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MPs Seize Rare Opportunity To Critique House Of Commons Rules

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OTTAWA — NDP MP Christine Moore is having another baby, and she wants MPs like her to be able to work, vote, and give speeches remotely.

Moore’s suggestion was one of dozens brought forward on the floor of the House of Commons this week when MPs were given the rare occasion — once every four years — to pronounce themselves on the 159 standing orders that make up the rules of the Commons and to offer new suggestions.

christine moore
Christine Moore attends NDP's caucus meeting with her daughter Daphne Theriault on Sept. 14. (Photo: Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Moore led the charge to make Parliament more family friendly last year after the birth of her first daughter, Daphnée. During Thursday’s special debate, Moore mentioned that she is expecting another child in May and is worried that it won’t be safe to make the 15-hour drive alone each way from her remote northern Quebec riding to Ottawa without cellular coverage in the cold winter months.

“I find myself in a situation where I am not sick, I have a condition that is normal and predictable in the life of many woman and yet I cannot exercise some of my rights as a parliamentarian, such as voting, such as speaking out on certain bills because there are no procedures that allows me to,” she said.

Technological advances could surely allow her to keep representing her constituents, she added.

Conservative MP Marilyn Gladu didn’t address Moore’s point directly but asked her a question about a matter that has been discussed in the hallways of Parliament since the NDP MP first started bringing her daughter into the House of Commons.

Daphnée could be heard, for example, during Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s budget reading in March.

“I find myself in a situation where I am not sick, I have a condition that is normal and predictable in the life of many woman and yet I cannot exercise some of my rights as a parliamentarian."— NDP MP Christine Moore

“I was very surprised when I first came here and found an infant in the House,” Gladu said. “In 32 years of working, I had not seen that.”

At best, she said, there was a daycare in the building where she worked before getting elected. Having one or two children in the building isn’t a problem, the Tory MP added, but it can be one when toddlers become disruptive. “[H]aving 338 people bring all of their kids in … at some point, there has to be some boundaries,” she said.

Moore noted that MPs do not get parental leave and, having chosen to breastfeed her daughter, she must take a break every few hours to feed Daphnée. “It’s only during the first year, that we’re asking to bring our children to work,” Moore said. “I don’t think 338 MPs will have a less than one-year-old all at the same time.”

Friday sittings

Many of the MPs’ comments Thursday dealt with the idea of getting rid of Friday sittings. Several Liberals suggested this would ease the burden on their families and allow for more time to interact with their constituents.

“Sometimes, when we are spending too much time in Ottawa, it becomes a bit easier to lose some of the perspective of how government policies and programs directly impact the lives of Canadians,” Grit MP Ginette Petitpas Taylor said. “It becomes more difficult to see the real forest for the trees.”

One after another, Conservatives dismissed that idea, saying MPs knew what they were getting themselves into when they ran for office.

Mark Strahl, whose father, Chuck, was an MP for 18 years, said his dad missed a lot of milestones growing up.

“He missed my graduation because he had to be here in Ottawa. That was tough.”

mark strahl
Mark Strahl asks a question in the House of Commons on Oct. 6 (Photo: Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

But no one forced his dad to run for office, Strahl said, and no one forced him either. “We knew what we were getting into when we signed up,” said the B.C. MP, who has a 16-hour commute.

“Nobody talks about the work-life balance of an oil sands worker in my riding, who leaves his family for three weeks at a time,” he added. “Long-haul truck drivers are gone for weeks at a time. What about our men and women in the military? My cousin served 10 months in Afghanistan.”

Conservative MP Rachael Harder noted that stopping Friday sittings would remove one question period from the weekly schedule and it would mean “one less day per week when the government could be held accountable for its actions.”

“We already have very little time for private members' business to be brought to the floor, and we certainly do not want to cut that back any further."— Tory MP Rachael Harder

Moreover, she added, eliminating Fridays would remove one day where private members’ bills are discussed.

“We already have very little time for private members' business to be brought to the floor, and we certainly do not want to cut that back any further,” she said.

NDP MP Sheri Benson suggested that private members’ business should be revamped to give every member one shot at bringing forward legislation in each Parliament. Right now, the system is based on a lottery.

“I think it is a shame that in a four-year term, I may never have a private member's bill come up for debate,” Benson said.

Giving MPs a louder voice

One theme arising from the discussion, expressed by MPs on both sides of aisles, was the idea giving the Speaker more control over who speaks in the Commons.

Right now, the Speaker receives a list from the whips specifying who will be speaking or asking a question.

“It used to be that members would stand up and the Speaker would have the flexibility to choose who would ask a question or make a statement,” Liberal MP Anita Vandenbeld said.

Going back to the old way of doing things would ensure that everyone was given a turn, she said. It would allow the Speaker to penalize misbehaving MPs by denying them the ability to speak, and it would reduce the ability of party whips to determine what topics can be discussed, she added.

Liberal MP Scott Simms agreed.

When he was a government backbencher in 2005, Simms told HuffPost, he was denied a speaking slot by the whip.

“There is no avenue right now for a member of Parliament to bring their issue straight to the House of Commons — either as statement or as a question to minister — without it being filtered by someone else, and that’s a problem,” he said.

Speaking slots used as 'rewards': MP

The whips hand out speaking slots to certain MPs as “rewards,” Simms added. This, he said, is an issue all MPs talk about.

Conservative MP Garnett Genuis agreed that party whips should no longer maintain the speaking lists.

“The advantage of not using the list system is it would give members the opportunity to stand up and speak in cases where they may have a slight difference of opinion with their party,” he told the Commons. It would also require members to be present in the House, listening to debates, he added.

Both Genuis and Simms called for an extended time after question period when MPs could ask substantive questions of ministers. Genuis suggested the questions could elaborate on issues that emerged during the partisan question period. Simms suggested questions should be provided to the ministers in advance so that the answers are more substantive.

Liberal MP Mark Gerretsen also spoke in favour of recognizing members at random.

“What [the list] has done is it has created a situation where if I know I am speaking at roughly 10:20 a.m., I will walk in here at 10:15 a.m., and I know I can get to a meeting by 10:50 a.m.,” he said. “It creates an environment where I am not pushed to be involved in the actual debate. I am just coming to deliver a speech and then leave.”

“This is meant to be a place for sombre thought, for ideas and opinions to flow and grow naturally from the speaker's own mind."
— MP Todd Doherty

Conservative MP Todd Doherty complained that MPs in question period too often repeat each other's’ words, and regurgitate talking points or speeches written by their party’s research bureaus.

“This is meant to be a place for sombre thought, for ideas and opinions to flow and grow naturally from the speaker's own mind,” he said. “I would like to see members encouraged to write and create their own material.”

Doherty expressed frustration that ministers also too often punt questions off to their parliamentary secretaries, who just read pre-written responses from cue-cards.

NDP MP Matthew Dubé wondered if the rules could change to force ministers to make their “answers relevant and of a certain quality” to the questions posed.

Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux, the deputy government House leader, suggested the way to reform question period would be to set aside specific time for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to answer all the questions — something like the British system, and which the Grits campaigned on.

“Why not have a day designated for the prime minister, or a portion, where members know if they stand up that there is a greater likelihood that the prime minister is in a position to answer the question?” Lamoureux asked.

Of course, little prevents Trudeau from answering all the questions right now.

Lack of decorum

Many MPs commented on the lack of decorum in the House of Commons.

Liberal MP Frank Baylis called for clapping to be banished during question period.

Arif Virani, another Liberal, suggested that the Speaker should police MPs more closely.

He said he had personally observed a very disturbing trend, a pattern where outspoken male members of Parliament redouble their efforts to heckle female members.

“I will call this what it is. It is a form of intimidation and bullying that should never be countenanced in this institution,”he said. “This is not a basketball court. Parliament is not a forum for trash talk.”

arif virani
Liberal MP Arif Virani rises during Question Period on April 22. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Virani suggested that a deputy speaker’s chair be set up at the opposite side of the House where one of the deputy speakers could sit to monitor MPs’ behaviour.

The Speaker, he suggested, should issue report cards on MPs — “an active written record of MP transgressions” — that would be available on the Parliament of Canada website so constituents could see how their MP behaves.

Liberal MP Larry Bagnell suggested parliamentarians might sit in a semicircle, as in Sweden or in the U.S. Congress, rather than across the room from each other, which he considers to be more adversarial.

“This is not a basketball court. Parliament is not a forum for trash talk.”— Liberal MP Arif Virani

Other MPs had simpler requests.

Conservative MP Martin Shields suggested MPs should get their warm meals provided in a room next to the Commons, rather than in lobbies on each side of the House, so members could mingle with each other during meals. Better social interaction might lead to better decorum in the House, he suggested.

Liberal MP Alexandra Mendès spoke in favour of a dress code for women. Rules currently apply only to men, forcing them to wear a jacket and tie in the Commons.

Liberal Celina Caesar-Chavannes suggested changing the word ‘Amen’ after a moment of silence to ‘Thank you.’

Conservative Jamie Schmale, like many of his Tory colleagues, called for opposition parties to be allowed to call a ‘take-note’ debate on any topic they deem urgent at least twice during each session.

"When we walk in here, this is a place of history. I love the way it is situated here today."— Tory MP Kevin Waugh

Bloc Québécois MP Monique Pauzé wanted her party to be officially recognized by the Commons, even though it lacks the requisite 12 MPs. Right now, the Bloc cannot sit on standing committees of the House and has a much smaller budget.

Grit MP David de Burgh Graham wants digital clocks in the chamber so that speakers can see how much time they have left.

He also wants “to see seats in the chamber that do not tear our pockets, which happened to me, again, last night.”

Conservative Kevin Waugh was adamantly opposed to the idea of digital clocks.
“This place is one of icons in this country,” he said. “When we walk in here, this is a place of history. I love the way it is situated here today. I think we can all see the clocks and know what time it is.”

The MPs’ suggestions now head to the Commons’ procedure and house affairs committee for further discussion.

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