Independent MPs Lack Freedom of Speech

Article excerpt

Canada's parliamentary system is fundamentally unfair because it does not allow true freedom of speech. While elected members must have the opportunity to participate in debate, and in the proceedings of parliament, freedom of speech does not mean that members have an unlimited or unrestrained right to speak on every issue or whenever they choose. But, the system is unfair since the way in which the lists of speakers are drawn up means that independent MPs rarely have opportunities to speak in the house. Moreover, while independents may attend committee meetings and be named as associate members they are virtually never allowed to be full committee members. Reforms must be undertaken to rectify this situation, ensuring that independent MPs are given more opportunities to speak in the House and to become full committee members, thus ensuring the basic tenets of parliamentary democracy are satisfied. From a speech to Ontario's Judges and lawyers, Toronto, December 12.

We are currently sitting in the 35th session of Parliament with a high number of MP's, without party status, representing constituents from all across Canada. The last time that such a high number of MP's sat in the House without party recognition was in 1965. It is time that the House recognize this as a significant deficit in terms of opinion and representation in debate and Committee.

Under current parliamentary rules and practice, the opportunities for members with non-party status are limited in matters of debate and committee work. Political parties dominate the ever-increasing role of the House, and it is extremely difficult for members who do not belong to a party or have recognized party status, to have the same influence or to participate as fully as members with recognized affiliation.

We, as Canadians, are living in a political environment that is fueled by cynicism and dissatisfaction. The party system does not recognize all of the interests of the elected members of parliament. Lorne Gunter recently wrote in the Edmonton Journal, "party loyalty is waning by most measures. But, ideological affiliation is deepening (November 7, 1996)." As we approach the 21st century, perhaps it is time that we look at redefining the rules and traditions of our parliamentary system.

Freedom of speech is a fundamental parliamentary privilege. As Professor W.F. Dawson of the University of Alberta said in a 1959 article: "The privilege of freedom of speech is probably the most important and least questioned of all privileges enjoyed by the House. In its most elementary form this privilege was stated in the Bill of Rights which declared that `the freedom of speech and debates of proceedings in parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place outside of parliament.' Today, it is one of the privileges requested by the Speaker at the beginning of every parliament," in "Parliamentary Privilege in the Canadian House of Commons," The Canadian Journal of Political Science, Vol.25, No. 4, November 1959, p.462-470).

Freedom of speech means that members have the right to speak freely in the chamber, without fear of intimidation or challenge. What they say is privileged, protected or immune from being questioned outside of parliament. Joseph Maingot, the former Law Clerk and Parliamentary Counsel of the House of Commons has said that "The privilege of freedom of speech, though of personal nature, is not so much intended to protect the members against prosecutions for their individual advantage, but to support the rights of people by enabling their representatives to execute the functions of their office without fear either of civil or criminal prosecution," (Parliamentary Privilege in Canada, 1982, p.24).

Members must also be free to speak. This means that they have to have opportunities to participate in debate, and to participate fully in the proceedings of parliament, including parliamentary committees. …