Hon. Keith Martin (Esquimalt—Juan de Fuca, Lib.)
Madam Speaker, it is a pleasure today to speak to Bill C-12, An Act to amend the Constitution Act, 1867 (Democratic representation).
We know that in my province of British Columbia and in Alberta and Ontario, MPs on average represent 26,500 more people than their counterparts in other provinces do, and the purpose of the bill is to add some measure of greater equity to that.
The changes are as follows: Ontario would receive 18 more seats, British Columbia seven, and Alberta five, consistent with the notion of representation by population.
I want to posit the following too. There is a more fundamental and important question at play here, more important than increasing the number of members in the House. It gets to the heart of our ability to do our job. It gets to the heart of our ability to be effective members of Parliament, effective advocates for our constituents and effective people who can fight for our country, for our hopes and aspirations and those of our people.
The ability of MPs to represent the wishes of constituents, the bosses who pay our wages, I would argue, has been in decline over the last 25 to 30 years. The number of MPs has increased. In fact, in the Trudeau era, there were 264 MPs in this House, in the Mulroney era 282, and in the Chrétien era 301 and now we have 308 members. However, as the number of MPs has increased, the powers of members of Parliament have been going in the opposite direction and declining. What speaks to that is the increasing and justifiable cynicism and disheartenment of many Canadians with what has been happening in our country and within this House. The House is seen as not representative and not responsive and not listening to the needs and hopes of our citizens. This is the heart of the matter that the bill, or another bill, should be dealing with.
I have been in the House for 17 and a half years, and I will not be running again when the next election is called. For those of us who have been around for a while, we have actually witnessed this. It breaks the heart of everybody who serves in the House. Rather than being messengers of the people to the House, too many times we have become messengers of the House to the people, and our citizens know that.
From the Spicer commission to others, this message has been heard loud and clear and is resonating more loudly and clearly as time passes. As a result of that, we are seeing a decline in citizen participation and in the formal rules that we have in the House. Voter participation has not been on an increasing trajectory but in decline. That has to worry us.
I would suggest that we have a toxic situation, an undemocratic perfect storm that has to be changed, because as the disempowerment of MPs increases there has been a significant decline in the empowerment of people, and they have been shifting away. We are seeing that evidenced in the declining number of people who vote. That is an affront to the thousands of people who gave their lives for our country and our democracy, a democracy that sets us apart from so many other countries that do not have one. It is fundamental to our ability to carry on and do the things we have to do for our citizens.
The increasing power in the Prime Minister's Office and leaders' offices has been particularly evident over the last five years. There has been a move toward giving increasing power to unelected people in those offices. There has been a disarticulation of the public service. I had a chance to go to a meeting of professional public servants in Gatineau last year to find out how they were doing. As all of us know, there has been an absolute corrosion of morale within our superb public service. We are losing good people, and we are not necessarily attracting good people. How do we attract the best and the brightest in our country to our public service, which is fundamental to the ability of our country to function, if we are not attracting the best and brightest that our country offers?
Why would smart young people go into the public service if they are not allowed to use their intelligence and abilities for the pressing problems our nation faces? This is a fundamental challenge to any government and needs to be addressed now, in my view.
We are also feeding the 24-hour news cycle so that what is being rewarded is not the substantive and the relevant but the irrelevant and the sensational. We have always had an adversarial system. However, we have to understand that members not political enemies but political opponents. The notion that we are enemies is something that has to change within the culture of the House.
A lot of the members who served in days gone by, before any of us were here, had tough battles over big issues, but they never saw the members sitting across from them as their enemies. They saw them as their political opponents.
The choice we have is whether we want to acquire or maintain power by offering a better vision and solution, communicate them well to the people of our country and earn or maintain power through the articulation of the vision and the excellence of the solutions, or do we simply want to gain or maintain power by throwing more mud at the other side. That is the choice we have and it is a choice that we should not have. The clear option we ought to have to deal with the challenges we face is one side having a better, clearer, more compelling set of solutions and the ability to execute the solutions that the public finds relevant and important.
What I find disheartening, as I am sure all members do, is we know the big challenges of our state. We know that we have to have an innovation agenda for our economy. We know that we have to have a plan to deal with health care reform so it is sustainable in the future. We know we have to have a plan for the environment to deal with global warming. We know we have to put our pensions on stable footing. We know we have to deal with the demographic time bomb facing us. We know we have to empower the House and the people in it to be responsive to the needs of our citizens.
Those are the challenges we have and the big issues we have to deal with. We know that. However, while we often deal with the irrelevant and the marginal, which is disheartening to members in the House, other countries are vaulting ahead of us. China, India, the other British countries are vaulting ahead of us. For all its warts south of the border, the U.S. is having substantive debates on big issues.
We need to have the tough knock-down, drag-out debates that are meaningful and relevant for our citizens. If we fail to do that, then we are doing a disservice to our country and not using the collective wisdom and abilities of the members in the House, which I believe are underutilized. There is a lot of talent in the House and there is so much we can do. We need to have those battles if we have different opinions, which we do, but let us fight those battles. They are important battles for the benefit of those we serve, the people of our country. There are a few solutions.
Why on earth do we have confidence votes? Too many votes are deemed to be confidence when in fact they are not. We should be able to limit the confidence votes and only those should be whipped votes. All other votes should not be whipped.
If the government loses what is deemed to be a confidence vote, rather than the government of the day falling let us have a vote on whether the House truly wants the government to fall. Let us have a separate vote on the House's confidence in the government of the day to lead. That would enable the House to defeat a government bill that members do not want to support without putting the country into the turmoil of an election.
That is what we should be doing. In that way the government would be forced to come up with a better bill and listen to the opposition in order to find a better series of solutions so that at the end of the day what percolates to the top is a set of solutions that are better, smarter and more relevant to the needs of our country.
Those who serve as House officers in parties should, in my view, be chosen by the members of Parliament. The MPs in the caucus can put together a roster of those who choose to run. There could be secret ballots. A roster of options could be given to the leader of the party and then the leader could choose from those options. That way the people who are House officers would not simply be chosen by the leader of the party, but would have the faith and confidence of their colleagues because they are the ones who engage them on a day-to-day basis and it is also giving the leader the ability to have a choice, which is critically important.
On the issue of whether this is a situation due to a minority government, I would say it is not. The reason for that is what is happening across the pond in the United Kingdom, which does have a minority government. Two parties with two leaders with significantly different views on how the world should work are actually able to resolve and have resolved many of their differences in short order.
Why? For the betterment of Great Britain which has huge challenges, as do we, but not in the same way. They manage to bury those differences and have the discussion, the collaboration and co-operation to put the interests of the state ahead of their own short-term political differences.
Committee chairs should be chosen on a secret ballot by the members of that committee. That would enable the committee members to have greater faith in the committee chair, that the committee chair was actually chosen by the members on that committee and not moved into that position by higher powers within the context of his or her party.
On the citizens' side of the equation, we ought to have a debate on the issue of compulsory voting, as is the case in Australia and Belgium. It is controversial where people would receive a small fine if they do not have a good excuse for not voting, but we should at least have that discussion with the citizens of our country because what is clearly not acceptable is the continued decline in citizen participation and voting in our federal elections.
Maybe that is not the solution, but we need to have that discussion and listen to our citizens to find out how can we enable them to become more active and more responsive to the system. What is more important on the other side of the equation is how can we be more responsive to the needs of our citizens, which is crucial.
While the bill is important, we have to change the effectiveness of our role as members of Parliament. If we are unable to do that then the power of this House, the power of the federal government, cannot be applied to the needs and the big challenges that we have.
There are other opportunities, partnerships and collaboration taking place now within our citizenry. The advent of new information technology tools and social networking abilities enables the public, thankfully, to mobilize, collaborate and build new partnerships. While that is important and would be effective, it still is not a substitution for this House and the power that it has.
In closing, I want to, from the depths of my heart, thank the citizens in my riding of Esquimalt—Juan de Fuca. I was first elected in 1993. Everyone in the House knows there is no greater honour and privilege. I have been honoured to serve on both sides of this House and have friends and colleagues sitting on both sides. I would like to thank them very much for being friends, partners, and collaborators. We have had many battles and many collaborations on an enormous array of issues and challenges that affect our House and I consider them all my friends. I am deeply grateful. We have had tough battles and we have been on opposite sides of many issues, but we have also been on the same side of many issues. For all of the issues that are put on our shoulders, there is not a single member of this House, I say to the public, who is not an honest, hard-working, diligent public servant, trying his or her best to work for the betterment of their constituents and for the betterment of our country.
My hope is that we as members of Parliament, as servants of the people, will have the ability to use the best of our intelligence, the best of our abilities, to serve our citizens in the way we hope that we can.
Topic: Government Orders
Subtopic: Democratic Representation Act