Wednesday 6 May 1992

Use of computers in House


*Chair / Président: Duignan, Noel (Halton North/-Nord ND)

*Vice-Chair / Vice-Président: Farnan, Mike (Cambridge ND)

*Cooper, Mike (Kitchener-Wilmot ND)

*Johnson, Paul R. (Prince Edward-Lennox-South Hastings/Prince Edward-Lennox-Hastings-Sud ND)

Marland, Margaret (Mississauga South/-Sud PC)

*Mathyssen, Irene (Middlesex ND)

McClelland, Carman (Brampton North/-Nord L)

*Mills, Gordon (Durham East/-Est ND)

Morin, Gilles E. (Carleton East/-Est L)

*Owens, Stephen (Scarborough Centre ND)

*Sullivan, Barbara (Halton Centre L)

*Villeneuve, Noble (S-D-G & East Grenville/S-D-G & Grenville-Est PC)

*In attendance / présents

Also taking part / Autres participants et participantes: MacKinnon, Ellen (Lambton ND)

Clerk / Greffier: Arnott, Douglas

Staff / Personnel: Yeager, Lewis, research officer, Legislative Research Service

The committee met at 1543 in room 151.


The Chair (Mr Noel Duignan): Seeing a quorum present, I call the standing committee on the Legislative Assembly to order. Our agenda today indicates one item of business, that is, dealing with the review of the use of electronic devices by members in the legislative chamber and its committee meetings. This has been referred to us by the Speaker to deal with. I understand, Barbara, that you wanted to make a presentation on this.

Mrs Barbara Sullivan (Halton Centre): Yes. My discussion on the issue will be a short one, because I think my letter to the Speaker is self-explanatory. I think it's very clear that the House is used not only for debate but also for the members to do work, such as speech preparation or correspondence, that is part of their work as members. The members are supplied with equipment in the House in order to do that, that equipment being pens, paper and pencils. My suggestion is that the laptop computer be allowed in the House as one of the devices available to the member.

I should tell you that I'm not wedded to this. I think there are questions about the dignity of the House and so on. But on the other hand, as a matter of efficiency and efficacy in dealing with the job of the member, for those who have that kind of equipment it's a useful tool in coming to terms with the level of work.

The Speaker has apparently indicated to at least one or two members in the past that he didn't want to see a laptop in the chamber. My view was that this kind of ruling, that kind of decision, was more for members themselves to make than to be a decision of the Speaker.

Some members in at least two parties, I think, now use the automated calendar, which is a fairly discreet piece of equipment, rather than an appointment book. Sometimes they will update that calendar in the House. It's certainly not an intervention in the proceedings. We know that laptop computers are quiet and that they will run without additional cost to the Legislature in terms of new wiring and changes that would be required. I just thought it would be useful, in the context of looking at our workload and how it's handled, for members to discuss the issue and determine if they think it is appropriate.

The Chair: Further members in debate?

Mr Gordon Mills (Durham East): I have read over this letter this afternoon. It's the first time I've been advised of it. I must say I can agree with practically everything you've said in there, Barbara. What I find particularly frustrating is that when I'm on House duty and not designated to take part in any debate, I continually wrestle with the waste of time I do there. I think that sometimes accounts for quorum calls, because we go out to try to communicate with our staff and get them working.

Also, I think the reason why lots of times there seems to be a general sort of discussion period in the Legislature is because MPPs are prevented from working. It's rather a miserable time. They just group together and chat one another up. This sometimes results in the Speaker calling for private discussions to take place outside. Of course, we can't do that because we have to stay there, as you know, Mr Chair.

I recognize that the Legislature is a place one must respect and where one must have a certain degree of decorum, but I also think we're moving ahead. You can't stand pat and say, "All you can do is to write with pen and pencil," because it's just not particularly efficient any more.

I have one clause I would like to see. I know these laptops have foldup screens. I, for one, wouldn't like to sit in the House and see people totally with all these things up. I would like to see some way we could modify the degree of that screen where it comes up. If we could have it discreetly down a bit so that it doesn't look that obvious and if it's on our desk in front of us rather than straight up like that so that we're not paying any attention to anything that goes on, I think that would be a halfway compromise that respects the House and also allows members to go about their everyday business. I'm not alone in this. The time we waste doing nothing is just awful.

I would support this move. I think it's very apropos for the time and age we live in, with just that discretion by the members that the screen sort of keeps down a little bit so that it's not obtrusive to everyone and is not seen as just totally disregarding all the proceedings there. That's the only thing I would like to say about it; otherwise I support it. I think we should make a decision on it and move forward to allow ourselves to be much more efficient and busy in the time we have to sit in there.


Mr Mike Farnan (Cambridge): I think it's an item that we would want to look at. I want to refer to the Speaker's comments in reply to the suggestion. The Speaker says, "In my opinion, the chamber remains the forum for parliamentary proceedings." We have to be very concerned when members talk about being in the House and wasting their time. We have to be really concerned that parliamentarians might consider that time spent in the House is a waste of time. I know sometimes as politicians we think if we're not speaking, nothing is happening. Unfortunately, we have to understand that when other people are speaking, we have a responsibility to listen. How can you have debate of the highest order if people are doing busy work, constituency work, writing letters, working on laptop computers and a variety of chores?

Now I know that we have all -- I shouldn't say "all," because there may be some members who have not participated in other activities. The people of Ontario look at the House and they say, "What is happening in the House?" The issues of the day that affect their lives are being debated, and I think they want some assurance that the debate is being carried on on the basis that people are preparing their speeches well, studying the issues and, having done a great deal of research, giving it their best effort to put forward their point of view.

It says something of us as parliamentarians, if one of our colleagues or ourselves, having researched an issue to a tremendous degree -- and I have listened to outstanding contributions in the House. I can look around this room and I can see members in all three parties who have spoken very eloquently and passionately about issues. But it says something of us as parliamentarians if the credit we give to our colleagues is to be writing letters or working on a laptop computer.

I think we really have to ask ourselves a fundamental question. This is a very prestigious assembly. It's the highest assembly in this province where the matters of substance are being debated, and we have a certain decorum that must be maintained. I suggest that those who listen intelligently to a debate and to the arguments being presented by the individual who is speaking will be less inclined to interject in a haphazard manner, sometimes a rude manner and sometimes an unparliamentary manner, if they are actually listening to the dialogue or to the speech. On the other hand, individuals who simply are doing busy work or constituency work will put their heads up and interject and say what they believe to be something witty or relevant; often it isn't.

My question when we study this issue is not that we should be opening up more liberally the kinds of things members should do in the House. My question is whether we should be having instances where members are reading the newspaper, doing a crossword puzzle, heckling, writing letters, doing Christmas cards, doing all kinds of activities about which I suggest the people of Ontario would say, "Hey, I'm not paying my tax dollars to send you down to Queen's Park to do this."

Admittedly members may be writing important letters to their constituents, but I think my constituents in Cambridge, and I suspect most of the residents in Ontario, when they send their parliamentarians to Queen's Park or to Ottawa, expect them to be focused on the issue of the day when they are in the House. If we're discussing health care, should I as a member of Parliament doing House duty be writing a letter on an issue that concerns my local council or some other issue, however important it may be?

I would put the request by the member to have laptops introduced or permitted in the House into the context of a re-examination of all of the things that happen in the House. What's important is not only that we speak in the House but that we listen; that will enhance, I believe, to an extraordinary degree the quality of the interpersonal relations that take place. I mean, can you imagine executives discussing an important issue facing the future of the corporation at a board meeting where some of them were reading the newspaper, where some of them were writing letters -- important letters, mind you, but nevertheless writing letters -- or doing Christmas mail? I think we would be horrified if we found some of the things we find in the Legislature of Ontario in the boardrooms of business.

One of the items on the agenda of the government is indeed parliamentary reform. I see this as part of that whole area, because what happens in that House is of critical importance. People of Ontario expect the very highest standards, and I think the suggestion that's been brought forward today diminishes and does not enhance those standards. Therefore, I will not support it.

However, I think it may say something in terms of the overall picture. Do all of the parties want to have this number of members in the assembly when debates are taking place if indeed the members are already overstretched? I think it should be said in defence of members that very often members are working 60 or 80 hours a week, and they're using absolutely every minute of time, whether it's committee time or whether it's House time, in order to get all their chores done. So it's not always just out of disregard or rudeness that some other activities take place in the House; sometimes it's out of a genuine concern to get the job done and be effective for our constituents.

But I think we have to ask ourselves the question: Are we organized properly if we are asking members to be in the House when there are other chores they have to do? How many members have to be present for a debate? I would say to you that once in the House representing government or opposition, the responsibility is to participate in the debate, and once you click off your mind, you are no longer participating in the debate. You are either speaking or listening, and if you're listening, then the quality of the debate will have been elevated.

I understand why the member put forward this suggestion, but I think it comes to the heart of a much greater question: What is happening in the House? Would it bear scrutiny? I would suggest to you that what happens in the House would not bear scrutiny. Maybe in time we can look at the procedures in the House and how we can elevate and improve and enhance the quality of debate. The introduction of laptop computers into the House will not enhance that and I will not support it.


Mr Noble Villeneuve (S-D-G & East Grenville): I have to support my colleague the member for Cambridge completely. I respect the request by my colleague the member for Halton Centre regarding laptops, but we do have a requirement as elected people here, first and foremost, to the Legislature. I think that in spite of some of the things that occur in there -- it's political, it's everything that can sometimes be very detrimental to our image, it can create cynicism and quite often does -- still it is the ultimate place. You are elected to the Legislature of Ontario.

We have a requirement when we're not in question period that there be a quorum of 20 members and I can appreciate that. Some people would say, "Well, there was no one in the Legislature when I happened to visit." If indeed the 20 members who are there -- and I would hope that it's not a penance sitting there listening to colleagues participating in a debate. We now have the opportunity to question and comment on one of our colleague's participation in a debate; I think that's an added plus.

Whether the laptops are conspicuous or not doesn't make any difference. When you are sitting there as an elected member, one of 130 in this province, I believe your entire attention should be to the debate. Yes, some of us would rather be elsewhere. Indeed, if it doesn't matter, if it's just a head count, I can tell you that I can sit in my office, watch the debate on TV, not need a laptop computer at all and do whatever. So if it's only a matter of physical presence in the Legislature, then I don't think it bears the weight or, I think, the reason we are here.

I certainly cannot support a thin edge of a wedge which would bring forth -- we don't know what the world of technical expertise would bring us next. It may well bring us a laptop computer. Whether it's allowed or not, some people could sneak them in, work at them and you'd never know they were there. I personally think that they should not be there.

Yes, we're all in a position where from time to time we will read a newspaper or we will sign some correspondence. I think we're all guilty of that, but to the taking away of the importance of the Legislature of the province of Ontario. We're all stretched to the limit timewise. We have, in these tough economic times, demands on our time as representatives of 130 ridings, a lot of demands, but I think the Legislature is our first and foremost demand. When we are there we should devote as much of our time to it as possible and participate in the questions or comments on whatever subject is being discussed when it's appropriate. If many of us are here and do burn the midnight oil to try to catch up on correspondence and phone calls, I don't think inside the Legislature is the place to do it.

I apologize, Mr Chair. I have to chair another debate in this building at this very moment, so I ask to be excused. But those are my thoughts.

The Chair: Thank you, Mr Villeneuve. Your points are well taken. Any further debate on this issue?

Mr Mike Cooper (Kitchener-Wilmot): Just a few brief comments about the laptop computers. The one thing we have to look at is that we fought long and hard and we've got offices here and we have staff here now who are doing a lot of our work. That's money well spent and it's public money. So I think for us to start bringing these things into the House -- if it's a question of time, if you have something quick you have to do, there's always the lobby that you can recess to for a few brief moments to get something done.

I think we should keep the decorum in the House the way it always has been and not bring in these electronic devices, because eventually you will have people bringing in cellular phones and things like that. Maybe that's something way off in the future, but I think we should try to keep things the way they are.

With the advent of TV in the House now there are a lot more people watching what's going on. I know there was a fairly big backlash because a number of people weren't in the House, but the public didn't realize that a lot of the members were off in committees at that time.

Now they have the idea that the members aren't always there, that they have other duties they have to perform. If you brought in laptop computers and that got on TV and people saw them doing that, then they would have the perception that the majority of the people are off in committees and that the people who are there aren't paying attention to the debate. The debate that's going on in the House is important to the public, so I think we have to preserve what we have right now; otherwise the government's going to lose total faith from the public.

Mr Stephen Owens (Scarborough Centre): With respect to my colleagues on both sides of this table, I have the greatest level of respect for the parliamentary traditions of this place and I certainly take my position as an MPP with a great level of seriousness. I consider it a great honour to be one of 130 people elected to serve the people of this province. However, in terms of respecting those traditions and the kinds of workloads members put in on their day-to-day jobs, I think one has to take a look at the tools that are available and at our disposal to assist in the performance of that job, to give taxpayers the best service possible.

I don't think it's any sign of disrespect or lack of caring that a member wants to deal with issues in his or her constituency by simply drafting a letter. In terms of how we use our staff resources, in my mind I think it's completely inappropriate to be paying people to take notes that I've thrown together to have a letter drafted and sent back to my desk for approval, when I can simply write the letter, send it through for any grammatical or syntax errors or whatever and have the letter sent out.

In terms of the way life has changed in Ontario, especially now with the situation many of our constituents find themselves in, the workload has changed dramatically for many of the speakers on this issue. I have respect for their years of service in this place, but I would also quietly and gently suggest that life has clearly changed in this province. If there is any way we can better the level of service we provide to our constituents, I think we should utilize that tool.

Working with the request Barbara has put in does not make it mandatory for members to bring in laptops. In terms of the issue with respect to cellular phones, I certainly would have difficulty with that in terms of a ruling or however a motion would be set up; that would be dealt with. I think cellular phones are inappropriate in the Legislature, but in terms of a tool to increase the efficiency of myself as an MPP and maximize the service I can provide to my constituents, I'm afraid I'm at variance with some of my colleagues in this committee. I think that if we want to deal with this in a reasonable way, this issue bears further examination.

In order to maintain a quorum, as set out in the standing orders, I don't think it's appropriate that people just boogie off to the lobby to do letters or whatever it is they need to do. I'm certainly guilty of preparing correspondence and responding to issues of concern to my constituents in the House. It's not because I'm not interested in the debate that's taking place and it's not because I have no respect for the traditions of this place, but I also have a job to do and that job is very important to approximately 62,000 people whom I represent in the riding of Scarborough Centre. As I say, if I have an opportunity to maximize that service, I'd like to take that opportunity.


Mrs Sullivan: If I could just make a final comment, I'm very interested in some of the comments that have been made. I think all members are responsible for several types of work in terms of their representation of their constituents. One aspect is the legislative aspect, participating in the debates and gathering information in association with participation in the debates. Another area is community advocacy, where the member is responsible for ensuring that the issues and concerns of the community are put forward in the appropriate places at the appropriate time.

A third area is two-way communication which is a major part of our jobs. I'm sure it came as a surprise to new members indeed to find out how much two-way communication was a part of the member's work. A fourth area is case work with respect to individuals or community agencies that has to be dealt with.

For somebody who, like myself, is computer literate, the use of the computer is of extraordinary assistance in terms of dealing with the workload in all four of those areas. I see the laptop as an alternative to longhand writing with pen and ink. I also see enormous staff time saved because I'm able to simply pop in a disc, pop out a disc, hand the disc to my staff and the letter which might otherwise take four or five days, or the speech notes which might take four or days for preparation and into their final form, can be done within a matter of hours.

It gives me pause in putting forward the suggestion because of the concern about respect for the traditions of the House. It seems to me, however, that in putting forward the question of the laptop I have done that in a way that restricts the request to the use of a laptop. I concur with the Speaker and Mr Cooper who have indicated that there are some technologies that would not be useful in the House and would deter and detract from the debate.

I don't want to speak particularly as a mother, but as a mother I certainly know that it's possible to follow conversations of other people in real depth while doing other work at the same time, while that work is intellectually stimulating and intellectually challenging. It seems to me the argument that participating in the debate in terms of listening and perhaps making interjections, or indeed the two-minute comment, is not off the table while a member is involved in other duties, whether it's the writing of letters, the reading of materials to prepare for debate or for speech occasions, or responding to constituent inquiries.

I think the work members do in the House does not detract from respect for their colleagues who are participating actively in the debate. It's simply another aspect of the work that they do in the House. I do understand the concerns. I understand that in all legislative matters there is reluctance to introduce change. If we go to the British House we see that people still sit on benches. They don't have the desks we do. Clearly there was another point of view about the role of the chamber in the work of the members when Canada and its provincial parliaments introduced desks to the chamber.

I put that before you. Perhaps a decision may well be integrated into the work that Mr Farnan suggested, of the reform of the parliamentary committee. Maybe that's where this item could be referred. In my view, it's not outlandish to upgrade our legislative institutions so that they're in tune with the times.

I was interested in Mr Farnan's remarks that you don't see people reading newspapers and so on in corporate board meetings. I'll tell you, in corporate board meetings they do take in laptop computers and they use them during the course of those meetings. I think times have changed and those are some of the things we should address.

Mr Farnan: Just to respond to the analogy, if we're going to draw it out, I would be surprised if, at a corporate board meeting discussing policies of critical issue, those who were speaking had the occasion where there were conversations going on with other members where people were using a computer, where people were writing correspondence. It just would not be acceptable.

I want to go back to two points. The first point is the Speaker's, "In my opinion, the chamber remains the forum for parliamentary proceedings." I want to join that to the comment made by the member for Halton Centre, who talked about coming up to date, "In another time, the inkwells on members' desks were filled and quill pens placed in the `pen-hollow,' so that members could do other work while continuing to participate in the debate on legislation before the House."

I wonder. I don't know why the quill pen was there, whether it was so they could write a note, and I can see the occasion where one would write a note to another member and send it via the page. But I think what has happened over the years is that there has been an erosion of the importance of debate, and that erosion has happened.

How often do we see those conversations between members of their own party and people visiting each other across the House and private conversations going on, and the member who has thoroughly prepared his contribution to the debate is virtually ignored? Of course, with the way our parliamentary system is set up and the television cameras are set up, to the viewing audience in Ontario all that is seen is the individual speaking. But if those cameras were to pan around the Legislative Assembly, indeed it would unearth a great many activities that would not be acceptable.

My colleague the member for Kitchener-Wilmot has said there are lobbies available for members if they want to go outside and have a private conversation, if they want to go outside and make a phone call, if they want to go outside and work on their laptop computer, but surely when we talk about the chamber itself, the chamber is the assembly of debate.

I don't think there is any greater insult one can give to an individual who is speaking than simply not to listen. By engaging in other activities when a colleague from our own party or government or from an opposition party is giving it his or her best shot, having done his research and presenting his views in as articulate and cogent a manner as possible, we are degrading the essence of the assembly.

I believe that by bringing this forward the member for Halton Centre has perhaps given us an opportunity to look at the essence. If members are so busy, maybe there should be collective agreements between all the House leaders to reduce the number of members who actually have to be present during the course of a debate so these other important activities can take place. However, again, the people of Ontario, I believe, consider this debate to be important, and I know that if the cameras were panning the assembly, there would be different behaviour by all of us, and I include myself.

I am going to go with the Speaker and support the Speaker in this, because I think the Speaker is calling on this House to enhance the quality of debate, the quality of behaviour and the quality of parliamentary proceedings. Anything that takes away from the enhancement of that is something we should not support.

The Chair: Thank you, Mr Farnan. Any further debate? There being none, I thank the members for at times a passionate plea for the parliamentary traditions of the chamber. What is the wish of the committee on how we deal with this issue? We can deal with it in a couple of ways, vote on this issue now or send it away for further studies, such as to the committee on parliamentary reform, and get more information on what other jurisdictions have done on this issue and other issues. What would be the wish of the committee at this point?


Mr Farnan: Mr Chairman, I will move a motion that the recommendation of the committee is that laptop computers -- if that's the terminology -- not be permitted for use in the Legislative Assembly at this time, and that the matter may be referred for any further discussion revolving around parliamentary reform.

The Chair: There's a motion on the floor. Is there debate on the motion?

Mr Owens: Perhaps I can gently suggest to my colleague the member for Cambridge that in terms of the prohibition he has set out in the first part of that motion, I'm not sure it's really required. I think his intent is to have the issue referred for further exploration through the parliamentary reform committee. I think it's an appropriate motion, but in terms of the prohibition I'm just not sure whether it's absolutely required at this point.

Mr Farnan: I want to respond to that. The motion is meant to reflect the thinking of this committee at this time and also to allow for further discussion. That's why it's in two parts.

The Chair: This committee on parliamentary reform, I understand, is an ad hoc committee of the three parties. If I'm correct, again, the recommendations of that ad hoc committee may or may not end up coming to this committee for further discussion.

Mr Farnan: May or may not: Is this ad hoc committee already established, Mr Chair?

The Chair: I believe it is, as I understand it.

Mr Farnan: Okay. I believe the full range of reform, this issue or any other issue relevant to our life in the Legislative Assembly and our work here as members, is relevant to that committee, and therefore this would automatically be looked at. But I think all I'm doing by this motion is signalling, and therefore I'm going to perhaps just have the motion that it not be permitted at this time as the recommendation of this committee.

I think everything is automatically open to review by the ad hoc committee. We don't have to refer it there. Any item that comes under the auspices of that committee is under review. But I think that at this time we can make a statement as members, that this is where we stand.

Mr Owens: Just a question to the clerk through the Chair: Do we in fact have the authority to set up prohibitions? Not necessarily just on that issue, but I think we may be going beyond the bounds of our mandate.

Clerk of the Committee (Mr Doug Arnott): The standing orders give the committee authority to advise the Speaker, the Board of Internal Economy and the Legislature of its recommendations. I don't see anything wrong with the motion as drafted in that it advises of a recommendation of the committee. It's not giving a prohibition as a decision of the committee.

The Chair: Any further debate on the motion?

Mrs Sullivan: Which motion?

The Chair: Mr Farnan, which motion are you moving, the original one?

Mr Farnan: That the committee recommends that laptop computers not be permitted in the House at this time.

The Chair: Any further debate on the motion?

Mr Farnan: A poll vote, please.

The Chair: I understand that Mrs MacKinnon is not a member of this committee this evening.

Mrs Ellen MacKinnon (Lambton): I'm subbing for somebody, but I was never told who. You mean I shouldn't be here?

The Chair: Every member has a right to sit in on the committee, but as for this evening, you don't have the right to vote on the committee. There was a request for a recorded vote.

The committee divided on Mr Farnan's motion, which was agreed to on the following vote:

Ayes -- 4

Cooper, Farnan, Johnson, Mathyssen.

Nays -- 2

Owens, Sullivan.

The Chair: Any further business before the committee this afternoon? Hearing none, this committee stands adjourned till next Wednesday at 3:30.

The committee adjourned at 1626.