I am honoured to be speaking to Standing Order 51. Actually, I am honoured to serve in this House. Every time I am in Ottawa, walking toward the Peace Tower to come to this chamber, I am reminded of the privilege of being a member of Parliament and how rich and unique this opportunity is for each of us.
I have appreciated that there is this frank and open debate on the Standing Orders today. This is a rare occasion in which we are able to weigh in on how to have a better Parliament and be more effective on behalf of our constituents.
I am going to focus on just one element; that is, how to increase the effectiveness of Canada’s members of Parliament in our primary responsibility of being the voice of our constituents here in Ottawa.
My proposal would be about rebalancing the parliamentary calendar to spend more time in our constituencies in order to serve the people who elected us.
There are many people here who are able to fly home an evening in the middle of the week to attend something in their constituency and then fly back and be back in the House the next morning. Their reality is different, perhaps, than the one I will be describing.
People who are from far-flung areas of Canada simply cannot do that and so, the amount of time that they can spend in their constituencies is considerably constrained.
Canada’s extensive geography is one of our greatest assets, but I have to say it also presents a great challenge for Parliament and for parliamentarians who are not easily accessible to Ottawa. Constituents do want to hear from us. They want to see us. They want to tell us about themselves. They want to tell us about their organizations, their initiatives. That takes time in the constituency. So, work in the constituency is important and MPs need more time being there, doing it.
Our job is to represent the voices and concerns of our constituents in Ottawa, more than it is to represent Ottawa back in our communities.
The members of Parliament may or may not know that for almost half the history of the Canadian Parliament, members of Parliament were in Ottawa between January and February and May or June during the year. That is when Parliament sat. That is when the business of the House was conducted in Parliament. The rest of the time, they were in their constituencies, serving those who voted for them.
That changed in 1940, during the Second World War, when the complex elements of Canada’s response and Canada’s involvement caused the need for much debate for ministers’ involvement and for Parliament’s decision-making. So, in 1940, that shifted to more of a year-round presence here in Ottawa.
It was not until 1982 when there was a Standing Order change that created seven adjournment periods, so that members of Parliament had predictable, stable calendars to go back to their constituencies in the summer, over Christmas, Easter, and four other adjournment periods.
That is the last time that there was actually a substantive change to our Standing Orders, with respect to the parliamentary calendar.
I want to point out that was during the 32nd Parliament, at a time there were 16 women members of Parliament in this House.
So, constituency work matters. The myth that the work of an MP only takes place in Ottawa is just so wrong. When members in this House, in this debate, have said a four-day work week, or one day off a week, it is very inaccurate and very misleading, because the bulk of the work happens, actually, in our constituencies, where we have up to 100,000 people, each of whom we are serving.
Our offices do all the things that residents see when they email us, when they phone us, when they come in for meetings. They come in to talk to us about their concerns, their issues. They make requests. They want us to advocate for them. They ask for help. Constituents see that. However, there is much more that is done that is not visible. The kind of engagements t we do in our constituencies is very time-consuming.
I will just give some examples of my own. I organize monthly MP breakfast connections events with over 100 people to hear from key policy speakers on an issue of the day. I often do town halls. I do consultations that I call “MP policy cafes” where people sit around tables to weigh in on a policy issue, and the results of those consultations go back to ministers.
There are many ways that we engage with our constituents, and I do not have to tell the members in this House what they are. We all know how time consuming but how important it is because we are the link between our constituents and the federal policies that affect them. We are their link, we are their voice and that takes time.
There are special projects that we tackle in our local community where we have to find out about an issue that is concerning people and we need to have meetings to fully understand it. We may organize ad hoc advisory groups to give us advice. We then may meet with other stakeholders to try to advocate for the involvement of our constituents or the interests of our constituents. So those special projects in the riding take a lot of time as well.
I do want to point out that it is not just Parliament in Ottawa that takes us away from our constituencies. During these seven adjournment periods, we are often away. If as a British Columbian I am commuting back and forth each week, which I largely do, that will be between 16 and 20 hours a week that I am not in my constituency because I am commuting. I take to heart my colleague from the Yukon, who spends 28 hours a week commuting, so that is time not in the constituency.
We also do international travel on behalf of Canada, like the trip that I took to Zambia to attend on behalf of Canada an African Union conference on ending child marriage. It was very important to be there and I was honoured to be able to go, but those were days not in my constituency.
We travel in Canada as part of our jobs during the adjournment periods. There are caucus meetings. We may be having a caucus meeting outside of our constituency in order to hear from stakeholders in another part of the province, such as our caucus did in Kelowna this year. Or, there may be national caucus meetings that are outside of our constituencies during these adjournment periods. Or there are other kinds of travel, like committee travel and parliamentary secretary travel. I have had several of those trips out of the constituency during constituency periods.
All of that pares down the time that we are available to our constituents. So I am recommending not only that there is one constituency day a week during sessions, but also that the length of some of the adjournment periods outlined in Standing Order 28(2) are expanded to reduce the amount of commuting and to make up for some of the time away from our constituencies that we experience due to our work.
I am going to take this last period of time to point out that this can be accomplished without reducing our effectiveness in Parliament through the many measures that have been raised already today: electronic voting, audiovisual conferencing, parallel Parliament for statements and debates to go on the public record. There are many ways that we can be both more effective in Ottawa and more effective in our constituencies with more time there.
I also want to point out that this addresses a significant barrier to women in Parliament. It will be 100 years before we have a gender-equal Parliament at the rate we are going. One of the barriers is that women do tend to be the ones who are providing care in their constituencies to elderly family members, or who have more of the household responsibilities. About 66% of family caregivers are women who can do some of that work in the evenings when they are in their constituencies, but cannot do that when they are in Ottawa. This would be good for women’s equality. This would be good for the constituency. It would be good for parliamentarians to have a better balance of time in their constituency working for their constituents.
So that is my pitch here; that we rebalance our calendar for the benefit of all and for our parliamentary democracy.
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