Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs

Nathan Cullen: Yes, “the artist formerly known”….

I would say that we need to allow them at least some interjections today to make a case to committee members, because this affects them, particularly Ms. May, who has been able to apply the tactic of using amendments to bills at the final stages of their hearings. That’s who we’re talking about. If committee members could see it in that light, Chair…?

Those are the two things I wanted to speak to specifically. One is that I think we can have a two-track process that respects things, but the House has heard it from the Speaker. Regardless of what Mr. Bezan’s lawyers think timing-wise, I think we can do something with this, certainly with the clerk as an initial witness, to hear what this means and what precedents we have and whatnot, and also allow Mr. Bezan to make his case if he feels that…. And we can also allow Ms. May to speak to this particular motion, which deals primarily with her.

Thank you.

The Vice-Chair: We’re going to go to Peter, then David, who is on the list, and then we have a request from Elizabeth. At that point, we’ll ask for the leave.

The Vice-Chair: I actually have Tom, then it is Elizabeth.

Tom, if you want to respond, then I’m going to be asking for leave for…. Did you want Elizabeth to go before you?

It doesn’t really matter. I want to go in order. I thought Elizabeth might have been before me, but if I’m—

The Vice-Chair: That’s what I thought, but it was written down differently so I’m going by what I see in print. Why don’t I simply ask the question. Is there leave to allow Ms. May to be able to present to the committee?

Tom Lukiwski: Sure.

Some hon. members: Agreed.

The Vice-Chair: For both members?

Some hon. members: Agreed.

The Vice-Chair: Go ahead, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth May: Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Thank you, members of the committee, for allowing me to speak to this, because it bears directly on my rights.

I want to start by saying that I’m going to use some forceful language, but I want to make it clear that I’m speaking to the system that would allow this to happen and not to any of you as individuals. You’re my friends, and this is not personal.

What’s taking place here is essentially an attempt at parliamentary vandalism. The writing of laws and legislation usually goes through a long process when we’re making a change to the rules. This is a backdoor mechanism. It’s only a fiction that this is Scott’s motion coming to this committee, because the identical motion came from Andrew Saxton at the finance committee, and there was a motion earlier today at the ethics committee. I imagine all committees are going to be asked by the PMO to put forward identical motions that fundamentally change the way legislation moves through the House but without the usual practice and study that take place. On behalf of a number of independent members of Parliament and me as a Green Party member of Parliament, I’ve shared with you a longer letter. I’m obviously not going to recapitulate those arguments, but they go to the fundamental principle of the following.

All members of Parliament in this place are equal, and we were functionally equal until 1963 when the organized political parties managed to get through a change to the rules that said that if you were in a party with more than 12 MPs you were going to get more financial resources. Over time that’s been expanded to include rights. Although it wasn’t actually written in the 1963 motion, I accept that it’s been expanded. I’m not trying to overturn the notion that until you have 12 MPs in your party you don’t get a seat at committee and you’re not going to get a daily question in question period. That’s all sort of latched on through incremental changes that came along with financial resources for parties with more than 12 MPs. But this is the first time that any motion, either through the front door or the back door, has attempted to reduce the limited remaining rights of people in parties such as my own and the Bloc Québécois with fewer than 12 members or of independent members who don’t represent a party at all. In constitutional terms we’re still all equal. In constitutional terms our constituents are all equal and deserve equal representation.

The second point I want to make briefly is that it is completely not equal, equivalent or fair to say, “oh well, we had rights to present amendments at report stage in the House and now those rights have been shifted to committee”. In the House, the only way I am ever able to speak to a bill in any substantive way other than through repeat interventions from questions and comments, and the only way I ever get 10 minutes to speak to a bill in the House, particularly with time allocation, is if substantive amendments have been accepted by the Speaker at report stage.

The only way to actually explain my amendments in any significant and real way is in those moments on the floor at report stage. It is not equal or equivalent to have motions deemed to have been moved, to allow members in my position a minute to speak to an amendment, but to prevent them from responding to misunderstandings of it from other members. I could not even respond when a member of the finance committee suggested a friendly amendment and asked me, “Is that friendly?” I wasn’t allowed to answer. That happened last spring in the finance committee, the environment committee, natural resources committee, and justice committee. They all did the same thing. They allowed me to present an amendment for one minute but not to respond to it. That opportunity is not equivalent or equal to what’s being taken away at the report stage in the House. This is subterfuge. This is an offence to individual members of Parliament and to the institution of Parliament itself, and because I believe you to be really good people over there, I would like to ask you respectfully to withdraw this motion. You don’t have a bill before this committee right now. There is no urgency to pass this motion.

As the members of the official opposition have made very clear this morning, this committee has important work to do and this motion is in the way. Rather than push it through…. Although “might makes right” and you have all the votes, in this instance you’re stomping on the rights of individual members of Parliament. I know that as individual members yourselves, you don’t want to do that. Please withdraw this motion and don’t put it to a vote today.

Thank you.

The Vice-Chair: Jean-François.

Jean-François Fortin: Thank you very much.

I would like to add to the comments of my colleague, Ms. May. In fact, this motion deprives us of a fundamental right, the right to submit amendments to the House of Commons. We understand the decision of the Speaker of the House to ask the committees to find a way so that we can play our role there. However, we think the wording of the motion prevents us from attaining the objectives the Speaker had in mind when he made his decision.

Like Ms. May, I do not think it is urgent that we pass this motion today; rather, it would be more appropriate for the committee to consider it in an organized way. What I mean by that is that we should introduce a process to conduct a study on the rights of independent members of Parliament and on the role we must give members of non-recognized parties; in other words, parties that do not meet the criteria, for example, having at least 12 members. The same goes for the members who have been expelled from caucus or who have been elected as independent MPs. So it would be appropriate to set up a process to study the rights of independent members and draw from other Westminster-style Parliaments that, like us, have thought about the role that MPs who are not caucus members or who are not considered independent must play.

For example, other places in the world with the same political system and the same parliamentary process as us, as well as legislative assemblies across Canada, have managed to make a place for independent members. We can look to the Quebec National Assembly, for example, which gave members the right to sit in a parliamentary committee. Not only does that include the right to suggest amendments, but also the right to explain them, argue and put questions to witnesses, whose answers may have some bearing on the proposed amendments.

This motion quickly rushes out the back door the prerogative of MPs to properly represent their constituents, not only in the House of Commons, but also using all the existing mechanisms in committees. We must be given the chance to fully represent our constituents.

The motion as worded proposes, among other things, that we make brief observations to support our amendments. It does not allow us to conclude that the rights of independent members or members from non-recognized parties would be preserved. According to the Bloc Québécois, serious harm will occur if this motion is passed as worded today.

I invite you to take the time to think about it. You have the means to put in place a thought process that is much more comprehensive and goes much further for society and for the Canadians we represent.

Thank you.

The Vice-Chair: Thank you.

We go to Tom, followed by Nathan.

Tom Lukiwski: Then it may be followed by Tom again.

Some hon. members: Oh, oh!

The Vice-Chair: Quite possibly.

Tom Lukiwski: We’re eventually going to be talking in circles here, so I won’t take up too much time to rebut what both Jean-François and Elizabeth May said. Suffice it to say that we’re going to agree to disagree. I don’t think we’re going to be getting anything resolved by debating back and forth, whether we’re right, they’re right, or somewhere in between. Suffice it to say that the government’s position is that we will not reject the motion, we will not remove the motion. We feel that it’s legitimate and that it’s fair, frankly.

I would also point out that when we first introduced the motion, David, who spoke on behalf of the NDP, said, “Yes, I thought the motion was good; we’re actually giving something to the members that they hadn’t already had.”

David Christopherson: Now, I’ve given clarification as to what it really was. Come on, Tom.

Tom Lukiwski: It’s true: you cannot deny the fact that they will be receiving something they didn’t have before, and that is the ability to go to committee to make amendments. I’ll leave it at that.

With respect to a couple of other points made, specifically David’s, who said he was glad to hear that I had agreed to the two-track process, I hadn’t. I will still be arguing the sub judice convention, certainly. I take full well the fact that the Speaker has found a prima facie case. I respect that, but I also realize that committees are the masters of their own agenda, their own fate, and their own schedule, and we can determine exactly when we begin that. I just firmly believe that anything….

That’s why the sub judice convention has been recognized. That’s why it has been diligently observed every time there is an occasion when comments made, whether in the House or in committee, could be prejudicial to an ongoing court case. We have respected that as parliamentarians. We have respected not going down that road. I think we have to continue to do that.

We can still get to it, but there is an ongoing court case right now, and we have a conflict with things that may be said in this committee that could ultimately be proven prejudicial to the court proceedings. Whether they be prejudicial to Mr. Bezan or to Elections Canada, it matters not. The fact is that quite clearly the convention is put there to prevent this type of prejudicial comment from being made by parliamentarians under our privilege and under the immunity provided to us, both in committee and in the House. I don’t think we can go down that road in a track parallel to the study on MP transparency. I will argue that in far more detail if need be.

With respect to going back to the study on MP transparency, listen, I share the views of everyone here that we need to get some resolution of that. However, I do take some offence, frankly, to the characterization by the NDP that it seems they are the only ones—or they’re at least trying to imply that they are the only ones—really wanting to get this done because they’re truly the ones wanting to make sure that we shine the light on MP expenses. I would point out, as I’ve done before, as has Kevin, that if they were truly, truly wanting to shed light on MP transparency, they would follow the lead that both the Liberals and our party have done—

An hon. member: You haven’t done anything.

Tom Lukiwski: —by already committing to voluntarily post expenses online. That’s something we’ve done.

We would like to see a system put in place—and I think the Board of Internal Economy has started to get something that we might be able to agree upon—that all parties can utilize so there is consistency in reporting. That’s great, but in the interim, since the Board of Internal Economy is saying that they won’t have their system ready until next April, we’re voluntarily posting our expenses, as are the Liberals. The NDP have not agreed to do so. So let’s be very cautious about the characterization that there is only one party that is really concerned about this. We are, because we’re doing it. I have not seen the NDP agree to this. I don’t know why.

Peter Julian: You’ve done zero. You’ve done less than zero.

Tom Lukiwski: Well, Peter, you can have your words, but words are far weaker than actions. The NDP is the only registered, recognized party that is not posting expenses. I believe Elizabeth is already and has been for some time—

Elizabeth May: I scan all my expense receipts.

Tom Lukiwski: —but I leave it to the public to determine who is really serious about showing the expenses of their members.

With that, Chair, I’ll leave and let Nathan speak—except that I would like, as I mentioned earlier, for us to dispense by way of a vote with Mr. Reid’s motion and then hopefully move on to Madam Turmel’s motion.

The last word on that is that there’s some criticism that we brought this motion of Scott’s forward in an inappropriate manner. I would point out that Madam Turmel also has given a motion in the same fashion we presented ours and we will be debating that, so I don’t think there’s anything wrong with what we did. Nor do I think there’s anything wrong with Madam Turmel putting her motion forward for debate.

Thank you, Chair.

The Vice-Chair: Nathan.

Nathan Cullen: As this debate is petering out, I appreciate first of all the words of my two colleagues down the way, speaking on behalf of rights they’re being told they’re now given excellent privilege to, and that in disagreeing there’s a smack of paternalism in this. I have three-year-old boys, and sometimes when I tell them to do something that I know is good for them, they may disagree. But from one member of Parliament to another, to tell an MP what’s good for them and not listen to what they’re actually saying, that speaks of a certain hubris and of the actual intention—the inconvenience of democracy from time to time, which disturbs the Conservatives and their backsides when we have to sit through a number of hours of votes.

I wonder what Elsie Wayne and Jean Charest would say about this, when they were thrust into the independent role and suddenly found themselves on the other side. Everything comes full circle in Parliament. It’s a funny thing in politics sometimes: you think you’re taking such great advantage of your situation and only find out later that you hurt yourself deeply.

With respect to the two tracks and the sub judice convention, I heard two things very specifically from Tom. It is going to be difficult for him now to argue a position that he won’t be able to maintain. The one thing is respect for the Speaker’s ruling. I believe him; we all respect the Speaker’s ruling with respect to Mr. Bezan. The question is whether we can at least begin to have some sort of conversation about that serious ruling coming from the Speaker.

The second thing, which now runs counter to Tom’s own argument, is that sub judice was refuted by the Speaker. That argument didn’t hold weight for the Speaker in his ruling. The fact that this is before the courts did not stop him from finding a prima facie case of privilege. Sending that privilege to this committee to deal with doesn’t hold. You can’t have it both ways: you can’t respect the Speaker’s ruling and then ignore the Speaker’s ruling.

So when we set out to say that we can have at least some initial hearings with witnesses who are already going to be in front of us, Chair, it doesn’t cause any inconvenience for the witnesses or the members. It certainly allows Mr. Bezan and others to make the case with respect to a serious matter, which is whether he should be standing in the House of Commons and voting.

That is what the Speaker ruled on, and he had no qualms, although he mentioned it, about the fact that it is before a court. If he had serious concerns about this sub judice protocol that we have in Parliament, then he would have said so. He would have asked for a delay. He would have suggested that the courts needed to deal with the matter first before Parliament could. He did not say that; he said the opposite. He said that of course we can do this, and while it may be convention, there are times when members’ privileges are in question that cannot wait on a court and a judge to decide whether those things are important or not.

To my friend across the way and his sincere belief that the Speaker should be respected, let’s respect the Speaker and the ruling, the very wise ruling, that he made. Sub judice does not and should prevent us from looking into this matter. If that is the argument being used, one can only suspect there is some other reason. That is where we get into hot water. Exactly.

Finally, Mr. Chair, because we’ve spent perhaps more time on this today than we planned to, I think the suggestion by Madam May and Monsieur Fortin was meant in sincerity to the government. The fact that it has been so casually dismissed is interesting.

I can only say to my friends across the way that what goes around comes around. All of these shortcuts that they’ve been taking around democratic inconveniences over the last number of years seem to be coming home, gentlemen. It seems to me that the news of the day should remind us of that fact that cutting corners on democracy and pretending that promises made are no longer promises made—with nominating unelected senators, with going back on your word, with finding that the debate and the to and fro in Parliament, which I believe to be a healthy thing, are somehow against the will of the almighty Prime Minister—seems to have caught back up.

Here we are at another committee, trying to allow Independents to have their independent voice and one of the few privileges that a member from a non-recognized party has. They don’t have many. New Democrats have been there. Conservatives have been there. Anybody in those mini-caucuses will know that there’s a great disadvantage in not being in an officially recognized party. It’s not just during question period and in terms of staffing and resources; there are many others, and lots of them. This was one of them.

It was used to some great effect to show that the omnibus legislation the government was ramming through undemocratically—oh, is there a pattern here that I detect?—was flawed and should be considered in its parts. Oh, lo and behold, they made mistakes with the EI system. They made mistakes with the environmental assessment system, some of them knowingly and some of them not. They made bad legislation, and they wanted to make it quickly because it was on their timeline rather on the timeline of the country. What a shame!

An hon. member: And taxation of credit unions.

Nathan Cullen: Oh, right, that was a couple hundred million dollars that hit credit unions across the country. What a great bit of omnibus legislation that was, gentlemen: helping the economy out, creating jobs, taxing credit unions. Well done! Why? Because you don’t listen. My goodness, you’ve been given a sincere argument from Madam May and Monsieur Fortin and from us as well. You’re choosing, obviously, to ignore that argument.

We won’t prolong the conversation any more, because we have another democratic initiative—Madam Turmel’s motion—to get to.

We also have our schedule to set with regard to the study of MPs’ expenses. Before one gets too sanctimonious about the expenses being posted online by my Conservative and Liberal colleagues across the way, you’ll note that the media certainly finds them lacking in detail, and there’s an inconsistency in the fact that they’re voluntary. That’s what the Senate had for goodness’ sake. How about we have a system that actually works consistently for everybody, which we will get to, and we will do properly and it won’t be provocative for a moment and then fail in the end to bring transparency? I’ll ask any of my friends here to show me where the link is on their website, for goodness’ sake. I can’t even find it on the Conservative Party website, but there you have it.

The fact of the matter remains—

Scott Reid: Mr. Chair, on a point of order, I believe I can assist in this matter.

David Christopherson: It’s not a point of order.

Scott Reid: In my case, you can find—

David Christopherson: It’s not a point of order.

Scott Reid: —the information in my annual reports I publish for constituents—

David Christopherson: It is not a point of order.

Scott Reid: —which is in fact on my website. So I think that answers the question for me with regard to what Mr. Cullen was raising.

The Vice-Chair: As was pointed out, I don’t believe it is a point of order. It might be a dispute over the facts.

Scott Reid: He did say, “I invite any of you”, and I was trying to comply with that.

Nathan Cullen: No, I think Mr. Reid’s point bolsters my argument. Having five Conservatives out of 168 actually making some attempt to post transparent accounting shows the actual sincerity of their effort.

David Christopherson: Hear, hear!

Nathan Cullen: Maybe Mr. Reid took the comment personally, but he is also a part of his caucus, and his caucus has decided that this is their effort at transparency: five out of 168. I can’t do the math quickly in my head, but it’s not very many.

My point is this. At some point this lesson, this hard lesson, will be learned. I hope my friends enjoy question period this afternoon. I’m sure they will. I’m sure they’ll clap and cheer enthusiastically for their leader, defending him enthusiastically as he changes the story on a daily basis as to what actually happened.

The source of this is consistent. That’s what’s amazing to me. We have another source of it here today, another example of it here today, which is to say if anyone raises a point counter to what the government currently believes on any issue—it doesn’t really matter whether it is within the caucus, between parties, from Canadians, from reporters—the consistent theme, the pattern of language is to deny the conversation that is democratic and, I believe, foundational to this country.

So congratulations. Go win their vote. Make another shortcut around democratic debate, and remember the day when this comes back, because it will. I’ve been here only 10 years, but I’ve seen it enough to know already.

We’ll, of course, have a recorded vote on this, Mr. Chair.

Nathan Cullen: Thank you, Chair.

Thank you, Mr. Reid.

It’s interesting, because he finds himself in the place that we found ourselves with regard to the motion that he moved last week, that is, where there’s now something that he doesn’t feel there’s enough information for him to vote confidently in favour of. When it came around to Ms. May and the independents, the initial suggestion from the government was to vote for or against this, but without any information. So perhaps the tables have turned somewhat. Note the discomfort.

What I am going to suggest, when the chair returns, is this. And I will be seeking this from the government side as well. Mr. Reid, Dave, Tom, and others have suggested some concerns about the way this is constructed. I was going to interject to offer that any committee can choose by a majority vote to move in camera to defend and protect a witness’ privacy and security. That’s what is done. This motion wouldn’t preclude that. That’s an argument that we can make.

But having heard that some municipalities and some provincial legislatures…. I’ve just been handed the standing orders that guide the Quebec legislature on in camera discussions. They have an interesting nuance on this, that:

Any committee may resolve to meet in camera; but no motion to that effect shall be deemed carried unless a majority of the members from each parliamentary group shall have voted in its favour.

That’s an interesting adaptation. In order for a committee to go fully in camera on something that isn’t guided by these types of outlines—security of the person, labour contracts and whatnot, including national security—you’d have to have a majority of the parties represented saying, yes, this is a good thing. We all understand why this has to go in these unique cases that Tom talked about. You can’t foretell everything.

What I would suggest to the committee, to move a friendly amendment to Madame Turmel’s motion, is that there seems to be interest around this idea of having something, because let’s admit it, nothing guides us right now.

Earlier Dave asked for different examples. There was one this past summer dealing with telecommunications companies at the industry committee. The government moved the whole telcos meeting and the resolution in camera, because there was actually some embarrassment about the government’s policy and the effectiveness of the policy on opening up the wireless carriers for Canadians, which hasn’t been working so well.

Regardless, it was a political decision. It had nothing to do with national security, or some witness being exposed to risk on their life, or labour disputes. If he wants an example, we have that, but there are many. In the light of day we can all admit that when majority governments have a moment that’s embarrassing at a committee, they would rather see the embarrassing moment, the vote or whatever happens, go away.

I am going to suggest, and I seek the favour of Madame Turmel on this, that pending the two studies that are immediately placed before us as a committee—one around MPs’ expenses, the urgency of which you’ve all described, and the second on Mr. Bezan’s question of privilege, which we hope to do simultaneously, but we’ll see how the committee study works out—we immediately take witnesses after that.

Perhaps, Madame Turmel, we can even stand this motion, but I will look to have, through the clerk, a supplemental put on this, that the committee design a succinct bit of research on this, not extensive but succinct; come up with some witnesses who would satisfy the concerns of Mr. Reid and Mr. MacKenzie about what the rules might be; and seek, as a committee, to design some rules that guide us on when we go secret and when we go open.

An hon. member: Good idea.

The Vice-Chair: Are you suggesting we table the motion?

Nathan Cullen: It has to be through Madame Turmel. It’s her motion.

We can simply go through with a standing vote. Obviously the government decided before the meeting that they were going to vote against that. That’s fine. The Conservatives have that tendency around these issues lately. So be it.

But if I take Mr. Reid, Mr. Lukiwski, and Mr. MacKenzie at their word, it sounds like there is some openness to this. They have questions. Well, then, let’s explore those questions as a committee. Let’s design something that’s going to work for committees, work for parliamentarians, and work for the government, for goodness’ sake.

But stop what we have right now, which is nothing. We have less than the Senate, gentlemen. I mean, come on. There’s guilt by association. Let’s be better than them, at least—or, oh, my goodness, even move to their standard. It will obviously not be satisfactory to Canadians when they find that out, that committees get rammed in.

The Chair: What time is it?

Elizabeth, I’d have to ask for leave for you to speak.

Is there unanimous support to allow Ms. May to speak?

Elizabeth May: To be very brief, we responded to the letter that the Chair, Joe Preston, sent on the other matter of the ways in which the cluster of nine members of Parliament who fall into the smaller parties or sit as independent MPs would share and rotate the one seat. As we deal with the matters that are within Peter Julian’s motion on the Board of Internal Economy, we’ll be prepared to work with whatever the committee decides. I’m just hoping there isn’t a little bit of a bottleneck there, because we’ve suggested how we think it will work. With all the committee business that you had today, we don’t really know how you think it will work.

Tom Lukiwski: Elizabeth, I’ve taken a brief look at it. At first blush it looks fine. As you know, you and I were very engaged in conversations on this matter last June, so I think we’re fine with it, but I’d like to just give it a good thorough read. We can certainly discuss it at the next meeting, but right now I see no reason to…. I think you’ve articulated it well, the agreement that we had.

Elizabeth May: We will be here on Tuesday morning in that other capacity for participation, and as soon as this committee knows the full number of committee meetings that will deal with that matter, it will be easier for us. As you can imagine, we’re not really all of one mind, although we’re all in the same boat. To sort out which member has the microphone on any given day, we’ve got Bloc, Green, and Independent…. It will help us when we know how many meetings we have so that we can set up a rotation. Otherwise, we can make it up as we go along. We’re in your hands.

The Vice-Chair: The point has been taken. If there’s nothing further—