseen impact on those MPs who do not sit in a recognized caucus.
Political parties have also made arrangements to accommodate independent members. For example, in the 39th and 40th Parliaments, the Conservative Party gave one of our committee spots to André Arthur, the then independent member for Portneuf—Jacques Cartier.
Motion No. 535 also provides, as mentioned earlier, that membership of committees should be determined by using the reverse order of the list for the consideration of private members' business. However, parliamentary secretaries are ineligible, by virtue of their offices, to move private members' business items for debate in the House, pursuant to Standing Order 87.1(a)(ii). As a result, Motion No. 535 appears to prevent parliamentary secretaries from being members of committees. Maybe that was not the mover's intention, but it seems to be the effect of his motion. If it was not his intention, that goes to my earlier point about major changes to our rules being proposed yet being subject to only a two-hour debate.
This seems odd, since parliamentary secretaries perform the important role of assisting ministers in the discharge of their parliamentary duties. They also serve as a key conduit for information from parliamentarians, especially opposition MPs, to the minister. Certainly the conversations between parliamentary secretaries and opposition critics, collectively the subject matter experts, help inform the conversations that take place among our House leaders.
Finally, speaking of House leaders, that brings me to the aspect of the proposal in the motion that would provide for the election of House leaders, whips and their deputies, and caucus chairs.
The member wrote to all members of the House to inform them of his motion and to seek their support for the motion. In the member's letter, he characterized this element of his proposal as an election. However, the way the amendment to the Standing Orders is worded, it is unclear that an actual election would be required. Specifically, the proposal would add a new standing order to require an absolute majority of party or caucus members to endorse the appointment of the party's House officers by co-signing a letter, with the party leader, to the Speaker naming that party's House officer.
Therefore, the election process contemplated in the motion would effectively provide a veto power to party or caucus members, as opposed to directly requiring an actual election. I would add that the election process for House officers would not prohibit parties from conducting elections if they wished.
I would like to draw to the attention of the members the situation that could arise through such an—