Elizabeth May: Mr. Speaker, I am grateful to the hon. House Leader of the Official Opposition for raising this point of order yesterday, objecting to the unusual procedures that were accepted within the Standing Committee on Finance, in relation to the clause-by-clause treatment of Bill C-60, the 2013 omnibus budget bill.
Prior to his point of order, I was struggling with a dilemma: I was certain there was an effort to undermine my rights as an individual member of Parliament and yet there had been no formal challenge. I was not sure how to approach this, Mr. Speaker, and to put before you the ways in which I found that procedure unacceptable. I really very much appreciate that the official opposition saw fit to raise its concerns that those procedures and the procedures adopted–novel procedures, mind you–before the Standing Committee on Finance did not comport to parliamentary rules and practice and went beyond the mandate of the committee.
I agree with all the points made by the hon. House Leader of the Official Opposition and by the member for Winnipeg North, on behalf of the Liberal Party.
Before getting down to the particulars of the current situation, I wish to review some fundamental principles related to the matter before you, Mr. Speaker.
In essence, what you are asked to adjudicate here is an effort by a powerful government party with the majority of seats in this place to eliminate what few rights exist to influence legislation in the hands of only eight members of Parliament belonging to two recognized national parties, myself, on behalf of the Green Party, and members here for the Bloc Québécois, plus two members currently sitting as independents.
Within this group, the government party’s efforts are aimed only at the Green Party and the Bloc Québécois. We are the only members to have submitted amendments at report stage in the 41st Parliament.
The appropriate balance between the majority and the minority in proceedings of the House is, as Speaker Milliken noted, a fundamental issue.
Mr. Speaker, I am going to be providing the written copy of this presentation to you so that I will not have to read out loud all the citations.
The following passage is very apt. Although Speaker Milliken was dealing with a situation with a minority Parliament, the issues before him of balancing the rights of the minority and the majority are the same. I quote from Speaker Milliken’s ruling of March 29, 2007:
At the present time, the chair occupants, like our counterparts in House committees, daily face the challenge of dealing with the pressures of a minority government, but neither the political realities of the moment nor the sheer force of numbers should force us to set aside the values inherent in the parliamentary conventions and procedures by which we govern our deliberations.
Unlike the situation faced by committee chairs, a Speaker’s decision is not subject to appeal. All the more reason then for the Chair to exercise its awesome responsibility carefully and to ensure that the House does not, in the heat of the moment, veer dangerously off course.
The Speaker must remain ever mindful of the first principles of our great parliamentary tradition, principles best described by John George Bourinot, Clerk of this House from 1890 to 1902, who described these principles thus:
To protect the minority and restrain the improvidence and tyranny of the majority, to secure the transaction of public business in a decent and orderly manner, to enable every member to express his opinions within those limits necessary to preserve decorum and prevent an unnecessary waste of time, to give full opportunity for the consideration of every measure, and to prevent any legislative action being taken heedlessly and upon sudden impulse.
As I noted yesterday, in particular, in your ruling related to the member for Langley’s question of privilege, you said:
…[an] unquestionable duty of the Speaker [is] to act as the guardian of the rights and privileges of members and of the House as an institution.
And you cited, with approval, these words from former speaker Fraser:
…we are a parliamentary democracy, not a so-called executive democracy, nor a so-called administrative democracy.
The last quote is from your ruling of December 12, 2012, which bears directly on the matter at hand. In that ruling, Mr. Speaker, you dealt with an objection raised by the hon. Leader of the Government in the House of Commons to, inter alia, my presentation of amendments at report stage. The hon. government House leader presented a proposal that all my amendments at report stage should be grouped and one motion selected as a “test motion”, and only if the test motion was adopted would any of the other amendments be put to the House.
Your ruling was clear, Mr. Speaker. You cited House of Commons Procedure and Practice at page 250, which states:
[I]t remains true that parliamentary procedure is intended to ensure that there is a balance between the government’s need to get its business through the House, and the opposition’s responsibility to debate that business without completely immobilizing the proceedings of the House.
And you added:
The underlying principles these citations express are the cornerstones of our parliamentary system. They enshrine the ancient democratic tradition of allowing the minority to voice its views and opinions in the public square and, in counterpoint, of allowing the majority to put its legislative program before Parliament and have it voted upon.
You ruled then, Mr. Speaker, that my amendments at report stage on Bill C-45 could stand and be put to a vote in the House. You also set out some circumstances that would provide a potential procedure to provide me and other members in my position with a fair and satisfactory alternative to amendments at report stage.
In my view, the government House leader is now attempting to do indirectly that which he could not do directly. It puts me in mind of the finding of Mr. Justice Dickson in that landmark Supreme Court case of Amax Potash, in which Mr. Dickson said:
To allow moneys collected under compulsion, pursuant to an ultra vires statute, to be retained would be tantamount to allowing the provincial Legislature to do indirectly what it could not do directly, and by covert means to impose illegal burdens.
I again underline that as the hon. House Leader of the Official Opposition has put before us, the actions of the finance committee were ultra vires, and the whole effort here is to do indirectly what it could not do directly. I am speaking of the Conservative Party’s efforts to suppress the rights of minority members.
It offends principles of fairness to use the superior clout and power of a majority government to crush the few procedures found within our rules and traditions to which I, as an individual member, have a right to recourse. It is clear that the effort being made by the finance committee on Bill C-60 is a continuation of the strategy-by-stealth of the government House leader’s to foreclose the democratic rights of members, which was attempted in November of last year.
For the remainder of my argument, I would like to canvass two areas of facts that are relevant to the specifics of the question before you, Mr. Speaker. First, was the procedure adopted by the finance committee in conformity with your ruling of December 12, 2012? Second, have the amendments I have put forward in the 41st Parliament offended the rules by failing the tests of “repetition, frivolity, vexatiousness and unnecessary prolongation of report stage”?
Dealing with the second point first, I have moved amendments at report stage on the following bills, and I will state how many amendments per bill: Bill C-10, 36 amendments; Bill C-11, 11 amendments; Bill C-13, one amendment; Bill C-18, three amendments; Bill C-19, three amendments; Bill C-31, 23 amendments; Bill C-316, five amendments; Bill C-38, 320 amendments; Bill C-37, one amendment; Bill C-43, 21 amendments; and Bill C-45, 82 amendments.
What is immediately obvious is that the number of my amendments was directly proportionate to the legislation proposed by the government. Only on the two omnibus budget bills, Bill C-45 and Bill C-38, and the omnibus crime bill, Bill C-10, did I propose a relatively large number of amendments. There were many amendments, because the omnibus bills involved changes to multiple laws in a dramatic and transformative fashion. The amendments I proposed were all serious; none were frivolous. They were not of the kind, for example, put forward by the opposition of the day on the Nisga’a treaty, in which multiple amendments were mere changes of punctuation with the goal being slowing passage of the Nisga’a treaty.
The amendments I have put forward have even gained favourable commentary from some government members. On Bill C-31, the hon. Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism said, “I appreciate the member’s evident concern”, speaking of me as the member for Saanich—Gulf Islands, “and the fact that she takes the deliberative legislative process very seriously”.
On Bill C-11, the copyright modernization act, the hon. Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages said, “I compliment her for her substantive approach to this legislation”.
On Bill C-43, the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism stated:
I commend the hon. member for Saanich—Gulf Islands for her constant due diligence. I know it is a particular challenge to effectively be an independent member and yet participate in an informed way in debates on virtually all bills in the House. We all admire her for that even if I do not agree with the substance of her intervention here.
In summary, the amendments I have put forward in the 41st Parliament have never been frivolous. Were they designed to slow passage? Not at all. Even on the day we began the marathon session of votes on the amendments to Bill C-38, I approached the Prime Minister personally and asked if any compromise were possible. I told him I would be at his disposal, that if one or two amendments might pass, perhaps the rest could be withdrawn, and that I was open to suggestion.
My goal throughout was serious and grounded in principle. My constituents care about these issues and these bills. I am working tirelessly in their interest. I have never engaged in preparing and presenting amendments for the sake of, as the government House leader has suggested, political games or delay for the sake of delay.
Having worked in the Mulroney government and in public policy work in Ottawa dealing with federal governments, federal ministers and federal laws since 1978, I have personal experience with what used to be the normal approach to legislating in the Parliament of Canada. This particular administration is the only one in our history to enforce rigid discipline on its members in legislative committees. It is the first administration in Canadian history to resist any changes in its legislative proposals from first reading to royal assent. Even the errors that are discovered prior to passage are protected from amendment until subsequent bills correct earlier drafting errors.
Worsening this abuse of democratic process, virtually every bill in the 41st Parliament has been subject to time allocation. If time allocation were not applied, in the normal round of debates, eventually members in my situation, who are seen as independent for my rights and privileges, although I sit here as a Green Party member, would be recognized and would participate in the debates. However, due to time allocation, there is never an opportunity to speak at second reading, report stage or third reading. With time allocation, there is never an opportunity for members in my position to make a speech unless another party cedes a speaking slot.
As a matter of practical reality, the only way to have a speaking opportunity in such time-constrained circumstances is to have amendments tabled at report stage. This approach of the current Conservative administration of rejecting any and all amendments, while simultaneously abbreviating debate opportunities, is a perversion of Westminster parliamentary tradition. It is a new and hyper-partisan approach to the legislative process.
As a member of Parliament, I believe it is my duty to work to resist this new, contemptuous approach to legislating. The ability to table amendments at report stage and to offer the entire House an opportunity to improve bills before third reading is even more critical when the legislative committee process has ceased to function as it did in all the time of all the speakers before you.
Now I turn to the question, Mr. Speaker, of how the finance committee applied the suggestions contained in your ruling of December 12, 2012. I note that the chair of the finance committee is never anything but personally fair, and I mean nothing personal against all members of the finance committee. I assume that this entire stratagem emerged elsewhere than from the members of the finance committee themselves.
I note that you suggested, Mr. Speaker, that there are “opportunities and mechanisms that are at the House’s disposal to resolve these issues to the satisfaction of all members” in a “manner that would balance the rights of all members” and that “…members need only to remember that there are several precedents where independent members were made members of standing committees”. Those are all quotes from your ruling in December.
Finally, you suggested this:
Were a satisfactory mechanism found that would afford independent members an opportunity to move motions to move bills in committee, the Chair has no doubt that its report stage selection process would adapt to the new reality.
From these comments it is clear that your direction suggests that an effort might be made to engage members with rights of independents to enter into a discussion about how arrangements could be reached that would be, in fact, satisfactory. To be “to the satisfaction of all members”, your ruling implicitly requires that the suggested opportunities and mechanisms be discussed and accepted by all concerned. Further, you suggested that temporary membership was possible and that members should be able to “move motions”.
None of that occurred. I am attaching a written copy of all the correspondence between me and the chair of the Standing Committee on Finance, which I will provide to the table. As you will see, there was no discussion or offer of co-operation. The “invitation” contained in a letter of May 7, 2013 left no room for discussion. The attached motion of the committee was supported only by the Conservative members of the finance committee but not by the official opposition or the Liberal Party members.
The letter, and particularly the motion itself, had the tone of a unilateral ultimatum. My response was to ask for temporary committee membership for the duration of clause-by-clause review. This request was rejected in the letter of May 24, 2013.
As the various sections of Bill C-60 had been distributed among several committees, I attempted to attend all the hearings relative to my amendments. However, committees were meeting at the same time in different locations throughout the parliamentary precinct making it impossible to get to each one of them. I did attend meetings of the industry, finance and the foreign affairs committees prior to clause-by-clause. I asked for permission to ask witnesses questions and was denied in the finance and foreign affairs committees. I was allowed a three-minute opportunity to pose questions in the industry committee. To be blunt, my opportunities were not close to equivalent to the members of those committees.
On Monday, May 27, 2013 as requested by the finance committee, I complied with the committee and attempted to co-operate. I submitted my amendments and attended clause-by-clause throughout the meeting of the committee on Tuesday, May 28. I asked for time to present my amendments. There were 11 in total. I was given half as much time as my colleague from the Bloc Québécois. I was allowed one minute per amendment. He was allowed two minutes per amendment. I have attached copies of the Hansard from all of these discussions to abbreviate the recitation of the facts.
I prefaced my presentation of amendments with a statement that I had not asked for this opportunity nor invitation and that while I was attempting to co-operate, it was without prejudice to my rights to submit amendments at report stage. Each time I was given the floor for 60 seconds, I repeated that my participation was without prejudice to my rights to present amendments at report stage, when I had the right to move my own amendments, speak to my own amendments, and answer questions about my amendments. At report stage, I have the right to vote on my amendments.
I also supported the point made by the hon. member for Parkdale—High Park that inviting independent members to committee, in her words, “does not conform with parliamentary procedure in that only the House of Commons can appoint committee members”.
I noted that I did not have an equal opportunity to present my amendments. This observation was compounded as we went through clause-by-clause.
On two occasions, members of the committee suggested amendments to my amendments. I was not allowed to comment on those suggestions. On one occasion, a member of the government benches disagreed with a point I made, but I was not allowed to reply. On another occasion, the NDP members misunderstood the impact of my amendment, but I was not allowed to explain. I was not allowed to move my amendments. The motions were deemed moved. I was not allowed to vote on my amendments. As noted, I was not allowed even the ability to participate in discussions about my amendments.
There is no way the word “satisfactory” can be so twisted of meaning as to apply to the set of circumstances to which I was required to submit. It is a principle of fairness and natural justice that an opportunity that cannot be used is no opportunity at all.
When one considers the circumstances in which speakers have ruled that members did not have an adequate opportunity to submit their amendments, it is clear that this imposed process before the Standing Committee on Finance falls far short of the mark.
For example, in 2001, Speaker Milliken ruled that where a member was on two committees and had difficulty getting to the meeting, he could move amendments at report stage. Speaker Milliken wrote that:
…because…the member maintains that he sits on two committees, both of which were seized with bills at the same time, and therefore had difficulty in moving his amendments, the Chair will give the benefit of the doubt to the member on this occasion.
In a situation where a member of a recognized parliamentary party attended the clause-by-clause consideration at the committee but was not an official member of the committee, Speaker Milliken allowed that member’s amendments to be presented at report stage. He noted:
Of course, the Chair recognizes that our parliamentary system is party driven and the positions of the parties are brought forward to committees through its officially designated members. The Chair also recognizes that some members may want to act on their own.
Underscoring this, what an example: a member of a recognized party with rights to participate in standing committees chose to be in the meetings, in clause-by-clause, and could have handed that member’s amendments to another member of his party and ask that they be submitted, but the Speaker of the House supported the right of that member to amendments at report stage because he was not a committee member. I was a long, long way from the rights of that member of a recognized political party sitting in that committee back in 2003 when Speaker Milliken allowed that member’s amendments at report stage.
The right of a member to actually move the amendments at committee cannot be perverted through the expedient measure, imposed by a majority party, of demanding all amendments of an independent member be submitted, denying that member the right to move the amendment, speak to the amendment, other than in an inadequate perfunctory fashion, debate or defend the amendment, giving that member no opportunity to speak to other amendments and denying the member any chance to vote on his or her motion.
There may well be some way to accommodate members of Parliament in my position, but clearly, this experiment on Bill C-60 at clause-by-clause consideration in the finance committee was not acceptable. To accept it now, and disallow rights of members of Parliament in the position of independents to submit amendments at report stage, will be to create a precedent that fundamentally abuses our foundational principles of Westminster parliamentary democracy.
Mr. Speaker, I urge you to find in favour of the point of order put forward by the hon. House leader for the official opposition and to set aside the treatment of me and the member from the Bloc Québécois and allow us to submit amendments, move amendments, debate our amendments and vote on them on Bill C-60 at report stage.