Q&A: James Rajotte on the state of the House of Commons

The Conservative MP on what can be done to improve matters

<p>The Peace Tower is seen in Ottawa, Friday September 25, 2009. Adrian Wyld/TCPI/The Canadian Press</p>

The Peace Tower is seen in Ottawa, Friday September 25, 2009. Adrian Wyld/TCPI/The Canadian Press

In this week’s print edition, I have 1,200 words on the case of Mark Warawa and the issues his situation has raised. For that piece, I spoke to a few MPs, including Conservative MP James Rajotte, chair of the finance committee. Here is an edited and abridged transcript of our conversation.

Q: What’s your general feeling about the situation?

A: Clearly, I believe members do have the right to speak. The challenge is that, I think from the prime minister’s point of view, he wants to have a caucus and a party that’s not perceived as were during my first term, where the messaging was very sort of all over the place. He wants a very disciplined, consistent message. And that’s, frankly, in the 2000 to 2002, 2003 period, that’s what members of the media were telling us, is you’ve got to start having a consistent message and you can’t have members who are sort of having different views on all the different topics. So I think it’s a challenge because you don’t want to be perceived in that vein, but you obviously want to allow freedom of speech for members. It’s a fundamental right for citizens, you want to allow that for members.

So I think we all have to look and have, within a broad tent political party, which any party to form government needs to be a broad tent political party, you have to allow for different views on some different topics. Obviously on things like a budget, you would expect all members of the caucus to either support the budget or, if they can’t support it, they’d have a tougher decision to make. But on other issues we are going to have to allow for debates within caucuses, within parties. And, frankly, I think we’ve had that over the last number of years. But every time that happens it can’t be seen as somehow being disloyal. Mark [Warawa] would say to you, very strongly, that he’s the most loyal person to the prime minister. He just has a different view on this one issue that’s very important to him.

I think that’s one issue. The other big issue for me is, I think we have to look at, frankly, questions, statements, speeches, all of it, and say, ‘Is this the best that Parliament can do, that we all can do?’ That’s a huge, fundamental issue. And that’s not a Conservative debate, it’s frankly a debate for all parliamentarians and all parties.

Q: Do you generally think there are some issues that need to be dealt with in terms of the party whip and statements and all that kind of stuff?

A: I may phrase it a little differently. I would say that, I think there are issues, I mean if you look at how we’re handled in terms of, say, voting. I actually think the one, two, three-line system is pretty good for me. As a committee chair, I have a fair amount of freedom there. And even on three-line whips, it’s ultimately up to the member themselves whether they stand or sit at a certain point in the vote. But on the three-line system, I think the voting is fairly good. And I think as the Globe and Mail found out, we actually have, even though it’s a very high percentage in terms of the caucus voting together, we actually have more freedom than the other parties. Which I think is contrary to what most people think.

Now when you get to statements, speeches and questions, it’s an issue of reforming Parliament … in the sense of, when you watch our Parliament, you have to ask yourself, ‘Is this a substantive exchange of views? Is this showing Parliament at its best? Is this really putting pressure on the government to answer serious questions?’ Statements by members, in my particular case, I’ve never had a statement rejected, so I can’t speak to Mark’s personal experience and I’ve always been able to speak on local issues. But I do support him in the abstract in terms of members right to speak.

On Question Period, I think that’s an even bigger problem than statements, because I just think it’s become so over the top and I just don’t see much substantive dialogue occurring at all there. So that’s where I supported Michael [Chong]’s motion very strongly and I think the British question period is, frankly, much better than ours and we should try to move towards that system. And then on speeches even more … most of the debates in the House, candidly, are not good debates. There are some good debates, but they’re very limited. And, again, if you go to the British House of Commons, you watch a debate, it’s not Churchill every day in the British House, but there is an exchange of views and you get a sense of the different view points and it is more of a debate. I would actually, for my own personal perspective, I’d like to see more changes in that area. Where the minister and the spokespeople of the various parties lead off the debate, but if you want to participate in a debate, you should have to be in the chamber for that entire debate. They should be time limited, as they are in Britain, say, okay, there’s three hours for this bill and if you want to participate, you apply to the Speaker, you go on a list and they want to be sure everybody gets a chance, so you may get three minutes, you get may get six minutes, you may not get your full 15 minutes, but you can’t leave the chamber for half an hour. If you leave the chamber for half an hour, you have no interest in the debate and your name’s crossed off the list. I explained our system [to the British Speaker], where you come and read a speech and you answer two questions, you leave, obviously some members try to do more than that, but that’s an awful lot of what happens and he just said, ‘That’s not a debate, why do you do that?’

And that’s where Mark has raised some fundamental issues. But it’s more about how Parliament operates and can we improve it so that the activities in the chamber actually very much influence policy and decisions.

Q: I always come back to the question of, can you possibly make the debate more substantive if people already know how the votes are going to go? If the vote isn’t really in question, can the debate matter?

A: It’s a fundamental question. So the government introduces a piece of legislation, obviously at second reading, it’s on the principle of the bill, but to me, if you had a more substantive debate, you could actually highlight, say, five, seven, eight, ten issues that need to be addressed at committee … there you’d obviously have to ensure that at committee that you’d have to a full hearing and that members can bring forward amendments to legislation to address certain concerns. That has to go hand in hand at that point, but less so at second reading stage than at committee and report stage and then obviously final reading. Members have to feel that their concerns are being addressed.

Q: Yeah, because that’s the other thing. I can remember talking to an opposition MP recently whose major complaint was the fact that the government side never accepts amendments. Now, I don’t know, you guys could maybe counter that the amendments weren’t very good … it does seem like a complicated problem to unravel.

A: It is complicated and it is certainly linked to how much they can influence a bill. But to me, if the debates and the speeches were more substantive and meaningful… say there was a three-hour debate on a certain bill, say the budget bill, and there were 27 suggestions put forward in the second reading debate and then put forward as amendments at committee, then obviously if the government rejected all of them, then they’d actually have a stronger point in saying, look, we actually made a real issue here to put them forward. Right now, again, my own personal perspective, you’re not hearing a lot of substantive input at second reading. We were debating a technical tax debate, I was asking basic questions of the members opposite and I just had a sense that they didn’t even know what I was talking about. Whereas, if you had a more focused debate, say you had it on a finance issue, you’d have probably the finance committee there for the entire three hours and then those who spoke, you’d know—if you were speaking to a budget bill, the finance committee’s there, minister’s there, all the key spokespeople are there, you’re not going to stand up unless you really know your subject area.

But it is fair to point out, it does have to go in then with, if members raise something substantively, will there be at least a willingness to discuss, debate and review those amendments seriously.

But I would say during Question Period, my advice to opposition members is stand up and ask a very calm, sincere, short, simple question. Because if the minister doesn’t answer that it’s more obvious to you, whereas if they stand up and bluster away, then the minister can stand up and do whatever they want, essentially.

Q: Do you think there’s any chance of MPs working across the aisle on this, to change things?

A: I hope there is. I know some members of the opposition have used this, Mark’s motion and the statements, as it’s internal Conservative politics, but they have to really see it as beyond that. And they have to see it as, it’s all parliamentarians, it’s not just within one party. And if you change SO31s, if the Speaker says, yes, okay, I am going to take over SO31s or if Michael Chong’s motion for Question Period was adopted, and the Speaker took over, say, half of the questions, that affects all of the parties. That’s a fundamental change.