Although rule changes in the first years of this Parliament did much to reduce the abuse of Standing Order 26, applications under that Standing Order are still made from time to time. We have a question period during which it has become the habit of the Chair to recognize in very great majority, if not exclusively, opposition members. This is not the proper time to decide whether that is the right way to conduct a question period, but the fact of the matter is that is what is done. The merits can be discussed at another time. I submit it is a significant
June 14, 1972
Information on Government Business
factor in debating this motion today that this is in fact the case. The question period is devoted almost exclusively, or certainly the majority of the time, to opposition members.
Three questions from the daily question period can be set aside, if the opposition so chooses, for discussion on the late show or adjournment debate. The private members' hour involves four hours per week. This combination of events, procedures and regulations of this House, I submit, gives opposition members in their quest for information through Parliament at least 75 per cent of the debating time on the floor of this House and 75 per cent of the questioning time. Three out of every four minutes and three out of every four questions as well; three out of every four hours, three out of every four days and three out of every four weeks is devoted to the opposition's occupation of the time of this House. This is something I suggest the opposition might very well reflect upon. This motion does not go into the effectiveness of the opposition in the use of the considerable regulatory provisions which benefit it in its search for information. It suggests instead, by legislation or otherwise, that further changes be made which would permit it to have greater access to information in this Parliament.
Nothing could be more ridiculous than to suggest that the opposition should have more opportunity, more facility and more access to debate and to the time of this House than it has already. Twenty-eight days out of every session are now being used by the opposition in an excessively wasteful manner to the extent that the opposition now confesses, in its most candid moments, that it has too many days on which to suggest a subject matter for debate in this House. Perhaps if the motions of the opposition are no more effective than the one today, the rule should be changed so that such days could be devoted to some other pursuit of information on the part of the opposition members because they have certainly not distinguished themselves in their search for information on these days.
In addition to that, we might consider the performance of opposition members in committees. One of the most important rule changes in the first year of this Parliament was to shift to the committees a tremendous responsibility for the consideration of legislation, for the examination of estimates and for dealing with other subjects and problems which might arise from time to time. If one wants to examine what has been done in committees, one need only examine the respective attendance of opposition members as opposed to government members. Of course, there is a vested interest on the part of government members in attending committees. They must respect the need for a quorum and the need to carry on government business. Members of the opposition have the ministers present before them. They can ask questions and pursue points. They have the opportunity to summon other officials under the minister whom they are able to question and from whom they can seek information.
Members of the opposition do not do those things they ought to do. They could take an active part by developing team work and a concerted effort in seeking the information they want. It is significant that the procedures of the
House permit any member to attend a committee whether or not he be a member of the committee. The rules give him the right to attend any committee hearing of his choice. Not only that, but he can participate if he so desires in the questioning of witnesses. That is the privilege of every member of this House, whether or not he be a member of the committee. He is prevented only from voting on a motion. In their quest for information, all members of the House, including all members of the opposition, are at liberty to attend any committee meeting.
We have gone one step further recently. We have established a set of committee schedules which was the result of a very systematic and extensive study in an effort to try, on the basis of past performance of attendance, to accommodate that solid group of members from all parties which does attend committees by reducing to the minimum the conflict of interest in respect of committees. Even this system has not accomplished anything in upgrading attendance of members of the opposition at committees where they could seek information on any subject. Every minister of the government must attend committee meetings in order to have his estimates approved. He must attend at one time or another and this is obviously an opportunity for members of the oppositon to seek information. Opposition members could attend and exert the kind of keen effort which is required in order to obtain the information they seek.
On the subject of providing information to this Parliament through the rules of this House, I would refer to the number of questions and statistics that are readily available to all members. It is interesting to compare the written questions placed on the order paper during the years of Parliament from 1957-58 through 1962-63 when the party of the mover of the motion was in power and in the years since that time. The number of questions dealt with by parliament in the period 1957-58 was 437. In the first year after their defeat in 1963, when a Liberal government came in, 1,906 questions were dealt with. In any year since this administration came to power the same kind of comparison can be made. I am safe in saying it has dealt with three or four times as many questions, and three or four times as frequently as the previous administration which put forward this motion of criticism of the supply of information to Parliament.
The record stands to show, in addition to that, that at the present time we are maintaining a 70 per cent rate of answering written questions in this House. One should bear in mind that at any given time the two or three out of ten questions which remain unanswered fall in a category which would be embarrassing to members of the opposition because of vagueness, irregularity and impossibility of answering, if not for the terrible complexity in respect of the number of man hours and expense required in answering some questions. I could read some questions from a list I have. Every one knows, however, that many of these questions require that many hundreds of man hours be spent by staff members in tabulating answers. In such cases the expense to the taxpayer would be out of all proportion to the importance of the question, even if it were possible to provide an answer which should be given in this House. At the present time seven out of every ten written questions placed on the order paper in this session
June 14, 1972
of Parliament are answered and dealt with. This is a record this government can be proud of and which every member of the Canadian public would accept as an exceptional performance by this government in supplying information to Parliament.
The last point with which I want to deal is a most telling one. Before moving on to it, however, there is another category of questions which remain unanswered in that 30 per cent. There is a list from which I could read of questions tabled which require information that has already been provided in answers given earlier in this session or in other sessions of this same Parliament, which again indicates that there are mitigating circumstances in respect of the remaining questions which are unanswered at the present time.
But the last, and I think most telling area in the disastrous use of the facilities of this House by opposition members in respect of their quest for information, came with the provision in 1969 of research funds to opposition parties in order to assist them in their understanding of parliamentary affairs, in order to upgrade their quest for information, and their ability to criticize government legislation and government policy. Mr. Speaker, I am going to quote from a document which is in front of me:
In 1969 for the first time in the parliamentary system, the Canadian House of Commons allocated $195,000 to be spent on research assistance for opposition members-
Most governments can find more deserving people on whom to spend $200,000 than their obvious political foes. The government of Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau was something of an exception. For many years, opposition members of all parties had complained about their obvious inability to compete with the expertise, inside knowledge, and extensive bureaucratic research resources available to the government.
This fund was provided to offset that. But the question is: how has it been used? How effective have opposition members been in their use of it? This document discusses the problems which beset the opposition, in particular the Conservative party, in its use of these facilities. The conclusion that is reached is a most telling one and, Mr. Speaker, I will quote it to you right now in closing. I submit it is most interesting because the document is a paper prepared and delivered to the Institute of Political Science by the man who was the first director of the research unit for the Conservative party, Edwin R. Black, of Queen's University. I quote:
The Opposition Leader's personal staff, including his chief political advisor, underwent considerable change during this period, change that had serious consequences for the research office. One was the shifting of responsibility for question period from the leader's personal staff to the research office. The present Opposition Leader has been trying to change the parliamentary question period from the essential free-for-all that it was under his predecessor to a major instrument of parliamentary control.
Never, however, would the opposition caucus agree on a set of basic priorities. Tory members remained a gaggle of political private enterprisers who selfishly preferred to pursue their separate ways to the electoral gallows rather than hang together and work as a united opposition. Under such circumstances it was impossible for the research office to discontinue the plethora of daily services provided to the members in favour of concentrated effort on a few party-determined issues.
I will close by simply saying-
Information on Government Business
Subtopic: BUSINESS OF SUPPLY
Sub-subtopic: ALLOTTED DAY S.O. 58-ALLEGED FAILURE OF GOVERNMENT TO PROVIDE ADEQUATE INFORMATION WITH REGARD TO PUBLIC BUSINESS