Question of Privilege – Time Allocation

On Monday, September 15th, 2014 in Question of Privilage
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Elizabeth May: Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today on this question of privilege about closure.

I am rising at my first opportunity on this question of privilege, given that between the Speech from the Throne in October and when we adjourned June 20, there had been 21 occasions on which closure of debate occurred, and I maintain that the exercise of my rights and the rights of my colleagues in this place have been obstructed, undermined and impeded by the unprecedented use of time allocations in the second session of the 41st Parliament.

Mr. Speaker, in presenting this fairly legal argument to you, I propose to leave out page numbers and citations because I have prepared a written version of this for your office and I hope that will be acceptable to you, that I skip page numbers in this presentation. Hansard may not have the numbers of the debates, but I hope there is enough context so people can find them.

I belive this excessive use of what is often called “guillotine measures” is a violation of the rights of all members of Parliament, but I would like to stress that there is a disproportionate impact on members such as me who are within either smaller parties, that is less than 12 members, or who sit actually as independents, because in the roster of recognizing people in their speaker slot, quite often those of us in the smaller parties or independents simply never get to speak to the bills at all.

My question, Mr. Speaker, bears directly on what your predecessor said in this place on April 27, 2010. He said, “…the fundamental right of the House of Commons to hold the government to account for its actions is an indisputable privilege and in fact an obligation”.

In the autumn of 2011, in a ruling concerning the member for Mount Royal, Mr. Speaker, you yourself said that to constitute a prima facie case in regard to matters of obstruction, interference, molestation or intimidation, you need to “…assess whether or not the member’s ability to fulfill his parliamentary [activities] has been undermined”. At that moment in the same Debates, you had the occasion to reflect on “…the Chair’s primordial concern for the preservation of the privileges of all members,…” and you added, “As your Speaker, one of my principal responsibilities is to ensure that the rights and privileges of members are safeguarded, and this is a responsibility I take very seriously”.

I now have occasion to turn to other words that will guide us in this matter. From the Supreme Court of Canada in the Vaid decision, in the words of Mr. Justice Binnie, speaking for the court, he outlined the scope of parliamentary responsibility and parliamentary privilege for the management of employees and said, “Parliamentary privilege is defined by the degree of autonomy necessary to perform Parliament’s constitutional function”. He went on to say at paragraph 41 of that Supreme Court of Canada judgment:

Similarly, Maingot defines privilege in part as “the necessary immunity that the law provides for Members of Parliament, and for Members of the legislatures of each of the ten provinces and two territories, in order for these legislators to do their legislative work”.

I would repeat and emphasize that, because although the Vaid decision was on a different fact set, Mr. Justice Binnie spoke to our core responsibility as parliamentarians when he said that we must be able, as legislators, to do our legislative work.

Mr. Justice Binnie continued in the Vaid decision to say:

To the question “necessary in relation to what?”, therefore, the answer is necessary to protect legislators in the discharge of their legislative and deliberative functions, and the legislative assembly’s work in holding the government to account for the conduct of the country’s business. To the same effect, see R. Marleau and C. Montpetit…where privilege is defined as “the rights and immunities that are deemed necessary for the House of Commons, as an institution, and its Members, as representatives of the electorate, to fulfill their functions”.

Mr. Justice Binnie went on to find further references in support of these principles from Bourinot’s Parliamentary Procedure and Practice in the Dominion of Canada.

These are fundamental points. The purpose of us being here as parliamentarians is to hold the government to account. It is obvious that no legislative assembly would be able to discharge its duties with efficiency or to assure its independence and dignity unless it had adequate powers to protect itself, its members, and its officials in the exercise of these functions.

Finally, Mr. Justice Binnie—again, for the court—said at paragraph 62, on the subject of parliamentary functions in ruling that some employees would be covered by privilege, that coverage existed only if a connection were established between the category of employees and the exercise by the House of its functions as a legislative and deliberative body, including its role in holding the government to account.

As I said earlier, this approach was supported by your immediate predecessor. In a December 10, 2009 ruling, the Speaker of the House, the Hon. Peter Milliken, said that one of his principle duties was to safeguard the rights and privileges of members, and of the House, including the fundamental right of the House of Commons to hold the government to account for its actions, which is an indisputable privilege, and in fact an obligation.

It is therefore a fundamental principle of Westminster parliamentary democracy that the most important role of members of Parliament, and in fact a constitutional right and responsibility for us as members, is to hold the government to account.

The events in this House that we witnessed before we adjourned on June 20, 2014, clearly demonstrate that the House and its members have been deprived of fulfilling constitutional rights, our privilege, and our obligation to hold the government to account, because of the imposition of intemperate and unrestrained guillotine measures in reference to a number of bills. Over 21 times, closure has been used.

It is only in the interest of time that I am going to read out the numbers of the bills and not their full description. Bill C-2, Bill C-4, Bill C-6, Bill C-7, Bill C-13, Bill C-18, Bill C-20, Bill C-22, Bill C-23, Bill C-24, Bill C-25, Bill C-27, Bill C-31, Bill C-32, Bill C-33, and Bill C-36 were all instances where closure of debate was used.

In many of the instances I just read out, and in the written argument I have presented, closure of debate occurred at second reading, again at report stage, and again at third reading. The limitation of debate was extreme.

A close examination of the guillotine measures imposed by the government demonstrate that the citizens of Canada have been unable to have their elected representatives adequately debate the various and complex issues central to these bills in order to hold the government to account. Members of Parliament have been deprived and prevented from adequately debating these measures, through 21 separate motions for time allocation in this session alone. It undermines our ability to perform our parliamentary duties.

In particular, I want to again highlight the effect that the guillotine motions have on my ability as a representative of a smaller party, the Green Party. We do not have 12 seats in the House as yet, and as a result we are in the last roster to be recognized once all other parties have spoken numerous times. Quite often, there is not an opportunity for members in my position, nor for independent members of Parliament, to be able to properly represent our constituents.

Again, I should not have to repeat this. Certainly you, Mr. Speaker, are aware that in protecting our rights, as you must as Speaker, that in this place we are all equals, regardless of how large our parties are. As voters in Canada are all equal, so too do I, as a member of Parliament, have an equal right and responsibility to represent the concerns of my constituents in this place, which are equal to any other member in this place.

As speaking time that is allotted to members of small parties and independents is placed late in the debates, we quite often are not able to address these measures in the House. This would be fair if we always reached the point in the debate where independents were recognized, but that does not happen with closure of debates. My constituents are deprived of their right to have their concerns adequately voiced in the House.

(1545)

Political parties are not even referenced in our constitution, and I regard the excessive power of political parties over processes in this place, in general, to deprive constituents of equal representation in the House of Commons. However, under the circumstances, the additional closure on debate particularly disadvantages those constituents whose members of Parliament are not with one of the larger parties.

Mr. Speaker, in the autumn of 2011, in your ruling considering the member for Mount Royal and his question of privilege, you said that one of your responsibilities that you take very seriously is to ensure that the rights and privileges of members are safeguarded. The principal right of the House and its members, and their privilege, is to hold the government to account. In fact, it is an obligation, according to your immediate predecessor.

In order to hold the government to account, we require the ability and the freedom to speak in the House without being trammelled and without measures that undermine the member’s ability to fulfill his or her parliamentary function. As a British joint committee report pointed out, without this protection, members would be handicapped in performing their parliamentary duty, and the authority of Parliament itself in confronting the executive and as a forum for expressing the anxieties of citizens would be correspondingly diminished.

To hold the government to account is the raison d’être of Parliament. It is not only a right and privilege of members and of this House, but a duty of Parliament and its members to hold the government to account for the conduct of the nation’s business. Holding the government to account is the essence of why we are here. It is a constitutional function. In the words of the marketers, it is “job one”.

Our constitutional duty requires us to exercise our right and privilege, to study legislation, and to hold the government to account by means of raising a question of privilege. This privilege has been denied to us because of the consistent and immoderate use of the guillotine in regard to 21 instances of time allocation, in this session alone.

This use of time allocation, as you know, Mr. Speaker, is unprecedented in the history of Canada, and infringes on your duty as Speaker to protect our rights and privileges as members. As you have said many times, that is your responsibility and you take it very seriously. However, these closure motions undermine your role and your duty to protect us. Therefore, it diminishes the role of Speaker, as honoured from time immemorial.

In fact, you expressed it, Mr. Speaker, in debates in the autumn of 2011, at page 4396, when you had occasion to reflect on “the Chair’s primordial concern for the preservation of the privileges of all members..”, and when you added, “As your Speaker, one of my principal responsibilities is to ensure that the rights and privileges of members are safeguarded, and this is a responsibility I take very seriously”.

Denying the members’ rights and privileges to hold the government to account is an unacceptable and unparliamentary diminishment of both the raison d’être of Parliament and of the Speaker’s function and role in protecting the privileges of all members of this House.

In conclusion, I submit to you, Mr. Speaker, that the intemperate and unrestrained use of time allocation by this government constitutes a prima facie breach of privilege of all members of this House, especially those who are independents or, such as myself, representatives of one of the parties with fewer than 12 members.

Mr. Speaker, I appreciate your consideration in this matter. I hope you will find in favour of this question of privilege, that this is a prima facie breach of the privileges and rights of all members.

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