Blocking Greens from asking questions during QP is antidemocratic

2021-02-16 13:23 [p.4121]


Madam Speaker, I take the floor today to present a question of privilege. I will try to be as concise as possible. It is an extremely important issue. I think it is important to every single member of this place, regardless of which party they belong to. Given the time constraints and the difficulty of switching from English to French translation, I would like to apologize in advance to my francophone friends as I will be speaking entirely in English just to save time. I will try to be concise.

The issue I bring is one of privilege, and of course privilege is understood in this place not in its conventional terminology but as our rights as individual members of Parliament: our rights to speak, our rights to debate and our rights to vote. When it is question of privilege and our rights are infringed, there can be no more solemn duty of a Speaker than to protect those rights.

I cite the third edition of House of Commons Procedure and Practice by Bosc and Gagnon, that it is the Speaker’s duty to interpret these rules impartially, to maintain order and, I would underline, to defend the rights and privileges of members, including the right to freedom of speech.
The privilege that I allege is being violated is in the matter of participation in question period. It is an essential part of the role of every member of Parliament in a responsible democracy to hold the government to account. One of the main ways that we are allowed to do this, and that we have the right to do in question period, is to put questions forward.

These privileges have been violated by the recent denial of any opportunity for members of Parliament from smaller parties or members who are independents from placing questions on Wednesdays, which happens to be the day that the Prime Minister answers every question.

I want to start by stating clearly the relief we seek, so that it is clear to you, Madam Speaker, that what we are asking for is a clear statement by the Speaker to confirm what has always been the case, that asking questions in question period is the right of members of Parliament, whether they are from larger or smaller parties; that the decision of the larger parties to deny smaller parties and independents from asking any questions on Wednesdays is unjustified; and that the Speaker direct the larger parties to meet and confer with us so that we can find a solution that is satisfactory to all, because I believe we can.

I first raised this issue with the Speaker of the House more than a year ago. Following the 2019 election, circumstances changed and suddenly questions on Wednesdays were no longer available. I have had the honour of serving in this place since 2011, and from my first day here, question period was shared fairly among those of us who were in the unrecognized parties. In 2011, there were two such parties, the Bloc Québécois and the Green Party. As luck would have it, there were five of us. There are five days of the week, so the five of us got a question a week.

The way things are now, because of the change, is that my last question was February 4 and my next one will be on March 8. We know what changed. The Prime Minister took it upon himself to change his custom, and to answer every single question, regardless of the hierarchy within his party, of every member in this place on Wednesdays. The bigger parties decided they wanted all of those slots to themselves.

We complained to the Speaker, who instructed me to please speak to all of the other House leaders because it was not his decision. I spoke to the hon. member for Portage—Lisgar; then to the hon. member for La Prairie; then to the hon. member for New Westminster—Burnaby; and, of course, then to the hon. government House leader. Then I went around a few times more. I spoke to the hon. member for Louis-Saint-Laurent, who took over from the hon. member for Portage—Lisgar. I will not belabour the details, other than to say that all of these conversations, though amicable, were not satisfactory. No progress was made at all. In fact, we were never given any explanation for why it was decided that we should never, ever be allowed to ask the Prime Minister a question on Wednesdays.

Things clarified. One might say they “crystallized”, with the recent interview by Ms. Althia Raj of the Huffington Post of the hon. member for Burnaby South. In this interview, which may have been an answer at a press conference as opposed to an actual interview, the hon. member said, “The general idea being that an official party should ask questions makes sense to me.” He went on to say that he thought that having four slots for non-recognized party members and independents was “put in place to reflect the will of the people, and that an official party has certain abilities to reflect people more than independents, and I understand that.” Fortunately, he still closed by saying he would “reflect on it.”

I certainly hope this is not the official position of the New Democratic Party. It was never conveyed to me as such by the hon. member for New Westminster—Burnaby.

The hon. member for Vancouver Granville ran as an independent and was elected as an independent. The idea is that she should never be allowed to ask a question of the Prime Minister or that I should never be allowed to put a question to the Prime Minister as the member for Saanich—Gulf Islands. That this is the will of the people is dubious.
Certainly, our electoral system and the perverse nature of first past the post mean that the Green Party of Canada, having received nearly 1.2 million votes across Canada, which is just about 100,000 fewer than the Bloc Québécois, has only three seats in Parliament and the Bloc has 32 seats. That is not the point of this debate, but surely it is hardly the case that we are not to have rights.

It was forever ago when the House adopted the rule that there would be a difference between parties with more than 12 members and parties with fewer than 12 members. I note parenthetically that we are the only country in the entire Westminster parliamentary system that has taken this approach to differentiate between larger and smaller parties. Ever since 1963 when that law was passed, it has come to the Speaker from time to time with complaints from smaller parties, starting with Speaker Macnaughton. I will go straight to 1979 with a decision of Speaker Jerome, who made it very clear: “participation in question period is their right”. That is from November 6, 1979, in Hansard.

We can also look at a very detailed decision concerning a complaint from the Bloc Québécois. This was the response from a former Speaker, the hon. John Fraser, on September 24, 1990: “I have some discretion in dealing with the rights of every person in this House who is in a minority position. I think we have a great tradition of protecting the rights of minorities”. He did go on to find that the Bloc lost out on the idea that it should have more money for research, but as he made very clear, “it is important to note that the decision does not mean that members in this group are impeded from full participation in the work of the House.” He also said their rights to participation have to be safeguarded fully in keeping with procedure and our rules.

Finally, I want to draw the House’s attention to a decision from 1994. Some of us are old enough to remember the tectonic shift of the 1993 election when, suddenly, unrecognized parties, including the Conservatives, went down to two. It included the New Democrats, who went down to nine. It also included the ascendancy of parties that benefit from first past the post: those that represent regional splits, or in the case of the Bloc Québécois, a nationalized split.

The Speaker, in this instance Speaker Parent, looked at the complaint from the New Democratic Party and said:

…a member not belonging to a recognized party has participated almost every day during the period reserved for members’ statements and…every other day during question period. The House may be assured that I and my deputies pledge to continue to do everything we can to facilitate the fair and active participation of each member in the work of the House.

The member who raised this was the great parliamentarian and a dear friend, the hon. Bill Blaikie, who was then the member for Winnipeg—Transcona and whose son now sits as the member for Elmwood—Transcona.

I want to be clear on what Bill Blaikie was asking, because I am not asking for what he asked for. He asked for two things and won on half of his requests. The first was that the seating arrangements be changed, just as they are to this day, so that unrecognized parties get to sit together and be recognized as members of an official party across Canada, such as the New Democratic Party, the Green Party or the Bloc. In this instance, it was about recognizing that the two members of the Progressive Conservative Party sit together. Bill Blaikie succeeded on this point.

Bill Blaikie also asked that they be treated as an opposition party during question period and that they be recognized at the beginning of question period. This is where he failed. Bill Blaikie complained they were “recognized only very rarely, systematically denied supplementaries and always relegated to the last question.”
I want to make it very clear that I am not disputing that this is our spot in question period. We are relegated to the very last question. However, we must be fairly recognized in a rotation at the last question spot.

In conclusion, I would say this. There are great trends in our parliamentary democracy, and since 1867 the trend in Parliament has been to increase the power of political parties, with the bigger parties increasing their own power vis-à-vis smaller parties and vis-à-vis members within their own caucuses. As was brought forward very bravely by the late Mark Warawa, a friend to many of us, who complained when his S.O. 31 question was removed by his whip, larger parties exert more power over their own members, denying them their rights, and larger parties continue to exert more power over smaller parties.

I also note that these trends are not often in votes that take place in debates. One day’s accident becomes the next day’s custom, which becomes tradition and then a rule. It is therefore very important to raise the alarm right now, based on what may have been offhand comments by the hon. member for Burnaby South, that it be very clear in this place that we all have rights.

The theory, going back to the fields of Runnymede 800 years ago, is that all members of Parliament are equal and the prime minister is merely first among equals. That has changed a long way, but it is the case that all of our constituents are equal. The citizens of Saanich—Gulf Islands are equal to the citizens of Papineau. The citizens of Vancouver Granville are equal to the citizens of Burnaby South. All of our citizens deserve to have their members of Parliament fully equipped to ask the questions they want asked of the Prime Minister. The fact that the Prime Minister has chosen Wednesdays means the other parties do not want to let us ask a question. That cannot stand. That is not fair. That violates our rules and traditions.

Of course, we know the direction this will go in terms of tradition. Ultimately, some future prime minister will say that the prime minister only shows up on Wednesdays and everybody knows that; the prime minister only answers questions on Wednesdays and everybody knows that.

We need to draw a line here and say that question period is part of our fundamental rights. It is part of the privileges we have as members of Parliament in defending the interests of our constituents and holding the government to account. This is something on which we cannot be fuzzy. We cannot say it is like this for now or it is just a scheduling issue.
I ask you, Madam Speaker, as well as all the Speakers, deputies and their legal advisers, to state very clearly for the record that independent members of Parliament are equal to any other member of Parliament and members of non-recognized parties, like the Green Party of Canada. What goes around comes around. It may be that the New Democrats will be back in this category someday, and the Conservatives could even be back in this category someday. I ask that they defend our rights now. They will be others’ rights in the future.