Mr. Brad Trost:
Mr. Speaker, my motion today is a very simple motion in many ways, but it is also a motion that is very profound. Fundamentally it is about democracy, about changing where we go and how we do. I should make it clear at the beginning of my remarks that my position is not a criticism of any particular committee chair. It is not a criticism of the current system. However, every so often we can look to those things and decide what is good, what is better and what is best. As a wise man once said, our good should be better until our better is best. Let us never rest until our good is better and our better is best.
Politics is a place where reality is not always reality. Often perception is reality. It is important for us in this place, as we deal with all of our institutions, including committees, which is one of our most important institutions, to make sure that both the practice, the perception and the reality all come together to bring an image of democratic accountability in all that we do.
Currently the House procedure for election of committee chairs is an election directly at committee. That has not always been so. In fact, a little over a decade ago it was common and normative for all committee chairs to be appointed. Starting with a debate in the 37th Parliament, and I have probably not located all attempts for reform, motions were moved by opposition members. My understanding is that government members were also interested in doing that. Reports were done at the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs.
One of the best sources for finding information as to what the parliaments of the day were thinking, and their desire to make committees more democratic and responsible, is from one of the supply days. That was moved in 2002, by Mr. Reynolds, then a member of the Canadian Alliance. Interestingly, it was one of those situations where there was a considerable degree of cross-party co-operation. In fact, the NDP, which at that time was one of the minor parties, traded with the Canadian Alliance to move up its supply day and give it support.
Some of the remarks from then on the value of an independent chair are very apropos today. As the then member for Pictou—Antigonish—Guysborough, the now Minister of National Defence said:
|| An independently elected chair...would demystify and give greater credibility to the process. What we are talking about is not the election of opposition members to fill those important positions of chair, but government members.
Then the NDP member for Pallister, Mr. Dick Proctor, said:
|| Frankly we make it far too easy for the media to cover politics in a very partisan fashion. There is the high angle shot which highlights, maybe even exaggerates, the neutral zone between the government side and the opposition side.
This was the sentiment expressed by members from all sides of the House during that day. Growing out of that debate and the discussions around it, we evolved to a place where we now elect committee chairs through our direct votes at committee.
It is interesting that one of the most important things brought about was that we need to have a secret ballot, otherwise, what is the point? However, we only need a secret ballot when there is more than one candidate applying for the post. Again, it is not a criticism of anyone in particular, or a situation, but because of the small size of our committees, five to seven members, it is such a small electoral pool that effectively members feel compelled to only vote for one candidate. In many cases these candidates have been excellent and outstanding personnel, who have served the job well.
Again, to my point, let us strive for what can be better. Let us look to other examples and begin to study what we find is best. I was doing some research on what I was going to move for my private member's motion, and I came across the way the British Parliament has evolved on this issue. The British Parliament has moved from a system where its committee chairs were, first of all, appointed. Eventually, I believe in 1979, it began to have a backbencher's committee to select, through the whips, the prime ministers and leaders, appointments to its chairs, vice-chairs, et cetera, of committees.
Then, in 2009, if memory serves me correctly, the British parliament produced a report calling for changes to the parliamentary system to again enhance and grow the perception and reality of democracy. It came up with a rather interesting and, I think, novel solution that it is now reviewing in a very positive fashion. It is saying that perhaps it should throw open, at the beginning Parliament, to all eligible members, since cabinet members, the Speaker and other members would not be eligible, the opportunity to present themselves to the wider, broader judgment of the House. It did that in a very new fashion, and there are some things that are slightly different in its system, so we cannot bring every idea. It put forward this idea so there would be greater accountability and more interest, power and authority for the committee chairs, a greater sense of independence and belonging.
Those are some of the underlying reasons I am proposing this study be discussed by the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs and then come back to the House with some ideas for the House to decide.
My first rationale for the change is that it enhances the reality and perception of democratic accountability. Again, we have some outstanding chairs and the underlying idea of electing chairs by committees is a wonderful idea, but let us be practical. When there are 12 members on a committee, 5 to 7 depending on a minority or majority situation for the government, there will not be the same vigorous participation, broader discussion and suggestion of ideas to try to attract support for committee chairmanships.
Therefore, people then get a perception, which may not be the reality, and different members can argue about whatever, I am not taking sides on this, that there is not an actual election, only a fake election and an appointment. In a situation such as that, a committee chair and therefore the entirety of the committee, loses a degree of democracy, which may not necessarily be reality. Perhaps the same person might win by the unanimous consent of the House, but it is the perception of democracy. In a democratic system, a lot of what we do is based upon perception. We get our authority from our constituents because they entrust things to us. We get our authority because we stand in our places and speak on their behalf. It is not through raw force, it is through the consent of those who we govern that we hold our offices in this place.
A second rationale for why I am suggesting that we study these changes is that it requires members to engage on what the characteristics are of a good committee chair. I have had opportunities to serve on many committees and be a member of caucuses, and so forth, and there have been some delightful, wonderful, good senior members, who, frankly, cannot chair a meeting. They are wonderful constituency people, they are honest as the day is long and are collegial, but sometimes they may not have it. To be frank, sometimes we may not always want to directly confront them about this on a very small issue.
This would provide an ability to start to discuss and bring forward what the characteristics are and who are the individuals. We may not always concentrate so much on dividing up the membership, but to think in a broader sense of who would bring the most credibility and respect to a committee and who would actually then engage in processes and behaviours to bring people together in ways that are profitable for all members.
That brings me to point three, which would enhance the reality and perception of impartiality. I will address later the fact that I am not suggesting we change the ratios of government and opposition members for committee chairmanships. That is something the British parliament has that is different. That could be for another debate. It is interesting and may even be profitable, but I am not go there today.
We have a situation now, particularly since all of the elections for committee chairs are unanimous, where the perception is that the committee chairs are not always impartial, though not everyone may have that perception. There are many committee chairs who I am sure are viewed impartially by all members of the House, but on occasion that has been a problem, in my observation.
With regard to the speakership, members from all parties elect and vote for Speakers. The previous Speaker, Mr. Milliken, a Liberal, did a fine job in the Speaker's chair. To get elected in a minority Parliament, he had to have support from more than one party.
This is the thing. When we personally vote for colleagues or politicians, we give them a certain degree of credence. We want those people to succeed. We look at them through a different lens. Therefore, both the perception of impartiality and the reality of impartiality are supported.
It also strengthens a committee's ties to the broader House. A committee should be in charge of its own destiny. I am not disputing that. I am not in any way, shape or form trying to take that away. However, a committee has a relationship and a responsibility. It derives its powers, in a broader sense, from the House and also reports back to the House. The broader House trusts each of us on committee to become a specialist to do things, and this back and forth of democratic interaction, and a sense of a stake in each committee, would be a good thing.
This is my most important point. It opens up the discussion for more democratic change. My change is a minor change. Even if this change did not go forward, I would consider it a success if other very good ideas to change committee structure, membership, debate in the House—structure the debate the way we do our caucuses—and the way we elect officials in our caucuses came forward from this. I am hoping to use this as a springboard to encourage other members to engage in a review of the Standing Orders and to think about what we can do to make this a better place.
Our Westminster system was not handed down like the Ten Commandments. It has evolved over the years. Perhaps because it was written by mortals, unlike the Ten Commandments, there is not a degree of perfection in it. However, the broader community is now talking to us through social media, the Internet, various telecommunications and other things we do. They are demanding a broader, more direct sense of accountability. Therefore, we need to be open and discuss how we can make more changes. In fact, I am encouraging members to make amendments, suggestions, etcetera. At this stage, it may be a little complicated, but we need to have that discussion on a wider range of issues.
Again, my experience has been that in most of these committees, only one candidate stands for office. This would actually make it a vigorous election, with the usual suggestions, or what I would call campaign promises, for improvements, better behaviour, better action and better quality of chairmanships. Again, I think we have had excellent chairs. There is no criticism implied.
I will respond to a few quick questions that have come to me.
One of the major concerns for both sides of the House is that the eligibility of the chairs would be affected. Who could be there? Some members of the opposition were concerned that with a majority government, the government could then elect all 24 chairs. That is not what I am proposing. I am proposing that we keep the 24 we currently have.
The concern has also been expressed by members on the government side that in a minority Parliament, all 24 chairs would then be from the opposition. That is expanded and dealt with in other Standing Orders and is not what I am dealing with today.
The other point often brought to me is why we do not go further. I know many members here are veteran members. They understand that with private member's business, if we go too far, it gets too complicated. That goes back to my point that I am using this as a springboard to try to inspire other people to bring forward other broad ideas.
People have talked about vice-chairs and other membership-related issues. I am open to all of those ideas. However, I would encourage other members to bring forward those ideas for another broad debate and try to build consensus.
I thank all members of the House, because at this point, I have received support on this issue from, I believe, every single party, including from the corner populated by the independents. I thank all members for their positive input and ask for their constructive and positive criticism.
Mr. Craig Scott (Toronto—Danforth, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, as the member for Toronto—Danforth and parliamentary and democratic reform critic for the NDP, I am pleased to speak to Motion No. 431, moved by my colleague from Saskatoon—Humboldt.
It is a simple motion, but it is also a very surprising and worthwhile motion.
The motion asks that the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs conduct a study to consider the election of committee chairs by means of a preferential ballot system by all the members of the House.
Here is how it currently works. Since November 2002, pursuant to Standing Order 106(2), chairs of standing committees are chosen by committee members, as the member for Saskatoon—Humboldt pointed out.
When more than one candidate is nominated for the office of chair, the election is conducted by secret ballot within the committee. However, in practice, as the member just said, the convention is that the party whips determine which members of their caucus will be put forward for the positions each respective party is allowed pursuant to the Standing Orders of the House: either committee member or committee chair.
As things stand, committee chairs have to satisfy committee members that they are being impartial and exercising good judgment.
This system has been around for nearly 10 years and seems to work fairly well; few have criticized it. I am not saying that everything works perfectly all the time. For example, during the past two years, some chairs have been unable to manage committee business in such a way as to give opposition members a fair opportunity to prepare for meetings involving witnesses or to present amendments with sufficient notice.
The member for Saskatoon—Humboldt presented this motion to temper the dominating influence of the Prime Minister's Office and other political parties on aspects of parliamentary life and MPs themselves.
The NDP welcomes research and studies that could help improve the democratic character of our system.
As the critic for democratic reform, I am wide open to the idea of studying the member for Saskatoon—Humboldt's motion, especially given that the United Kingdom recently adopted a similar system.
The NDP is actually in favour of improving several parliamentary practices to achieve a better balance between legislative and executive power and to relax the strict control of the Prime Minister's Office over parliamentary life.
That is why we are in favour of studying the member for Saskatoon—Humboldt's motion.
Our reasons are simple. Even though there is no urgent need for reform, and even though some parliamentary reforms are more of a priority than this one, there is nothing stopping us from taking a serious look at this issue.
The NDP has always advocated for more open, more transparent democracy. Canadians know that.
No doubt the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs will do some very interesting research that could potentially be of great value to Parliament. As a member of the committee, I look forward to participating in that process.
However, before anything else, there are some key aspects that we would like to talk about during the committee's study to ensure that they are given due consideration. I am talking about the principle of gender equality and maintaining the practice of reserving some committee chair positions for the opposition.
The hon. member for Saskatoon—Humboldt felt that this was important, and I thank him for raising the issue.
We must also think about the voting method used. For example, would votes be secret and confidential or not? We must also see whether the preferential ballot being proposed by the hon. member for Saskatoon—Humboldt is the best election procedure for the situation of our Parliament, the composition of our Parliament and our House of Commons, the way we operate and our traditions. We certainly need to hear from witnesses who have the social science expertise on this.
The Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs will examine this motion. This study will be added to the long list of proposed amendments that the committee has to examine.
Is the government just as interested in parliamentary reform as the official opposition? It is not quite clear. However, yesterday's events and the wise ruling of the Speaker of the House give me hope that things might change. Perhaps we will see more interest in this from the Conservative backbenchers and maybe even from the rest of the party. We will see.
In this regard, there are a number of other parliamentary reforms that come to mind. I would like to mention a few.
The first is to limit the systematic use and abuse of in camera proceedings in committee, which decrease transparency and impartiality.
The second is to more strictly enforce the objectives of the statements made under Standing Order 31. These days, the time for members' statements is being misused by many members—most but not all of whom are Conservatives. They use this time to launch attacks and spew drivel from the Prime Minister's Office.
The third is to limit the government's use and abuse of time allocation motions in order to stop the Conservatives from systematically limiting debate in the House of Commons. In this regard, it is important to note the November 2011 motion moved by the NDP member for Windsor—Tecumseh, which would give the Speaker of the House of Commons the authority to determine whether the grounds for the time allocation are reasonable.
The fourth is to modernize the process for tabling petitions in order to allow for online petitions. This was suggested in part by the NDP in the motion moved by the hon. member forBurnaby—Douglas in February.
The fifth involves the reform of the procedure for making amendments in committee. Under the Prime Minister's watch, almost none of the opposition's amendments have been accepted. It is important that the work of the committee be recognized and put to better use.
To conclude, I have only listed a very few of many dozens of reforms that come to mind. There are many—as I have said, into the dozens— of changes that could enhance our parliamentary democracy to ensure Parliament functions honourably, effectively and in a dignified way.
In the short term, we must, through a combination of procedural reform and incentives, change the prevailing parliamentary culture and resuscitate and then deepen our disappearing parliamentary traditions, collegiality, cross-party co-operation in the public interest, and civility. Prime ministerial power must be ratcheted back in favour of a return to a more robust form of responsible cabinet government, respect for Parliament as the executive branch's conscience and its commander, and multiple levels of greater accountability through greater transparency.
Hon. Stéphane Dion (Saint-Laurent—Cartierville, Lib.):
Mr. Speaker, our colleague, the hon. member for Saskatoon—Humboldt, moved the following motion:
|| That the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs be instructed to: (a) consider the election of committee chairs by means of a preferential ballot system by all the members of the House of Commons, at the beginning of each session and prior to the establishment of the membership of the standing committees;...
This procedure would replace the current procedure, in force for the past 10 years, whereby committee chairs are selected by secret ballot within each committee. Of course, the goal of this reform would be to give all members greater powers relative to the pressure they may receive from their party leadership, and especially from the Prime Minister's Office, since we are operating under a majority government.
Indeed, it would be harder to control these secret ballots if there were hundreds of people voting, rather than just a dozen or so. It would be easier to conceal one's vote and therefore possible to vote more freely, without any pressure from party leadership or the Prime Minister.
I completely understand where this proposal is coming from. It is part of the democratic surge that has recently come from the government backbenches in response to the Prime Minister's authoritarianism and the PMO's heavy-handedness. This is a very compelling notion, and I wish to congratulate our colleague on this. However, as the hon. member for Toronto—Danforth said, there are other, more important reforms that need to be made in order to restore and rehabilitate our parliamentary democracy.
I would also like to emphasize the need to limit the right of the government majority to force committees to meet in camera. This right has been abused, which undermines the transparency of parliamentary activities.
I will also mention time allocation, which has been abused. It is not good for our parliamentary democracy. As well, the right of the government to avoid the House and prorogue when the government wants to should be limited, and there have been huge abuses of that recently. Also, there are the mammoth bills that prevent members of Parliament from debating and voting on specific issues, as we should do in a healthy parliamentary democracy. These areas are much more important to reform than what is being proposed. However, that being said, I want to congratulate my colleague on his motion and I think it would be helpful to consider it carefully.
The Liberal opposition will support this motion, but our support is motivated by the fact that the member for Saskatoon—Humboldt had the wisdom to recommend that his idea be studied closely before the House considers implementing it. Actually, as attractive as it may be, the idea of having committee chairs elected by the House raises some questions that the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs will have to examine thoroughly prior to submitting its report to the House in six months.
Therefore, I am glad that this motion is only asking for the matter to be referred to committee for study since it does raise some questions in my mind, and I will list some of these questions.
First, is this a secret ballot or a recorded vote? Fortunately, our colleague made it clear in his speech that it was a secret ballot. If it were a recorded vote, the reform would be meaningless. However, the motion does not specify the type of vote. I am asking the question just to make sure. I am assuming that the hon. member really does have a secret ballot in mind, as he said in his speech. A recorded vote could very well end up being whipped.
In addition, a secret ballot is an easier way to hold a preferential vote, which is what the member for Saskatoon—Humboldt is advocating. At first glance, I think he is right to advocate a preferential ballot, but that is something that the committee will need to look at.
Second, are there any precedents? Our colleague has just mentioned the precedent of Great Britain, which is relatively recent. In addition, my understanding is that it has not been put in place yet, because the chairs were elected unanimously in that case. I am not aware of any other parliaments, with the exception of the British Parliament, that use this practice.
The motion asks us to study the practices of other Westminster-style parliaments. That is a good idea, but why stop there? Why limit ourselves? Why do we think that Great Britain, Australia or New Zealand are the only countries that can teach us something?
The parliaments of France, Spain and Germany have committees. I do not understand this reluctance. This is the tendency not just of my colleague, but of our entire system. As a minister, I would ask for international comparisons, and all I would hear about was New Zealand. I really like that country, but I do not understand why we are so reluctant to venture outside our small circle to learn from the rest of the world.
I hope that we will consider more than just Westminster-style parliaments. I understand the fact that we have a long-standing relationship with those countries, but we can learn from other countries as well.
Third, does the committee not run the risk of losing some of its authority over its chair? That was studied.
Indeed, currently, should the committee lose confidence in its chair, it has the ability to pass a motion and remove the chair. The committee then elects a new chair from among its members.
If, however, the chair is elected by the full House of Commons, would the committee have any right to vote non-confidence in its chair? Would the committee have to send a motion to the House indicating it had lost that confidence and request that the House elect a new chair? This may be a solution, but it is something at which we will need to look.
Fourth, we have to consider the arrangement with the upper house.
Indeed, joint committees often have co-chairs, one from the House and one from the Senate. It would certainly be a problem if MPs elected the Senate co-chair, but would the Senate co-chair selection be limited to a vote by senators on the committee, or by the whole Senate?
Would a co-chair of a joint committee elected by one of the two chambers have more authority than one elected only by committee members?
Fifth, we must protect the prerogatives of the opposition. I am pleased that our colleague mentioned that in his speech.
Indeed, some committees are required to have opposition MPs sit as their chair. This is especially important for committees that hold government to account for its spending, such as the Standing Committee on Public Accounts and the government operations committee.
The Standing Committee on the Status of Women and the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics are also chaired by opposition members.
Currently Standing Order 106(1) requires committee members to elect an opposition MP as chair of their committee.
However, the House is not bound by the decisions of previous Houses, and we will have to move very carefully to ensure this tradition is maintained.
Sixth, there is the opposite concern of protecting the government. It will need this protection when it is a minority in the House, and there is the risk that all chairs elected will be from the opposition. That is a concern my party has about the coming years.
Finally, there is the thoroughly Canadian concern for striking a balance when appointing committee chairs: we have to strike a balance between males and females, francophones and anglophones and also the regions. Not all chairs should be from Ontario, for example.
Would a preferential ballot of all members protect these balances?
In closing, these are questions that could help guide further study of this matter. Should committee chairs be elected by all members?
The Liberal opposition is willing to provide assistance in order for the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs to report back in six months.
Mr. Dave MacKenzie (Oxford, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, it is an honour to participate in today's debate on Motion No. 431 on the process for selecting the chairs of committees of this House.
The first part of the motion would require the procedure and House affairs committee to consider the election of chairs by means of a preferential ballot system by all members of the House. The second part of the motion would require the committee to study the practices of committee chair elections in other Westminster-style parliaments and table its findings within six months of the motion being adopted, including any necessary modifications to the Standing Orders.
Before I begin, members of this House will know that our current system for electing committee chairs involves the election of committee chairs by members of each committee. Under this system, Standing Order 106 provides that at the start of every session, and when necessary during a session, each standing or special committee shall elect a chair and two vice-chairs. When more than one candidate is nominated, an election is conducted by secret ballot. This system is consistent with the view that committees are the masters of their own affairs.
These rules for electing committee chairs have been in operation for over 10 years. I believe it is fair to say that the current system functions relatively well. Prior to this motion coming forward, I had not heard of any major issues with the current system.
That said, I would like to remind members of the circumstances under which the current rules were adopted by the House. In October 2002, an opposition day motion was brought forward by the then official opposition, the Canadian Alliance Party. The motion proposed to change the Standing Orders to require the election of committee chairs by secret ballot. The rationale for the motion was that committee members should have the freedom to vote by secret ballot for the member of their choice to be chair.
The House agreed with that rationale and adopted the motion with an overwhelming majority of 174 to 87; in other words, the House voted to adopt the current system of electing committee chairs by a margin of two to one. Members of all recognized parties at the time supported the motion. In fact, there were over 30 members who supported the motion who are still members of this House today. I should note that although the previous Liberal government did not support the motion, many of its members did.
With respect to other jurisdictions, I would like to point out that most Westminster-style legislatures have the same system we do with respect to electing committee chairs. Australia and New Zealand, and most provinces, for that matter, have systems for electing committee chairs that are essentially the same as the approach currently used by this House. An exception to this general approach is the United Kingdom, which only recently changed to a preferential ballot system for electing committee chairs, in 2010. That was further to mounting public pressure due to patronage-related expense scandals.
With respect to our Canadian system, it should be noted that the Standing Orders already include a provision for a review of the operation of our rules by the procedure and House affairs committee. That occurs in each Parliament, as it is currently doing, pursuant to Standing Order 108(3)(a) and House order from February 17, 2012.
I believe that it is important that any changes to the rules of the House be carefully considered and be based upon parliamentary principles and traditions that reflect the interests of its members. Prudence, due diligence and broad support among members are extremely important before making any significant changes to the Standing Orders.
That being said, the motion before us today proposes a significant change to the manner in which committee chairs are elected. This proposed change raises some important questions and necessary considerations.
Some of these include the following: Is there a pressing need for changing the current system? What is currently not working? What would be the mechanism for removing chairs from their positions once elected? Would all members of the House need to address such a matter?
The current proposal could also lead to some unintended consequences with respect to adequate gender or regional representation of committee chairs. These are important considerations to look at. The reforms to the U.K. model for electing committee chairs were only implemented in 2010. The verdict is still out on the longer-term unintended consequences of its implementation.
Notwithstanding these questions and concerns, I do believe this motion could be improved and would be worthy of support with a simple rewording of sections A and B of the motion.
Currently, section (a) of the motion asks the procedure and house affairs committee to first:
||—consider the election of committee chairs by means of a preferential ballot system by all the Members of the House of Commons...
Section (b) of the motion would ask the committee to:
||—study the practices of other Westminster-style Parliaments in relation to the election of Committee Chairs.
On the face of it, the motion as currently ordered is asking the committee to first consider a specific option without having first considered and identified all the options that exist.
I would like to propose a simple amendment to improve this motion. Switching the order of the first and second sections of the motion would create a more logically coherent and ordered motion. It would allow members to review how committee chairs would be elected without first prescribing a particular solution and without presupposing any one specific alternative only after having considered all the options and determining whether a new system of electing chairs would be warranted.
As I said, I am happy to support the motion with a friendly amendment. I hope the sponsor of the motion accepts this amendment, which to be clear, does not change a single word of his original motion, but simply changes the order of sections (a) and (b). Before I propose the amendment, I would like to conclude by re-emphasizing that I believe it is important that all members recognize there are potential important and unintended consequences with the implementation of any change to the Standing Orders.
Before making the significant changes the motion is proposing, there should be a careful and thorough review of the current rules for committee chairs and serious consideration should be given to the potential, unintended consequences. We need to fully examine all potential consequences before we implement this.
Therefore, I move that the motion be amended by replacing the words in section (a) with "study the practices of other Westminster-style Parliaments in relation to the election of committee chairs", and replacing the words in section (b) with "consider the election of committee chairs by means of a preferential ballot system by all the members of the House of Commons, at the beginning of each session and prior to the establishment of the membership of the standing committees".
Mr. Kennedy Stewart (Burnaby—Douglas, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank you for the opportunity to speak tonight on the motion of the member for Saskatoon—Humboldt on reforming how the House elects committee chairs, Motion No. 431.
I would first like to thank the member for his efforts to improve the vitality of our democracy. It was a real privilege to second his motion on this important subject. I look forward to working in this cross-partisan way in the future.
We should always be open to finding new ways of making Parliament transparent and more democratic. If passed, Motion No. 431 would initiate a comprehensive study by the procedure and House affairs committee of the practices governing the election of committee chairs. It further recommends that the study propose amendments to the Standing Orders so that committee chairs would be elected through a preferential ballot by all MPs. In principle, this is a very good idea.
Let me begin my remarks by outlining some of the virtues of this proposal and why we support the motion as it stands currently.
One of the fundamental challenges facing all Westminster parliaments is how to maintain a balance between the legislative branch and the executive branch. In recent years we have seen a troubling trend of the Prime Minister's Office and cabinet exerting a dominant influence over more and more aspects of parliamentary life, as well as over the activities of private members, especially those in the governing party.
In contrast, committees remain the lifeblood of any legislature. They are a forum where MPs can be free from the partisanship of question period and undertake in-depth, thoughtful studies on pressing policy issues. Some of that freedom is currently in play, but this may open it up even more. That is an important thing to try to do.
Committee chairs serve an essential role as neutral facilitators of committee business, including reviewing and amending bills coming through the House. Allowing chairs to be selected in a democratic fashion has the potential to enhance the independence of all MPs, allowing them more freedom to represent the will of their constituents. After all, that is what we are all here to do: to represent our constituents as best we can. Although we do of course organize ourselves using political parties, in the end it is our local voters who vote for us, and it is their voices that should be heard through us.
The motion, if the study were to be done and passed into law, could also ensure greater accountability, as qualified candidates for each committee would be selected by their peers in a transparent and fair manner. It would prevent party whips from using their discretion to make appointments that were purely political in nature, perhaps as a reward for good behaviour to the party. It would not only allow a lot more freedom for members to choose but also increase accountability as the committees progressed in their work.
The reform would extend the current and long-standing practice of how we elect the crucial position of the Speaker of the House. As mentioned by other speakers today, the United Kingdom recently moved to electing committee chairs in a similar fashion. This came in the wake of the U.K. members' expenses scandal in 2009, which really rocked the U.K. parliamentary system. It was the subject of much investigation and a resignation. A select committee was tasked with studying ways to rebuild public confidence and get citizens more engaged in the workings of parliament.
I was in the U.K. during the time of that scandal, and it really was day-to-day news every day. It really changed the way parties looked at themselves and the way members looked at themselves as parliamentarians. It is very worthwhile taking a lesson from the United Kingdom here.
The select committee recommended chairs be elected by way of a secret ballot using the alternative vote, and this system was put in place in 2010. I would like to quote from a report by the U.K. House of Commons procedure committee that assessed the changes one year after implementation. It stated:
||...the move to elect candidates to key posts in the House has been right in principle as a sign of greater transparency, democracy and self-assertiveness on the part of backbenchers, and has also worked well in practice.
Being a political scientist myself, I know we talk a lot about theory. Sometimes practice does not match it, but in this case it seems to have done so, and the idea is very well worth considering. I hope we move toward this system.
Some may have legitimate concerns about how to implement this system in Canada, because we are not exactly like the United Kingdom. For example, we need to ensure that having open elections for committee chairs does not undermine gender equality. That is a very important principle that I would like to see enforced more rigorously, both in this place and outside. Appropriate safeguards must be put in place to preserve what we already have.
We must also preserve the practice that MPs from the official opposition always serve as chairs for those key standing committees that are essential to holding the government to account.
If the ideas in Motion No. 431 are implemented, the dominant influence of the Prime Minister's Office over some aspects of parliamentary life and over members of Parliament would be reduced, and this is a good thing. We can all agree that it is a worthy idea in principle and should be given close study and consideration, as the motion proposes to do.
I would like to underscore the importance of working across party lines on initiatives such as Motion No. 431. It is imperative for us to find common ground in improving our democratic institutions, despite partisan differences and ideological disagreements. Reforming our democracy in simple ways to make it fair, transparent and accessible is a worthy goal we all share. In this vein, I would like to take the opportunity to thank the member for Saskatoon—Humboldt, as well as the member for Edmonton—St. Albert and many members of my own party, for seconding my motion on democratic reform, Motion No. 428.
My motion would instruct the procedure and House affairs committee to conduct a study and make recommendations, similar to this one, within one year, on how to establish an e-petitioning system in Canada. Similar to Motion No. 431, this represents a practical proposal to reform Parliament in a manner that would enhance the vitality of our democracy. E-petitions would empower citizens to communicate their concerns to their elected representatives and to have the opportunity to set the agenda for debate in Ottawa.
Similar to Motion No. 431, my motion has been endorsed by respected leaders and organizations from across the political spectrum. In the case of my motion, it is Ed Broadbent and Preston Manning, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, Samara and Leadnow.
More broadly, there are few issues as critical to parliamentarians as democratic decline. This is a constant theme that comes up in all Parliaments. Periodically we study this, but it is time to get moving and do something about it.
Fewer and fewer Canadians have a favourable perception of our democratic institutions or consider participating in the political process a worthwhile pursuit. In light of these troubling trends, it is incumbent upon all parliamentarians to take immediate action to engage with Canadians and restore public confidence in the strength of our democracy. Achieving meaningful reforms requires taking a realistic approach that identifies small but critical improvements that members from all parties can agree upon. Bringing e-petitions to the House and selecting committee chairs through fair elections both represent positive steps in this direction.
I would again like to thank the member for Saskatoon—Humboldt for his leadership in this area, and I encourage all members of the House to support our efforts. Even if he is forced to amend his motion, or if it is defeated in committee, I commend him for his attempts here, and I hope he continues to fight the good fight.