Canadians deserve a Parliament where respect and efficiency reign

Elizabeth May (Saanich—Gulf Islands)
2021-02-01 17:48 [p.3853]

Madam Speaker, it is an honour to take the floor today to speak to many issues that I am very passionate about. As the hon. member for Coast of Bays—Central—Notre Dame mentioned earlier, we are on something called a democracy caucus and there are a number of us who are very passionate, including the member for Elmwood—Transcona, among others, and we want to see our rules reflect what Canadians most want.

I believe that Canadians most want a Parliament where we show respect for each other, as we do in real life when we are not fomenting a lot of rage for the cameras. I thank the hon. member for Sarnia—Lambton for her role as being the most congenial over and over again. I think, as a group, we are actually quite congenial, and I think Canadians would like to see more of that.
I reflect very much on the reality of our principles. Westminster parliamentary democracy is based on the principle that all members of Parliament are equal. Each of us equal to the other, and the Prime Minister is merely first among equals. I set those principles against a finding within a 2008 report from Queen’s University in Kingston, the Centre for the Study of Democracy and Diversity, which concluded that our Parliament has become “executive-centred, party-dominated and adversarial”. I do not think that is what Canadians want, and it is not our parliamentary tradition. It comes from a number of trends which are disturbing. Our Standing Orders can be used to reverse those trends.

First, I want to focus on a couple of the big issues. Then I hope I will have enough time to get to some of the other ones. The first big issue before us is that we are speaking on Zoom. Who would have thought it a year ago? Our Parliament is assembling virtually and our speaker is in the chair wearing her mask. These are all new innovations in response to a pandemic.
I would like to propose that, when our recommendations from today’s debate go to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, it give serious consideration to creating a set of Standing Orders for use in public health emergencies. Whether it is a pandemic, or some other event that prevents us from meeting in person, we would be able to meet virtually. We should preserve the Standing Orders that work best through this period and continue to use them.

In relation to distance voting, we should not have distance voting except under particular circumstances. I say this because I have seen too often colleagues who have come literally from their deathbeds to a vote in the House. I know some members have suggested vote pairing would do it. That would not have worked in the case of the late hon. member for Ottawa—Vanier, Mauril Bélanger. If he had not personally come into the House in order to vote, his private member’s bill would have died because of procedural shenanigans.

I think of the Conservative member from Orléans, the late Royal Galipeau. In specific circumstances, very narrowly related to people dealing with an illness that requires them to be hospitalized, at their option, members should be able to vote virtually. Otherwise, we should be in Parliament. Whether we do electronic voting from our desks to speed things up, which is a possibility the hon. member for Yukon has proposed and so has the member for Sarnia—Lambton, I do not think it should be normal that we vote at distance. Being together in the House really matters to the business of democracy. It definitely helps us to be more collegial when we can have hallway conversations and are not just chatting over Zoom.

The second big change in our Standing Orders that I would like to see, and it is a strong concern of the hon. member for Elmwood—Transcona, is the question of the confidence convention, or when we prorogue and when the House is able to end. We ought to look at the advice from two strong political scientists in this country, Professor Hugo Cyr from Montreal and Professor Emeritus Peter Russell from the University of Toronto. Both have forcefully suggested to the House on different occasions that no Prime Minister should be able to go to the Governor General to ask to dissolve the House without first obtaining approval from the House of Commons by a vote of the House.

As well, there is something that I hope that the procedure and House affairs will look into, which is called the constructive non-confidence vote. It has been advanced by both Professor Hugo Cyr and Professor Peter Russell. This would allow us, as is possible in Germany, Spain and Sweden, for example, to actually put forward a government as defeated, but with a government to put in its place, so that every confidence vote that is lost does not lead automatically to an election. An election is avoided if a combination of parties in the House can put together a functional government in the view of a governor general.

Some issues relating to decorum and respect for each other in the House do not require changing Standing Orders. I just want to flag that some of the issues we have discussed today are actually amenable to being resolved without changing the Standing Orders.

Our Standing Orders still say that no member of Parliament can read a speech. Regarding canned speeches, presenting a 10-minute speech with five minutes of questions and answers does not really allow us to engage in debate with each other. If, as some members have agreed, we should be able to speak from a handful of notes but not a prepared speech word for word, it would engage members in discussion.

It would also keep the list of speakers available to speak to legislation, about which we may all be in violent agreement, to a very low number. If a party backroom could not decide, it could put up an endless number of speeches and keep the government off balance, not telling the government how much time it would need for them.

Another area that does not require a change in the Standing Orders is a practice in Canada that is unique among all the Commonwealth nations that use the system of Westminster parliamentary democracy, in which the Speaker surrenders his or her ability to choose who speaks next during Question Period to the party whip. It has an interesting history that goes back to former Speaker Jeanne Sauvé saying she had trouble seeing people at the end of the Chamber.

The balance of power in that situation shifts from members of Parliament wanting to make the Speaker pleased with how they behave in the House to making their party whip pleased with how they behave in the House. This tends to increase partisanship, increase party control and reduce decorum.

A very good point made by a number of members, including the member for Calgary Rocky Ridge, is that we should look at what is done in the U.K. Parliament, in London, where a member can cede the floor to another member who is rising. This is a really good practice, but it would not work under our current Standing Orders. We would have to change the Standing Orders to make this work. Right now nobody can speak unless our Speaker calls the hon. member for a named riding.

In Parliament at Westminster, the Speaker decides who asks questions of the Prime Minister through letters that are sent to the Speaker’s office. Once the Speaker has given the floor to an hon. member, and I will use the example of the member for Brighton Pavilion because she is the only Green Party member, that speaker then has 20 minutes, or however long, to speak. Within that period of time, she can yield the floor to someone else who is rising. The Speaker in the Chamber can be chatting with someone else off to the side, because the time is allotted to that speaker. I have observed this.

They are engaged in discussion and debate, and because they are not using canned speeches, as the reading of speeches is prohibited in the U.K. Parliament, quite often they cede the floor to a friendly questioner, or an unfriendly questioner. It gives the speaker a chance to have a sip of water. The discussion is interesting, it is engaging, and the citizens of the U.K. get to experience a more engaged, informed and interesting parliamentary exchange than what we have with canned speeches and the inability to yield the floor to anyone until our time is up.

I have raised a lot of other concerns briefly today in the House. It is an unanswerable question. How do we organize ourselves in a country as vast as Canada? Some of us, such as the hon. member for Yukon, have the world’s worst schedule. Full praise to the member. I have at least two flights, and when we are not holding virtual sittings because of COVID, I am travelling back and forth every week. I live in a state of perpetual exhaustion and jet lag.

How do we fix this so that those people who have young children can be home with their children? Can we reduce greenhouse gases? We have saved the people of Canada millions of dollars this year by working on Zoom. Can we figure out a way to change our schedule to better accommodate our carbon footprint and the livability of the schedules of MPs who also have families?
With that, I look forward to questions.