Wednesday 12 June 1996
Use of computers in House
STANDING COMMITTEE ON THE LEGISLATIVE ASSEMBLY
Chair / Président: Arnott, Ted (Wellington PC)
Vice-Chair / Vice-Président: Hastings, John (Etobicoke-Rexdale PC)
*Arnott, Ted (Wellington PC)
Bartolucci, Rick (Sudbury L)
*Boushy, Dave (Sarnia PC)
Cooke, David S. (Windsor-Riverside ND)
*DeFaria, Carl (Mississauga East / -Est PC)
Froese, Tom (St Catharines-Brock PC)
*Grimmett, Bill (Muskoka-Georgian Bay / Muskoka-Baie-Georgienne PC)
Hastings, John (Etobicoke-Rexdale PC)
Johnson, Ron (Brantford PC)
*Miclash, Frank (Kenora L)
Morin, Gilles E. (Carleton East / -Est L)
*O'Toole, John R. (Durham East / -Est PC)
*Silipo, Tony (Dovercourt ND)
Stewart, R. Gary (Peterborough PC)
*In attendance / présents
Substitutions present / Membres remplaçants présents:
Gerretsen, John (Kingston and The Islands / Kingston et Les Îles L) for Mr Bartolucci
Lalonde, Jean-Marc (Prescott and Russell / Prescott et Russell L) for Mr Morin
Preston, Peter L. (Brant-Haldimand PC) for Mr Hastings
Rollins, E. J. Douglas (Quinte PC) for Mr Froese
Young, Terence H. (Halton Centre / -Centre PC) for Mr Johnson
Clerk / Greffière: Lisa Freedman
Staff / Personnel: Peter Sibenik, procedural research clerk, Office of the Clerk
The committee met at 1533 in room 228.
USE OF COMPUTERS IN HOUSE
The Chair (Mr Ted Arnott): I call this meeting of the standing committee on the Legislative Assembly to order. We have one item of business today, and that is the request of the Speaker to provide some advice to him on the issue of whether members should be allowed to use laptop computers in the chamber.
Peter has prepared some background information for us, which he's circulated to all members of the committee. I'd like to give Peter an opportunity to explain the research he's compiled and to answer any questions members will have, and then have a full and thorough discussion. I realize that many members have strong opinions on this issue. Then hopefully we would lead to having a motion advising the Speaker to do something. At this time I'll turn to Peter and ask him to make his presentation.
Mr Peter Sibenik: I'll be speaking to my memo of June 5 addressed to the committee clerk. I did a short report based on the history, the arguments in favour of and against laptop computers and what some of the policies or rules were in other jurisdictions.
The history of the use of laptop computers or of the issue is fairly short here in our chamber. The first evidence we have of members or somebody using electronic equipment was in 1988, when Speaker Edighoffer made a ruling that cellular phones were not to be used in the chamber, and that had to do with a cellular phone in the gallery as opposed to a member using it.
In 1992, this committee itself reviewed the use of electronic devices in the House and recommended that laptops not be used at all, and that particular recommendation went to the Speaker.
In the following year, Speaker Warner made a statement in the House to the effect that laptop computers and other kinds of electronic devices were not to be allowed in the chamber because they were not consistent with the courtesy and respect members deserved, that is to say, the member who had the floor at the time.
The only other reference I came across was one that happened earlier this year with respect to the standing committee on general government when it was on the road. The Chair of that particular committee, of the evidence subcommittee, made a ruling to the effect that a member of the committee would be allowed to use a laptop, and I believe that is the only occasion on which such a ruling by a committee Chair has been made with respect to a member.
The arguments pro and con with respect to laptop computers: They were canvassed at the 1992 meeting of the Legislative Assembly committee that I just mentioned, and I've summarized them there. Basically, the pro argument is that there have been advances in technology and if members wish to be more efficient in the use of their time they should be able to make use of this technology. The con argument is that traditions should be respected in the chamber and in committee rooms by extension, that if it's good enough for Westminster, which still does not allow laptops into the chamber or into the committee rooms, it should be good enough for us. That's the other side of the argument.
I did not canvass all the jurisdictions with respect to what their policies were but I did do it with respect to Westminster and four of the provinces, and that includes Ottawa. At Westminster, as I say, laptops are not allowed; however, both the House of Commons at Ottawa and Quebec have in recent years allowed laptops not only into the chamber but into the committee rooms as well, subject to the kinds of restrictions I indicate in this memo: the fact that it should not unduly disrupt or interfere with the member who has the floor.
In addition, I've also taken a look at Saskatchewan. You have a photocopy of what the rule in Saskatchewan is like. That particular rule came into effect on a trial basis in 1992 and it became permanent in 1994. You'll see that there are certain restrictions as to when laptops can be used in the Saskatchewan assembly, namely, in the committee of finance and the committee of the whole.
The only other jurisdiction I canvassed was British Columbia. In that jurisdiction, there really doesn't seem to be a great interest on the part of members of that assembly for the use of laptops, and as a result, it is not an issue in British Columbia at all.
I might say in closing that there's been a fairly marked change since 1992. In that year, no assembly in Canada allowed laptops into the chamber. Since then, there's been a trend line on the part of these jurisdictions I've looked at moving towards the use of laptop computers subject to the kinds of restrictions I speak about in the memo and that you see, for example, in the Saskatchewan rule.
Those basically were my submissions to the members.
The Chair: Thank you, Peter. Questions at this time?
Mr Terence H. Young (Halton Centre): You didn't check the Legislature in Newfoundland or New Brunswick?
Mr Sibenik: No. I didn't speak to any of the smaller jurisdictions, just the ones I've indicated.
Mr Young: In the House of Commons at Westminster, there are other differences in the way they conduct debate etc. Are you familiar with those as well?
Mr Sibenik: What was mentioned to me was the fact that there are no desks in the House of Commons at Westminster so it poses a bit of a practical difficulty, although these kinds of computers are sometimes called laptop computers and you'd think they would be placed on your lap. However, there's no prospect of that particular rule or prohibition being disallowed.
Mr Young: Actually, that term is at this point a bit of an anachronism. It's actually a notebook computer because it's the size of a book. Laptops are bigger, and they don't make them any more etc. But I believe in the House of Commons in Britain, at Westminster, you're also not allowed to read questions or read speeches other than prepared ministers' statements. It's fundamentally a different place than our Legislature to that degree. I don't know if you're aware of that.
Mr Sibenik: No. I can check into this, though.
Mr Peter L. Preston (Brant-Haldimand): Quite plainly, as Peter says, this is a trend line. I'd be very concerned about where the trend will end. Are we going to take our PAs in, our secretaries, just transfer our offices into the Legislature? If the Legislature is not that important, that we can sit there and fiddle-diddle with a laptop computer planning next week's speech, then let's make the Legislature more pertinent. Let's get the garbage out of there, this yelling back and forth. Let's turn it into a debate.
The Chair: Mr Preston, do you have a question at this time, or do you want to wait until we get into this discussion?
Mr Preston: Should we really be doing this, rather than leaving it traditional? There's a question.
Mr Sibenik: Well, uh --
Mr Preston: I guess I was making a statement, Mr Chairman. It really was not a question.
The Chair: Mr Silipo, do you have a question, or do you wish to engage in the debate?
Mr Tony Silipo (Dovercourt): I have a question. I would be interested in knowing if Mr Sibenik is aware of whether in these places where the use of laptop computers is now allowed, whether it's in Ottawa or Quebec City, anybody has done any kind of formal or informal assessment of what the experience has been like.
Mr Sibenik: I have consulted with one person in Ottawa and one in Quebec City. The Speaker monitors it on an ongoing basis, but it's done on an ad hoc basis. If there's a problem, the Speaker will attend to the problem, but my feeling is that it is not much of a problem as far as the presiding officers in those jurisdictions are concerned. There really hasn't been the kind of survey you're speaking to, a systemic survey.
Mr Silipo: Is it fair to say that the situation is such -- or maybe it isn't -- that on a proportionate basis, the number of people who take advantage of the ability to use the laptops is not great at any given point in time? Or do we know?
Mr Sibenik: I would say that's my feeling, that's right. There are certain members who are just more interested in using laptop computers than others. I don't see the majority of members using laptop computers in either chamber. That's not the case at all.
Mr Young: If it's helpful, my staff has done some research in the other provinces and I'll gladly table the research. It's in the form of a letter I wrote to the Speaker and it refers to the Manitoba Legislature and the Legislatures in Newfoundland and Saskatchewan as well as those the research officer has already addressed.
The Chair: The clerk is actually at this moment taking photocopies of that letter for all members of the committee, so that's in the works.
Mr John O'Toole (Durham East): Are there any staff occasions where it would be beneficial for them to use a computer in the Legislature?
Mr Sibenik: In ours, I know that staff do use laptops.
Mr O'Toole: That's really the point I was trying to establish, that for those who find that methodology appropriate, they do use them today.
Mr Sibenik: The staff do use these things in the course of a committee meeting, with the approval of the committee Chair.
Mr O'Toole: I've been in those committee meetings. It may not be at this time universal. We're looking more profoundly at this, in some moderate way, to introduce perhaps for a trial period that sort of tool into both committee and the Legislature. Have you had discussions with staff, the people at the table and other people who could have a prompter there, quick searches for certain rulings -- there are so many uses. Anyone who uses them knows it's an error not to make more efficient use of our time. Are there any people on staff who are interested in making this tool more accessible, more germane to the process?
Mr Sibenik: If there is some wish on the part of staff that they could use it more often, it would be subject to the concerns as to order and decorum being maintained in the course of a meeting, whether it was in the chamber or in a committee meeting. We fall behind whatever the view or the order is from above.
I find electronic means of data search to be very useful. I use it in my office. I have never had occasion to bring a notebook or a laptop here to the committee room, but many research officers have. It's proved to be an efficient way of gathering information and summarizing testimony and observations.
Mr O'Toole: It's a little more reliable too.
Mr Sibenik: Yes, because you'd probably be eliminating one of the steps, the writing out of it. You'd be transcribing directly to a machine. In that sense, you're overstepping one of the steps.
Mr O'Toole: Yes, missing one of the steps entirely. I think that's the point Mr Young and I are trying to make, and perhaps in our remarks we'll make that. I was just interested. Are there staff who really are comfortable with that medium?
Mr Sibenik: There are many staff who are comfortable, yes. There's no doubt about it. There's been a change over the course of the past 10 years, and the staff have become very much computer-literate.
Mr O'Toole: I notice, for example, that at the table Alex and perhaps Lisa use the phone on occasion.
Mr Sibenik: Yes.
Mr O'Toole: Who are they calling? I haven't really received a call from them. This is an electronic device. What are they using it for?
Mr Sibenik: They're using it to call me, for example, and people within their respective offices as well.
Mr O'Toole: I think it's appropriate. You want to get reliable and accurate information, and it's in that context -- no politics involved. We have to recognize that we're dealing with volumes of information and the reliability of that information. I'm quite comfortable that with the proper PF key we can access the whole bill and the arguments that have been made and by whom. I think I've made my point. I'm encouraged that there are those staff people who do database searches to come up with protocol and precedents. That's excellent. I'm encouraged.
The Chair: Any further questions for Mr Sibenik? Seeing none, we'll move into general discussion.
Mr Young: The letter I wrote the Speaker sums up my feelings on the issue very closely. It's becoming a bigger issue than I ever thought it would be, although I'm glad it's here, because I think it's a helpful discussion. It's very important that we understand -- all the members, not just the government members -- that we were sent here to do more with less, and a notebook computer is an extremely valuable tool to help us do that.
With your permission, Mr Chairman, I'll demonstrate. This is my notebook computer, which I actually used on the road with Bill 26 in January. I had the permission of the Chair in our Bill 26 subcommittee. It was no problem whatsoever. It's totally silent. It caused no problem on the road whatsoever. When we came back, the Chair of the committee said he'd prefer I didn't, so that was what initiated this process.
This computer has enough memory to hold about 20 years of Hansard; that's how powerful it is. I do everything on it: I do my correspondence, I do notes to staff, I do virtually anything you can do in this job, except I haven't used it in the House. You can't use it to look for notes for speeches. It's basically just a modern version of pen and paper. That's all it is. I'm not advocating that someone should use it to do other work in the House that they wouldn't be doing otherwise, but everyone knows members sometimes do sign letters while they're listening to debate. That's a greater issue. I don't think this would make any difference.
The comparison to a telephone -- to me there is no comparison. It has no more in common with a telephone than an ordinary book, other than the fact that it has a battery in it. There's no comparison to a telephone, so I really don't understand that.
If you're interested, Mr Chairman, in a demonstration, I can show you how it works. I will tell you, I can sit at home late at night, working on behalf of my constituents in this assembly, and phone in to my computer in my constituency office and at Queen's Park here and take out any documents I want. It's as if you're there on the spot and it's not very difficult or expensive to do. This is what people are doing in all or most of the successful businesses in this province.
Someone mentioned in one of our discussions that it might not look good in the House. I think it looks very good. It looks like we're doing more for less. It looks like we're being modern and being smart and getting the best value for the taxpayers' dollar.
In my letter there is reference to the Manitoba Legislature, that there are no standing orders but they're tolerated in the chamber. It hasn't become an issue, I guess, is the bottom line. In Newfoundland, only one member has used one and it is not an issue. In Saskatchewan, the policy is that portable computers are allowed in the chamber for committee of the whole or committee of finance.
My recommendation to the committee would be, and I'd be happy to put a motion forward at the appropriate time, that we allow the use of notebook computers in the House, as long as they do not disrupt the proceedings in any way.
Mr Frank Miclash (Kenora): The last time we adjourned to take this back to our caucuses, I did that and got an overwhelming "No way" from our caucus. As well, I read a letter here dated June 5, 1996, from your caucus chair which indicates, "However, when the government caucus took a vote on the subject, the majority of caucus members voted against allowing laptop computers in the chamber."
I have to go by what I have received from my caucus, and there was no abstention from that no; it was overwhelming. Everyone in the room indicated that they did not want it for various reasons. You've mentioned a couple of the reasons in terms of the decorum in the House, in terms of what it does to the speaker speaking right now with somebody sitting behind typing. We're supposed to be paying attention to what that actual speaker is saying, and I really think it takes away from the actual workings of the House.
I refer to both the government caucus chair's letter and from the response I got from my caucus indicating that they did not want laptops in the House at this time.
The Chair: Ms Freedman, I'd like you to address a point that was made by Mr O'Toole and Mr Young. The question was raised, why do the clerks have electronic devices at their table?
Clerk of the Committee (Ms Lisa Freedman): The reason there are intercoms at the clerks' table is that the clerks used to have their office in the main building, the clerks who were in charge of journals and the clerks in charge of committees, and at that point there wasn't any need for an intercom. When the clerks' offices got moved over to the Whitney Block, in order to produce the journals and to keep in touch with the offices, that was the reason the intercoms went in at that point, when they split the buildings off.
Mr Silipo: Let me just say before I get into giving you my views on this that while it's helpful to look at the issue of what staff, either in committee or in the Legislative Assembly, do on this, I believe strongly that there is a separation. Whatever we decide on this, it has been useful, in my experience, and would continue to be useful to ensure that the table officers in the House and staff here in committee continue to be able to use both laptop computers and have access to the telephone. It facilitates their serving us in doing our job better, and I hope we see the merit of that.
On the particular issue of whether we as members should be allowed to use laptop computers or notebook computers, and I appreciate the distinction, I don't speak for anyone other than myself because our caucus hasn't discussed this issue. It's something I certainly am open to. I think it's something that should be looked at.
I agree with those who say it's modern evolution and perhaps the evolution of the future of the pen and paper. If we look at it with an open mind in terms of that approach, there may be a way to try to sort out the differences.
I appreciate and respect very much the views of those who believe it would distract from debate and from people paying attention. Any of us, whether we've been here a couple of years or just the last year, can think of lots of examples of disrespect and disruption in the Legislature. I'm not sure I'd see much of a difference between people using their computer or sitting there and reading or writing or answering correspondence or doing any number of other things. In terms of whether people pay attention to the person speaking in a debate, for example, I'm not sure having a laptop or notebook computer is going to make a big difference.
I think there are many changes that should be made to the way the Legislative Assembly works, or doesn't work, to make it more democratic and therefore more useful for, not just the members, but as a more representative body of the people of the province. I've talked a little about some of those, but those are bigger, broader issues.
We should be open to this idea. Given the clear division already in the very short discussion we've had, which I suspect is here and, from the correspondence we've had, is out there among the rest of our colleagues, if we were going to go in this direction we obviously should do it slowly and carefully.
The type of approach reflected in the Quebec situation, where it's clear there are certain times during the sittings of the Legislature where the notebook computers would not be allowed, such as during routine proceedings, for example, I suggest to those proposing this that it would probably a be wise direction to follow, initially at least and maybe even beyond just initially, if it were going to happen, limiting the use of laptop computers to the time when we are dealing with orders of the day or we're dealing in effect with debate. It seems to me that would be a useful way.
I expect that, just as in the other jurisdictions, there would not be that many people who would actually take advantage of this. I think there would also have to be some other understandings in terms of how this should function that would basically follow good taste and common sense; that if you're using a computer and you're sitting close to whomever is speaking, it would seem to be not a good idea to do it. Those kinds of things should be also part of it.
I guess that brings me to the last point I want to make. If we were going to go in this direction -- as I say, I'd be quite supportive of it -- how would we do it? We've got in front of us a couple of different ways in which it could be done. One is that there's actually a rule that says you can and the ways to do it. The other might be to simply leave it to the discretion of the Speaker to establish some guidelines. It might be wiser to start with the latter, but that's a point I suppose we also would need to address if and when we get to the point of saying it's something that should be done.
Just to summarize, I'm saying it's an idea we should be open to. If it's approached carefully and slowly, it could be done in a way that would not detract from the decorum of the Legislature and would help those members who make use of computers to do their work and serve their constituents.
Mr O'Toole: I'd like to put into the record a memo. I thought each member should know my position, so I sent it just recently. Some may not have received it.
"As a member of the standing committee on the Legislative Assembly, I'm writing to you regarding the use of laptop computers in the chamber.
"As a backbencher with no frequent opportunity to speak in the Legislature, I believe a laptop computer could be effective use of my time. I would agree that during certain periods of the orders of the day it should not be permissible to use a device.
"If you want to examine technology and the computer, I suggest you look at the impact television has had on decorum in the chamber. The Ontario Legislature would not be the first to allow laptop computers. Since 1994, members of the House of Commons in Ottawa have used laptop computers, and since 1995 the privilege has been extended to the National Assembly in Quebec City.
"In the interests of the people of Ontario and the time we spend on their behalf, I encourage you to look to the future and allow members to use silent laptop computers in the chamber at certain times."
That being said, that sort of overly simplifies. I think much of what Mr Silipo said is my position too. I'm prepared to move slowly into this and I'm prepared to live with all kinds of restrictions to allow the Speaker and other House leaders to see how far extending this is permitted.
Fully recognizing the importance of having timely, accurate information germane to debate, in that aspect it's very important, even more so on committees because we get so much paper it's almost mind-numbing. Much of what our caucus service is doing is on our access on our LAN and we can download it and organize it ourselves. I'm more comfortable doing that, as opposed to lugging mounds of paper around on some issues.
Our job is to communicate effectively. As a government backbencher, on those occasions where we get to speak and are allowed to participate in the debate, I like to have my own scripted lines accessible and done the way I like it. To me it's no different from what Mr Young said. It's a pen and pencil, nothing more, nothing less, and it's an accurate piece of information. That's what I'm dealing with.
I won't belabour the point. I am supportive, also fully recognizing that order and decorum are paramount to me and to members of our caucus. If this were to detract from that, the principle and the ethics involved in the dignity of the House, I would do my part to make sure that it was not visible, not audible and not interruptive in any way. I am sure we can accommodate it by introducing it with very restrictive usage.
For example, if you look at the routine proceedings and it gets down to the debate on a bill, at that particular time I often sit there for two and three hours reading mounds of correspondence. My normal thing is to number the document and type what I want said in my response to those things and number it. I just file it as date number one, date number two, date number three, so I have my correspondence; they get the disc in my folder and they just peel out the letters. That's how it works. I know what I said; I've got it. It's not on some elusive piece of paper, it's on the disc, dated. All I've got to do is find the original correspondence. That's what I said.
In my prior life, working for General Motors, I was a systems manager and that's how we did our job, everything from scheduling -- and I don't particularly like my staff having to read my writing. It's such a useful tool for those who want to use it. Those who don't, that's fine. But please give us the opportunity to work more effectively for the people of Ontario. That's the bottom line.
Mr John Gerretsen (Kingston and The Islands): I take a slightly different approach to this and I'd like to pick up on something Mr Preston said earlier. It's been my observation in the last year or so that the way the House operates probably by and large is the way it operated 100 years ago, as well, or maybe 70 or 80 years ago, in that really our systems haven't changed. Maybe the rules have been codified a little bit better, but the basic way in which governments introduce legislation, what happens on second reading etc, the sort of speeches that follow that and the public hearings that happen after that etc really haven't changed in all that many years.
It tells me something, and I'm not sure what percentage of the general public would know that at any time after question period you're lucky if you see 30 members in the House all told. We have committee meetings right at this moment when the House is sitting, as well. If the debates that are going on in the House are that important, why aren't we there listening to them? The reason we're not there listening to them is that in most cases -- and I say in most cases because I'd like to keep an open mind that there may be the odd situation where this is not the case -- the whole thing is predetermined, both the government position and by and large the opposition position as well. Let's be honest with one another. The main reason the speeches are taking place are for television purposes and for nothing else. It's not going to change anybody's mind in the House at all. Basically, what I'm saying is that I think problems go much deeper than just whether you allow a computer into the House. You've got to take a look at the whole structure.
One of the notions I've been toying with in my mind, which at least is a start, is why doesn't a government send out a bill for public consultation after first reading? I guess traditionally it's always been done after second reading, when all parties, after debate, have already staked out their position. It's a bit of a sham on the general public, quite frankly, to expect them to then come in and put positions forward when, I dare say, most of the people in the three committees that I've sat on know that basically everything is already predetermined, and if there's enough of a furore, maybe some minor amendments will be allowed to go through etc.
None of us should be doing any other work in the House, whether it's reading our mail, whether it's signing letters, whether it's reading the newspapers, whether it's using our computers etc. If the debate is really meaningful, we presumably should be there to take part in it. I personally have some great difficulty with these 30-minute rules that we have, that everybody feels they have to use up the entire 30 minutes. I guess it used to be a lot worse before those rules were there. I think what would be much more meaningful would be a series of 10-minute debates etc, but allow a person to get up more than once, for example.
These are just, I know, all sorts of weird ideas that obviously we're not going to resolve here, but you have to throw all that into the pot to make the whole process more meaningful for ourselves and for the people out there. Just by dealing with the one issue of using a laptop computer in the Legislature, quite frankly what that really is aiding and abetting is the notion that whatever goes on down there in debate really doesn't mean anything.
What is it next? Is the next thing silent telephones? If the clerks can work with telephones that don't ring, why don't we have a telephone on our desk so we can make our calls from there? I'm sure some of you would think that some of these ideas are ridiculous, but it's just a progression of what's next and what's next. In the meantime, whatever goes on in the House, the whole debating notion, is totally gone.
I don't support a piecemeal approach and I'm sure members in the opposition have thought of these things before and have brought these matters up before. When you're in opposition you get all these brilliant ideas and once you're in government and you know you can pretty well get your way any time you want, then a lot of these ideas of modernizing our system sort of fall by the wayside, and I suppose all parties in the past have been guilty of that.
I'm having a little difficulty with what the next step is, and maybe I'll ask you that, Mr Chair. We have a letter from your caucus chair to the effect that your caucus members voted against it. You've heard from Mr Miclash that our caucus voted against it. Is this a question that regardless of the different caucuses, which are a solid majority between the two caucuses, we can bring another recommendation forward to the Speaker, regardless, and he can totally ignore the caucus votes?
The Chair: I would say that's up to the Speaker to determine, but clearly he's asked for the advice of this committee and I'm sure he would take a motion of this committee duly passed very seriously. But he is aware of the fact that the government caucus -- he was the one who received Mrs Marland's letter, so he's certainly well aware of the government caucus's decision.
Mr Gerretsen: My position is that although I certainly have some personal sympathy for the notion of bringing something in that can be an aid etc, I think what it's really doing is just fostering a piecemeal approach to the whole situation. If we were really serious about creating a better image for ourselves and for the general public out there, and for the decorum, then let's all be given some sort of a meaningful role in the process, which isn't there right now as far as I'm concerned.
The Chair: I just want to inform members I'm recognizing members in order of their indicating an interest. I'm not going in rotation. I hope that's satisfactory. If it isn't, let me know.
Mr Preston: I'm in the unenviable position of agreeing with John again. I think the request to introduce them is a symptom of the sickness that we have in the assembly, and we do have a sickness in the assembly. It's sleeping sickness. There's --
Mr Preston: Before I got involved with this lash-up, I used to watch every once in a while a parliamentary channel, whether it was Ontario or Ottawa, and I would say, "My God, that guy's reading a newspaper right in the Legislature." I have found out since that's to protect his sanity and that's the thing to do. You either read a newspaper or listen to the same speech four times over as it goes along the benches.
Mr Gerretsen talks about changing it to 10-minute debates. There is no such thing as debate. In debate, the Speaker says, "I've heard that point. Do you have something new to add?" and goes on to the next person. In the Legislature, it goes down the line. Everybody gets up to speak their own piece and it's the same damned piece. So this is a symptom of the sickness. They're trying to find something to do in there rather than have to sit there and listen to babble, and I'm talking about babble from both --
Mr Preston: I'm not pointing at the opposition. I'm talking about babble from everybody. We stand up and we ask marshmallow questions that everybody looks and says, "What are you asking that for?" I've stood up twice in the assembly. I had something to say. That's the only time I stand up. This is --
Mr Gerretsen: They were very memorable words. I remember.
Interjection: How about on committee?
Mr Preston: On committee, once in a while, when I've got something to say, I say it. This is a symptom. I have maybe a solution that may help everybody. Do we actually have a rule that says they're not allowed?
The Chair: At the present time, yes.
Mr Young: There is a ruling.
The Chair: The Speaker's past ruling is the ruling on the record in this case.
Mr Preston: How about asking for the Speaker to suspend that ruling for the first three months of the next sitting with some guidelines from this committee as to how to use them? He's not going to say they're allowed or not allowed, just that the ruling is suspended, and we see what happens under some guidelines that we lay down, which means if the camera comes within two seats of you, you shut it down and sit there very attentively, no sound, and nobody sitting in the front row plays games so the people in the gallery can see that you're playing them.
Mr Dave Boushy (Sarnia): I came here with an open mind, and actually I'm flexible on the issue, but to think about it, I'm not too sure that I'm ready to vote in favour of that.
I have a son who is 25 years old and he's a laptop nut. He's got tons of other work, but he seems to sit at that machine and do everything. He sends faxes, he does his correspondence. Is this a trend we are going to in the House? Are we going to read our speeches? Are we using this for a variety of reasons? I could see the odd person using it quietly in the corner, but eventually, to have each one doing that, I'm not ready to vote for it at this time. I don't think it's fair for the assembly.
Mr Jean-Marc Lalonde (Prescott and Russell): With due respect to Mr Young and Mr O'Toole, as indicated in Mr Sibenik's report, the con arguments in the third paragraph, "Members who are in the chamber have a responsibility to listen or be focused on what is being said by the member who has the floor; it shows respect for the member..."
Many times I've heard of people watching their television -- and I think you brought this up a little while ago -- people reading their newspaper. The people are saying: "What are you doing in the House? People are reading the paper."
If we start letting the people use the telephone, it is the beginning of uncontrollable gadgets. We have the salon just next door; we could go ahead and do phone calls from there. But at the present time, you could walk to offices many times, and the people are supposed to be working; they're playing games on their computer. It only means once that the television camera will catch a member playing a game on this computer. I'm sorry. I could in a way support your position due to the fact that you might be very busy after hours or you like to follow up the debate in the chamber, but I think the place to do that type of work is outside the chamber.
Mr Bill Grimmett (Muskoka-Georgian Bay): I have to say at the outset that I don't think I'd support the idea of bringing the machines into the chamber. I think Mr Gerretsen's comments today have been the most salient in terms of identifying the real issue, and that is, the chamber is not being used for the purpose it's there for. Some of the issues like whether the debate is actually debate, whether the speakers have to speak for 30 minutes or 90 minutes, I think are very significant ones that we as a committee should probably be exploring.
I would be delighted to be part of a group that would look at some of these commonsense issues that are very obvious to some of us to try and remedy them. I certainly think there is a real danger in approaching this in a piecemeal fashion and avoiding the real issue, which I think focuses on what our purpose is as members and what the debate really should be about.
Mr E.J. Douglas Rollins (Quinte): I was quite interested in John's comments too. I also have some feeling towards Peter's comment that out of trial and error may be a decision. However, I'm a firm believer that a majority of the wishes of the people, whatever that group is, should be adhered to. We in our caucus said no, we weren't supporting it. The Liberals supported in their caucus that no, it wasn't. I think that's what we're here for. We're elected on a majority. If you can't win one time, there's always another way of playing the game. Is that the way you play the game? You bring it through another way?
I'm going to oppose it. I don't really believe we are anywhere near a front-page calibre of television with the decorum we keep in the House, and I think this would be just one more piece of instrument that maybe takes away. I was on the committee when Mr Young used it. I'll agree it was not distracting. However, as some of the opposition members said, if it was just seen once playing a game on television it would do more harm than it would ever do good. And for that reason at this time, I'm going to support my party the way they voted in caucus in saying no.
Mr Young: Mr Preston mentioned the term "sickness" with regard to activities in the House, which I feel is a strong term. Mr Gerretsen talked about decorum, and Mr Rollins, and I totally support the idea. I'd like to see more decorum in the House. As a new member -- I've been here just over a year now -- I sometimes sit and wonder how somebody can sit and blather on for an entire hour when they know that hardly anyone, if anyone, is listening on a topic. It is inefficient, and it doesn't necessarily often bring the House forward. It doesn't serve the people well.
I'd be happy to be part of any discussion that provides for more effective debate, higher-quality debate. When someone has something to say, if they want to say it in 10 minutes and sit down, great, we can move the agenda forward or we can serve the people better. But I've seen tremendous inefficiencies, and it has nothing to do with whether you bring books into the House or whether you wanted to bring a notebook computer in.
As I mentioned earlier, in Westminster they don't even have desks. If the members of this committee want to recommend to the Speaker that we remove desks and we sit, and when somebody speaks they speak off the top of their head and if they're knowledgeable they might speak for a longer time; if they're not knowledgeable, they say their piece and sit down in a short while, I would advocate that too, to make for a more dynamic form of government. I'd be happy to do that.
But in the meanwhile, the argument just doesn't hold water that you're doing anything much different with a book than with a notebook computer. I want to repeat, it has absolutely nothing to do with a telephone, which is a total distraction. Something might ring and you're talking and you're totally distracted.
It's true that our caucus voted against the use of notebook computers, but I will tell you, without telling you what went on in caucus, it was far from unanimous.
Mr Gerretsen: Tell us; come on.
Mr Young: It was far from unanimous, I'll tell you that. What happened was, with no warning, it was raised. The members had no time to research the issue or discuss the issue or to investigate the issue. It was brought upon us rather quickly and we were told we have to make a quick decision. Not all the members of our caucus were present and so, as a result, that vote was far from unanimous.
There's another argument here. In the research officer's notes it says in the "con" arguments against notebook computers that it would have "a deleterious effect on order and decorum -- eg, there would be more interjections." I can't, for the life of me, think how having a notebook computer in the House would create more interjections than having notes. I just don't see how that follows at all.
As some of the members know, I worked in a high-tech industry for the last 14 years, and we became aware that there is a reluctance among individuals to use new technology; we've all experienced it. I'm sure there are people here who have a VCR at home with the light still flashing with 12 o'clock on it, because they never learned how to program it. We found that with over 80% of the people who own a VCR --
Mr Rollins: He's been to your house, John.
Mr Young: -- the light's still flashing at 12 o'clock. It's the same with microwave ovens. You learn how to heat up coffee or heat up something, and then as time goes on you learn how to use it better. When you look at the dashboard of a brand-new car, you've got to really sit and figure it out, but you have to do it.
There are two kinds of people that I've discovered; those who use a computer regularly and understand how it can help them do their job better, and those who haven't yet got up to speed on it. Those who use it regularly normally find it to be an invaluable tool and, as I've stated before, I found it to be so.
I personally believe it's inevitable that they will be allowed into the chamber, and whether it happens now or later, it's a matter of convenience to me to let me do my job better. I would never suggest -- never -- that anybody be allowed to play computer games in the House or any such thing or to detract from the decorum of the House, but to help you do your job better, discreetly, I think it's a progressive thing and I think the committee should support it.
Mr O'Toole: I appreciate the discussion and I think the points have all been made. I want to be on the record. First, with regard to Mr Rollins's comment on the discussion in caucus, in my view, I think Terence has outlined that we really didn't give it any research or reasoned thought. That's why I have a problem with making that as a substantive claim that it had been well discussed. That isn't what happened at all; it wasn't even on the agenda.
I think, Mr Gerretsen, you have made the best, unquestionably the most fundamental -- which underlines every reason I want to use another tool there. It's completely and absolutely, as you've suggested, meaningless and unproductive use of my time for my constituents. I spend about three to four hours every day driving back and forth to my riding. I live in Durham East -- no, actually north. It's almost 100 kilometres, and I drive every day, morning and night, and I'm here every morning at 8 o'clock. I spend almost every day in the House subbing for people, because I'm not a committee chair, I'm not a PA. I'm a very remote backbencher, and I'm not called on to participate in much of the -- for some reason. I'm not sure why.
Mr Gerretsen: I'll write you a letter of recommendation.
Mr O'Toole: You've said it most succinctly, and my plea is this, not to try and discredit myself. My time will come to make a contribution, and I want to be effective and prepared to be that.
But the best point I like is that -- it cries out in what I'm saying, for the very reasons you stated more succinctly. When I've listened to somebody for 90 minutes ramble on -- Mr Preston uses "babble on"; that's exactly what it is. And that may be us, but there are more of us, so we have to share it, so we don't get any time. Over there, there might be one person, no one else wants to do the duty, and they do the whole 90 minutes. It's absolutely frightening. In fact, it's mind-numbing -- although I want to hear the essence of the arguments for those people in Ontario who do not hold to every one of our principles.
I'm clear that I want to hear those discussions, but when I've heard it once, I've pretty well got the trend line, and then I have to hear it for perhaps two days. In those periods of time, the Speaker, if I was in any way disrupting proceedings, I believe he should be able to -- not warn me -- out of the House. If that was a game or a beep on the machine, I think that would be one more rule that he could say, "I'm sorry, you're out of the chamber." But I would relent in my quest and I would say that I would be hopeful that this committee would examine the standing orders on real debate. I think your point is well made, Mr Gerretsen, for the third time.
Finally, I think what was suggested by Mr Preston is the best compromise. Mr Young may not agree with this, but I'd be resigned to testing it on a trial basis even in committee. Travelling in committee this summer might be the perfect experiment, and the reason is because you go from place to place and you've got all this paper and all the presentations and you have no way of accessing who said what, when, where.
On the computer, I would just put, "Gerretsen, June 13, issue: Bill 55," whatever, and I could find it, because I'd file it that way and I could find it or get the clerk to get it for me. So for those reasons, I would like to suggest my compromise would be allowing it to be used in committees for a period of time where we could see the advantages and disadvantages to the future use of those in the chamber. Those are the points. I thank you for allowing me to speak the second time.
The Chair: Thank you very much. Mr DeFaria, for the first time.
Mr Carl DeFaria (Mississauga East): I'll be brief in stating my position. I support the position of Mr Young and I also would indicate that I support the position put forward by Mr Grimmett with respect to amending the standing orders as far as the debates are concerned.
We all agree that decorum is paramount in the House, but often decorum is jeopardized by boredom. If members could use some of their time productively while other members spend 90 minutes talking about something their assistants wrote and that really doesn't deal with the issue at hand, I think most people would be behaving much better. I notice often the members on all sides who interjected were members who had nothing to do. They were bored listening to a lot of rubbish and they felt they had to say something, and that's how the decorum in the House was lost.
I also feel that by dealing with the standing orders, we'll be able to address the issue of debate, whether we have to have a quorum when there is debate. We have already electronic cable TV which probably encouraged all that time-wasting debate that takes place. But if we as a committee could deal with it -- it would have to be separate from this issue, the issue of debate and standing orders. I think they shouldn't go together because that would take probably longer to deal with than the issue of notepads.
The item that some members mentioned, that the TV may catch somebody playing a video game in the House -- that's fine. If they are playing a video game and they get caught, they should be exposed. They shouldn't be playing a video game in the House.
I would submit that maybe it is a compromise, as Mr Preston indicated, to ask the Speaker to suspend the ruling for a period of time, for example next session, and see how it works, and provide some directions on when a member can use the notepad and when it can't be used. Unless we start changing things -- for some younger members here computers are, as it has been said, like pen and paper. A lot of us came here to do some work and we have to spend time from 1:30 to 6 o'clock not getting anything accomplished. We have to be there because there has to be a quorum, but nothing is being done, and that's just not fair for people who find they need their computer to work.
The Chair: I have three more people who would like to participate. Everyone except the Chair, I guess, has offered an opinion so far; these three people have already had an opportunity to speak, but I will entertain their further points.
Mr Miclash: Can I suggest that we call the question? I think we've all had our time to debate.
The Chair: There is no question before the floor yet. Mr Preston, briefly, do you have concluding comments?
Mr Preston: I don't disagree with Mr Young or Mr O'Toole on the value. I use one myself. We have horse shows. I can put in everything I can see out there, the good points of a stallion or of a mare, and end up with it at home. And you use them in business, but do you take them to a directors' meeting? No, you don't, because you're there to listen. You use them when you get back to the office.
I would suggest a trial period with some rules thrown in, and that satisfies everybody.
Mr Young: I want to comment with regard to relevance. If we allow notebook computers to be used in committee, that's a help, but it's only halfway. I'll tell you why, through my experience. It was no problem on Bill 26 on the road; there was no problem. I have two files in here -- Mr Gerretsen will know -- one file that says "Bill 26 amendments" and the other file which is "Bill 26 basic." We needed two files, and I tracked the bill, and when I came back to the assembly I couldn't open either one of those files. It's almost as if it's an all-or-nothing proposition, because once you put in all your documents, once you rely on this machine to store your thoughts and your information, you need to get access to it; you need to be able to pull it out and look something up. If somebody takes it away from you, it's like taking away your notebook or your day planner or whatever. It's a good idea to have it in committee, and I appreciate it and it will help, but it's not what we need. What we need is to be able to access it in the House.
Mr Miclash: I move that in accordance to the wishes of the majority of members within the caucuses, we vote against the use of laptop computers in the chamber.
The Chair: Is there any debate on the motion?
Mr O'Toole: I think that runs contrary to much of the balance of the discussion this afternoon. I think it's very simplistic, with all respect, Mr Miclash, to just refuse it. I would not be supporting that and in that respect I'd be trying to defeat that one. I look towards the original recommendation, which I'm surprised wasn't recognized by the Chair. Mr Preston, I thought, tried to formulate a recommendation.
The Chair: Yes, and he did not indicate it as a formal motion.
Mr Preston: There's already a motion on the floor, is there not?
The Chair: There is indeed, and we're debating the motion.
Mr O'Toole: I think the only proper thing to do would be to defeat this one and perhaps return to some compromise pilot activity. I think Mr Gerretsen's arguments are in there somewhere too, a review of some of the standing orders on debate.
The Chair: Any further discussion on Mr Miclash's --
Mr Silipo: On a point of order, Mr Chair: Did we not have another motion on the floor from Mr Young or someone?
Mr O'Toole: I thought we did too.
The Chair: I didn't recognize it as such. I assumed it was suggestions leading to a motion. I don't think he used the words "I move such-and-such." I didn't hear it if it was.
Mr Preston: Well, we can't move it while there's a motion on the floor anyway.
Mr Young: On the same point of order, Mr Chair, I said I would be happy to make a motion at the appropriate time.
The Chair: Yes, I heard you say that. I heard Peter make some suggestions too, but he didn't couch it in the phraseology of a motion, officially. Any further comments?
Mr Grimmett: Could you read back the motion, Mr Chair?
The Chair: What we have here, assuming it's satisfactory to Mr Miclash is, "Mr Miclash has moved that we vote against the use of laptop computers in the chamber." Is that an accurate characterization? Any further discussion?
We now move to the vote. All in favour of Mr Miclash's motion? All opposed? Mr Miclash's motion is carried. That concludes --
Mr Boushy: Can I ask a question? We're just about to adjourn for the summer. Are there any plans to discuss decorum and the regulations in the House prior to or during the summer recess?
The Chair: According to the subcommittee, and I believe there's a motion from this committee which accepted that, until the House leaders get back to this committee with advice, we would leave that issue in abeyance. We also requested that the House leaders get back to us before the end of the spring session.
Mr O'Toole, did you have something to add?
Mr O'Toole: Yes. With all respect, I move that the comments made by Mr Gerretsen are of extreme importance to the function of this Legislative Assembly committee. In respect of that, I move that this issue of the standing orders dealing with debate and decorum in the House be placed on the agenda for the next meeting of this committee.
The Chair: Can you repeat that, Mr O'Toole?
Mr O'Toole: Yes. The motion is, with respect to the comments made by Mr Gerretsen with respect to the standing orders on debate and the meaning and purpose of debate in the House, that this committee at its next sitting deal with the standing orders and decorum in the House.
Mr Preston: Would you like to retract what you just said?
Mr Gerretsen: No.
Mr O'Toole: I mean that respectfully and in a non-partisan way, I really do, if we could just get into it.
The Chair: Thank you for that motion, Mr O'Toole. I would like to invite debate on the motion.
Mr Gerretsen: First of all, I don't think I used the word "decorum" once in my speech or in my little suggestion. My suggestion simply was that it went much further than the use of laptop computers, that you've got to take a look at the whole way in which legislation proceeds through the House and all the various debates that go with it. If you want to take a look at the whole thing -- I stand by what I said earlier; I don't back away from that -- don't just pick one little aspect of it and say, "That's what he's talking about." Maybe we should read Hansard first and see what I said in its totality before you deal with any of this.
The Chair: Thank you, Mr Gerretsen.
Mr Silipo: I hope we're not going to spend all day debating this motion. I'm going to try to be very brief. I say sincerely, with all due respect to Mr O'Toole, that the last time we went around this circle in terms of trying to deal by just putting motions on the agenda requesting discussion about rule changes we saw where that got us as a committee. Let's not do this again.
We spent a good amount of time discussing, on another issue, the question of not wasting time. Please, let's not waste each other's time dealing with this issue in this way. We all agree that changes should be made to the way the House functions. This is not the way to deal with it.
The Chair: Mr O'Toole, it has been the routine of this committee particularly to have the subcommittee deal with matters and make recommendations to the full committee before things like this are dealt with. Would you be interested in referring this matter to the subcommittee before you elect to take it further?
Mr O'Toole: No. I'm not trying to be belligerent, and it's meant as a productive continuum in the points that have been made by Mr Morin, Mr Gerretsen and Mr Silipo. Other members of this committee have requested that we follow through on looking at the standing orders to make time in the House more productive. It's in that context that I believe there is a strong, legitimate will in this committee to actually deal with many points you made.
I'll quote what you said, Mr Gerretsen: "To make the process more meaningful, what is the next step? We cannot deal with this in an isolated example." We are engaged in trying in this committee to improve the procedures and decorum in the House, and I think in a completely non-partisan way, for the betterment and functioning of that committee.
Without trying to be belligerent, in the interest of being non-partisan I will withdraw the motion in respect of where it goes. At the last meeting we had a motion which is in the books, and I have a copy of the minutes, where I said that within a certain time period the House leaders shall deal with this. I see Mr Bradley here, and from my experience of listening to him in the House I know him to be a sound and thoughtful parliamentarian. I want to stress that I have the same respect for Mr Cooke's experience and advice to this committee. I think they can guide us to make the debate process more meaningful on the very basis, Mr Gerretsen, of the points you made. I do not want to disappoint members here by pushing this issue any further. If I'm to appreciate that there is this priority to have it before the subcommittee, I'm content with that, and with that understanding I will withdraw my motion.
The Chair: Thank you very much, Mr O'Toole. The committee will sit again at the discretion of the Chair. I would like to indicate interest to the subcommittee members that we will meet at an appropriate time to discuss this issue. The meeting's adjourned.
The committee adjourned at 1642.