Rules, Procedures and the Rights of Parliament—Fifth Report of Committee—Motions in Amendment and Subamendment—Debate Continued

Hon. Jim Munson: Honourable senators, I’m pleased to rise on this particular report. The committee is dealing with our rules on broadcasting, on private members’ bills, amendments, subamendments and this whole thing.

I was just thinking before I started my speech that what we heard from Senator Jaffer was a tour de force, and what we heard from the government side in terms of questions was excellent. I will be pleased to hear the critic on the government’s side in this debate.

We are having this debate in this room behind these walls, and who is seeing us? Who is listening to us? I think the time has come — I will get into that in my speech — to see this kind of debate that you really don’t see in the House of Commons. We may not change each other’s minds, but we are better informed in terms of what we’re doing and making up our minds, and informing Canadians of how we work here. I will get into that in a moment.

I’m thankful for this opportunity to speak on the motion on the Subcommittee on Broadcast’s report to the Standing Committee on Rules, Procedures and the Rights of Parliament and amendments proposed to this report. The stream of debate so far has focused on the impact of a proposed rule for time allocation on debates concerning non-government business. I will only touch on this matter and related issues at the outset of my speech. The main thrust will follow.

Senator Smith, the deputy chair of the Rules Committee, has talked about the significance of this motion. It is a break from our culture for the Rules Committee to operate and to change the rules by which we abide without consensus. In a meeting of the committee, Senator Smith referred to “abandoning our culture” and suggested to members that they “keep working at it and try a little harder.”

Like him and others here, including Senator Cowan, whose speech last month in this chamber raised the same concerns, I appreciate the values and history that are the basis and reason for consensus on rules.

Last spring, Senator Nolin launched an inquiry on the many facets of the Senate, including the role of this institution in protecting minorities. Only a few months later, our obligations to minorities could be undermined by a proposed rule on time allocation. Senator Cowan explained this in his speech as follows:

These changes would give the majority the ability to fast track those items of non-government business that it finds commendable, while delaying indefinitely those items it disagrees with, without ever having them come to a final vote.

It is strange and frustrating to me that the amount of time devoted to debates is of such concern, when it is the quality of debates that could really use improvement. I guess that is what happens when the majority has the power. You have it. So why would logic and persuasiveness matter when outcomes are already assured?

The impact of the rule we are discussing is actually contradictory to a keystone promise of this government. I’m talking about Senate reform, the government’s long-awaited and yet-to-transpire plan to, among other things, give senators more independence.

I’m grateful to Senator Mitchell for so succinctly pointing out in his speech that, in light of Senate reform promises, the change to Senate rules being proposed is, in his words, “senseless.” He says:

What this reform in this motion will do is extend the power, the influence and the direction of the executive branch of the House of Commons, the Prime Minister and his cabinet, over these proceedings.

The proposed rule stands to affect private members’ bills, which just happen to be the vehicles of choice for the government to slip through the back door significant legislative changes. It also aims to legitimatize time allocation, which is one of the government’s often-used tactics to push through its bills.

Apparently, the thinking behind the rule was that limiting the time allowed for debate on non-government business would help to make broadcasts of our deliberations more interesting to audiences when the Senate is broadcast, as it hopefully will eventually be, but this just doesn’t hold up. There are too many indications of other motives. Also, the idea of altering our rules to enhance the quality of a televised product goes against all the good reasons we have to broadcast what goes on in this chamber.

I believe that for Canadians to take our work seriously, they must see us at work. I believe we need a televised Senate. I believe we need it now. I go home to northern New Brunswick every year, to our little cottage in Bathurst, New Brunswick. I’m there and turn on the television set at night, and there, on Rogers television, are the mayor and councillors. They’re all debating, and it is all on television. In one of them, they’re debating which sewer should be placed where. That might be boring, but at least I’m seeing the politicians at work.

This is happening in 2014. It has happened for a long time in communities across the country. Local companies are producing programs where you see your politicians doing what they have to do. You do see in these things, as they move through motion after motion at city hall, the boring part of it all, and then you see a feisty debate. If you are a political junky, you will watch through all of those things that are “stand, stand, stand.” When they say “stand,” I always say, “I am standing.”

After many years of experience as a broadcast reporter, I know just what broadcasting can achieve in terms of public awareness and understanding. The purpose of broadcasting our exchanges and contributions here is not about entertainment. It is far more important and respectful of Canadians’ interests than that.

For the past several months the eye of public scrutiny and cynicism has been directed on us, and it has been a difficult time for us all. Knowing and believing in the necessity of this institution to social progress has made many of us feel apart from the very people we are honoured to serve. The best we can extract from this experience is the certainty that Canadians could benefit from the opportunity to see beyond the headlines and through these walls into the Senate as it really is.

My experience in journalism taught me that nothing is more convincing than the truth, than seeing things as they are. The greatest offering to viewers with an appetite for information and knowledge are facts, accuracy and authenticity. Those viewers who are willing to tune in and stay tuned in as we explore and debate issues at length and without hindrance will be rewarded.

The natural course of our discussions yields its share of revelations. It would be wonderful for Canadians to realize with their own eyes and ears that our work is thorough and meaningful, that we can be cooperative, as we have seen even with Senator Mitchell today, on the bill dealing with the Yukon, praising Senator Dan Lang. You don’t see that every day. That would be a wonderful thing for people to see.

Senator Mitchell: I’m never going to live this down.

Senator Munson: I’m beginning to think that I’m going to start a new party called the RSPP because Senator Lang spoke, Senator Mitchell spoke and I’m speaking. It could be the Real Short People’s Party. But I digress. That is what everybody will remember in this speech now, not the rest of what I’m talking about. That’s too bad.

There are unfounded events here that would go much further than catchy or contrived promotions to build confidence in this place. Honourable senators, we have the advantage of witnessing and participating in situations that inspire and strengthen a belief in the purpose and effectiveness of the Senate and our parliamentary system. It is only fair to extend this advantage to others.

Not long ago there was a really interesting debate. I find myself working in tandem with Senator Nancy Greene Raine on so many things, on the Fisheries Committee, on fitness reports, on going on walkabouts on the Hill with an MP from British Columbia, just getting together and knowing each other. You walk and talk at the same time. She has a bill called the National Health and Fitness Day Bill, and I wanted details on it. I’m excited about that. It is an excellent, well-intentioned bill. We have an icon delivering that speech here in the Senate and talking with passion. I don’t know her as Nancy Greene Raine; it’s Nancy Greene. We were with her yesterday at the Movember launch, and her presence was as strong as Erik Karlsson’s, who was also there. We worked together, and to see her debating it and then somebody else reacting to it would be good for Canadians to see. I just think it is so important. By “together,” I mean cooperatively. I do not mean in a partisan way or for the sake of strength in numbers.

We don’t need rule changes to broadcast legitimate viewpoints in the Senate. Senator Cowan has presented an amendment to the proposed rule regarding time allocation. Senator Mitchell has added to the debate with a subamendment that, if passed, would mean that Senator Cowan’s amendment would not come into force until we go to live broadcast.

My argument stems from something we used to say in reporting days, and it is not frivolous: If it hasn’t been on television, it never happened. Our debates here are real and fuelled by passion and concern for the lives of Canadians. Last spring, for instance, Bill C-279 elicited strong emotions and words when we debated its content and potential impact. Senator Plett and Senator Mitchell were among those of us who expressed deeply held convictions about human rights and the social implications of the private member’s bill popularly known as the “trans rights bill.” Their points of view were in opposition, but their words came together to enrich our thinking on the bill. Why can’t Canadians see that debate?

I cannot think of a place more conducive than this chamber to exchanges of thought, knowledge and beliefs, ardent yet informed debate.

With the prospect of broadcasting, we have the opportunity to open the doors and welcome Canadians inside so that they can see firsthand the benefits of a democratic debate. Maybe we will help some of them catch up on their sleep. Maybe we will open a few eyes. Either way, broadcasting makes sense and is the right thing to do. The Subcommittee on Broadcasting was struck to sort out committee roles as they relate to broadcasting. It is unfortunate that this subcommittee has moved into other areas, as Senator White stated during the Rules Committee meeting, explaining how this report had come about.

Broadcasting is one of the most promising means we have on the horizon to engage the public. It should not be misused to bring about unrelated outcomes, and I would urge that more time and effort be invested in considering the best way to introduce broadcasting into our practices. I would urge, too, that we treat it as our best hope to bring us closer to bringing Canadians closer.

I’m thankful for your attention, honourable senators, and for the time I needed to express what I know and strongly believe.

(On motion of Senator Martin, debate adjourned.)