Nathan Cullen: 'What is happening in the House is not a game'

More support for Mark Warawa's question of privilege

Earlier this morning, NDP House leader Nathan Cullen and Conservative MP Kyle Seeback added their support to Mark Warawa’s question of privilege.

Nathan Cullen. Mr. Speaker, first, I appreciate the time today for allowing me to offer a few additional comments on what I believe is an important issue for Parliament and an important issue for Canadians.

On March 26, the member for Langley rose to say that his rights as a member of Parliament had been infringed upon when he was prevented by the whip of his own party to deliver a statement in this House, a statement that, in parliamentary terms, we call an “S. O. 31”. Much like the terms “omnibus bills”, “prorogation” and “closure”, the Conservative Party continues to offer what I believe is an unintentional lesson in how parliamentary systems work and sometimes can be abused.

House of Commons Standing Order 31 says a member may be recognized to make a statement for not more than one minute every day, before question period, more commonly we refer to these as “members’ statements”.

Dans sa réponse au député de Langley, le whip en chef du gouvernement a dit que le Président de la Chambre n’avait pas à se prononcer sur cette question, parce qu’il s’agit d’une situation qui doit être gérée uniquement par le whip du parti.

I believe that there are two central questions that face you, Mr. Speaker, and face this House.

One concerns the difference between Standing Orders of the rules by which this place is guided and the conventions, or practices, that have been evolved over time to fit changing circumstances. One set is hard and fast rules that we must abide by; the other, the conventions, is something that we interpret from time to time and certainly change from time to time.

The second central question is your role as Speaker in trying to help ease the natural tension which I believe exists between members and their political parties and an MP’s right to speak in Parliament.

According to O’Brien and Bosc, on page 254 of the Standing Orders are “the permanent written rules under which the House regulates its proceedings“. They are the rules we are bound by and they are there to protect Parliament and MPs.

However, O’Brien and Bosc also tells us, on the very next page, that “interpretations given to the older rules have been adapted over time to fit the modern context”.

Chaque jour, notre whip procède à cet exercice qui consiste à informer le Président de la liste des députés du NPD qui feront une déclaration.

Il va sans dire que les déclarations allouées au NPD sont réservées aux députés du NPD. Le Nouveau Parti démocratique a choisi d’attribuer la grande majorité de ses déclarations selon un principe de rotation simple, donnant ainsi l’opportunité à tous les députés néo-démocrates de discuter en cette Chambre d’enjeux locaux et de différentes questions qui préoccupent leurs citoyens.

Here, we must emphasize the original intent of members’ statements. They are a key tool that members of Parliament have to bring forward the matters of their constituents. They are often used to bring awareness to the efforts of local leaders in improving the lives of their communities. They are used to celebrate the achievements of their constituents and the work that they do. They are used to honour significant milestones and highlight important events going on in our ridings. They are also used to bring to the attention of the House serious local, national or international questions that require the attention of all Canadians. 

Disturbingly, that original intent has almost been entirely lost on the Conservative side of this House.

The Conservatives have turned their statements by members into partisan attack ads, using their allotted statements before question period primarily to attack the New Democrats and our leader. They use S. O. 31 as a way to launch a coordinated, concentrated attack against the official opposition each and every day instead of talking about issues that really matter to the citizens who elect them.

Mr. Speaker, I would like to refer you to a very good analysis done by Glen McGregor, which appeared on March 26 in the Ottawa Citizen. This analysis of statements made by the government MPs in the House since the last election shows that the NDP and our leader are overwhelmingly the most popular topics for Conservatives to use in these statements. While we are certainly flattered by all the attention from the government members in this practice, it has obviously created some serious conflicts within the government caucus and has brought further harm to the reputation of Parliament.

Cela démontre que les conservateurs abusent complètement de ce privilège devant permettre aux députés de s’exprimer, préférant s’en servir pour s’adonner à des attaques mesquines contre l’opposition plutôt que de discuter des enjeux importants pour les citoyens qui les ont élus.

Mr. Speaker, I am sure that like me, you will not fail to see the irony in comparing the current situation with some of the principles of the original Reform Party manifesto. In that document, the party stated:

We believe in accountability of elected representatives to the people who elect them, and that the duty of elected members to their constituents should supersede their obligations to their political parties.

Let me emphasize that at one point, many members opposite believed that the duty of elected members to their constituents should supersede their obligations to their political parties. 

Not only is this an abuse of statements by members, but it creates a serious and growing tension, on the one hand, between members’ of Parliament need to represent their constituents and to express themselves freely, and on the other hand, with their responsibility to their political party. That is of course intensified if the party has no respect whatsoever for that member’s individual rights. 

Standing Order 31 tells us that “The Speaker may order a Member to resume his or her seat if, in the opinion of the Speaker, improper use is made of this Standing Order”. I know that in the past, Mr. Speaker, you and your predecessors have been hesitant to impose too heavily when it comes to the proper and improper use of this Standing Order and the improper or proper use of statements, but the situation we are faced with here brings new light to the tensions I have just described. 

Recently the Chief Government Whip used a hockey analogy, however poorly applied in this case, and equated his role as whip of the Conservative Party to that of a hockey coach, deciding which player goes on the ice. He decided that the Speaker was basically a referee and that it is not your place as referee, Mr. Speaker, to interfere with his choices as coach. I simply offer this: If a coach insists on only sending so-called “goons” onto the ice to simply pick fights each and every day, there is no question that the referee will intervene to give some hope that an actual hockey game might be played.

However, the analogy should stop here, because what is happening in the House is not a game. This is the House of Commons, where we, as parliamentarians, must deal everyday with complex matters that have a direct impact on the lives of the Canadians who have elected us, who trust us to manage the affairs of this country. I believe that by changing the nature of statements and using them to mindlessly attack the official opposition, instead of using that time to raise the issues that matter to the people who have elected them, the Conservatives are clearly abusing this Standing Order.

Allow me to return to the assertion of the member for Langley that his rights and privileges as a member have been breached. It bears repeating and emphasizing that I do not agree with the attempt by the member for Langley to reopen the debate on abortion. The NDP will always promote and protect a woman’s right to choose, period. We are clear in our conviction and present ourselves unapologetically and unambiguously to Canadians in that way each and every election. However, whether one agrees or disagrees with the member for Langley is not at issue here. The issue is the need for members of Parliament to speak freely on behalf of those we seek to represent. We have two essential duties: holding the government to account; and speaking for those who have elected us to this place.O’Brien and Bosc, on page 89, explains that. It states:

By far the most important right afforded to members of the House is the exercise of freedom of speech in parliamentary proceedings.

Le premier rapport du Comité spécial sur les droits et immunités des députés de la 30e législature a étudié de près la question de la liberté d’expression.

Dans son rapport de 1977, le comité définit le droit à la liberté d’expression des députés comme suit: […] un droit fondamental sans lequel ils [les députés] ne pourraient remplir convenablement leurs fonctions. Cette liberté leur permet d’intervenir sans crainte dans les débats de la Chambre, de traiter des sujets qu’ils jugent pertinents et de dire tout ce qui, à leur avis, doit être dit pour sauvegarder l’intérêt du pays et combler les aspirations de leurs électeurs.

In conclusion, without the right of members of Parliament to express themselves freely, our democratic institutions simply cannot function properly. The NDP recognizes this and has always allowed its members the opportunity to express themselves, arriving at a consensus through discussion, instead of imposing one through unilateral vision. There is always to be a natural tension in being part of any team, any party. The benefits of being in a party are weighed against the responsibility to that same party. That is our parliamentary Westminster system.

Mr. Speaker, you have a difficult task in judging this fine line, and I believe you will need the support and confidence of all parties in this place, whatever you decide. This is why I find this matter so important. I am looking forward to your ruling on this matter and on the matter of the protection of the freedom of speech of members of Parliament.

Kyle Seeback: Mr. Speaker, I rise today to provide some context that I was able to discover with respect to the evolution of members’ statements. I think it is important that we look to the history of members’ statement, as you decide and make a ruling on this important matter.

If we want to look at the history, we would start with the third report of the special committee on Standing Orders and procedures, November 4, 1982, found at issue 7, page 19. The committee says: Your committee is of the opinion that Standing Order 43 is being misused and that a substitute mechanism is required which would enable members to rise on matters of concern on a daily basis.

It goes on to say: Your committee believes that a new Standing Order is required which would enable members to make statements on current issues on a daily basis for the first 15 minutes of the sitting in a manner that would remove objections arising from the present practice.

Under the new recommended procedure, the 15 minutes preceding question period would be reserved for members other than ministers to raise matters of concern for the purpose of placing them on the record.

The Speaker would call them “members’ statements” as a routine proceeding, preceding question period.

And this is an important section. It says: Every member recognized by the Chair would be given a maximum of a minute and a half to state the matter he or she wishes to place on the record, and if appropriate appeal for a remedy.

That was the report from the committee. When this matter came before the House, the Hon. Yvon Pinard, president of the Privy Council, gave a long speech. I am going to deliver excerpts from that. He started off by saying: Madam Speaker, it is with great pleasure and even greater satisfaction that I may present a motion in the House today which paves the way for parliamentary reform, a concept I have always cherished and a goal I have wanted to achieve.

Speaking of the reforms, which include a number of reforms in addition to removing Standing Order 43, it goes on to say: The proposed experiment, Mr. Speaker, is interesting and relevant for three reasons. First, it will help to upgrade the role played by members of Parliament.

I think that is important. It says: It will make Parliament more alive and more effective without eroding the right of the opposition to full debate.

Finally, the third reason why this experiment will be interesting is it will update Parliament to give it more respectability in the eyes of the Canadian people.

To summarize, the role of members of Parliament will be upgraded, Parliament will become more alive and more effective without infringing upon the rights of the opposition to full debate.

When he specifically talks about section 43, it goes on to say: We are doing away with that parliamentary oddity, Standing Order 43, a move which practically all hon. members fully endorse. It is a proceeding which no longer serves any useful purpose. Doing away with motions under Standing Order 43 is in itself a very positive step. Instead, members will each have 90 seconds to make a point rather than raise objections.

I think we should try it on an experimental basis. I am convinced that those who want that experiment to succeed will draw maximum benefits from the 15-odd minutes before question period.

Here is another important section. It goes on to say: I hope that the Chair, mindful of the intent of the committee report, will recognize hon. members without any regard for party affiliation, and that the time available will be equally distributed between both sides.

I believe that it is clear what the intent of this was.

Certainly a convention has developed here in this House that lists are being submitted to the Speaker. My understanding, however, is that this convention developed for ease of reference of the Speaker. This was so the Speaker could easily recognize who was supposed to rise in their place and speak.

I do not believe that a convention that was arrived at to enable the Speaker to easily identify who should be speaking should trump a member’s right to speak in this House.

I want to also quote, at page 593 of O’Brien and Bosc where it says: Freedom of speech is one of the most important privileges enjoyed by Members of Parliament.

In the notes it goes on to say: “Freedom of speech enables members to speak in the House and its committees” and this is important, “to refer to any matter, to express any opinion and to say what they feel needs to said in the furtherance of the national interests and the aspirations of their constituents without inhibition or fear of legal prosecution”.

Mr. Speaker, if you cannot rise at all to speak, you certainly cannot enjoy freedom of speech which is one of the things that we consider to be sacrosanct in this place.

I want to finish by talking about the reference to playing on a team. We are a team and I am a proud member of my team. I say that without inhibition. I can also say that I have never had my right to speak interfered with. But if we want to talk about a team, my view would be that this is, certainly for backbench MPs, a house league team. We all get equal time in the House. We all get equal time to play.

I coach a house league hockey team. Every player gets the same chance to get on the ice and the same amount of time. Of course there are rep teams. There is a double A team and a triple A team, perhaps the parliamentary secretaries and the ministers. They are a special team and of course those coaches get to choose which of those players get to play and when. Then we could have no complaints because we are on those teams.

But if members are on the house league team and the coach decides they do not get the opportunity to play, what do they do? I would suggest, like the member for Langley did, they may have to go to the league to make an appeal to the league convenor and suggest “I did not get my time to play on the ice, convenor, I would like you to perhaps intervene”.

Mr. Speaker, this is a serious question. It is a question of importance to Parliament and those are my submissions and I look forward to your ruling.