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Liberal MP Simms tries to expedite House modernization process

By Rachel Aiello      

Liberal MP Scott Simms sent a motion to colleagues to see if proposed changes to House rules could be completed by June. Government House Leader Bardish Chagger reignited the conversation with a ‘discussion paper’ on potential reforms.

'I would hope that they look at it sooner [rather] than later, but we will have to allow PROC to set their agenda,' Government House Leader Bardish Chagger said in an interview on a new discussion paper on potential House reforms. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

The Procedure and House Affairs Committee—tasked with tackling the expansive review of rules that govern the House of Commons—is being urged by committee member and Liberal MP Scott Simms to make a special effort and hold extra sittings, if necessary, to make headway on a study on possible changes to the Standing Orders.

Mr. Simms (Coast of Bays-Central-Notre Dame, N.L.) on March 10 presented his fellow committee members a motion to have the committee, if needed, meet outside its regular sitting hours in order to complete the study on a wide range of potential House reforms, such as introducing electronic voting, removing Friday sittings, and changes in how opposition days and private members’ bills are handled

The motion, which has yet to be discussed at this committee, proposes that the study to be completed by June 2, just ahead of the House’s scheduled rise for the summer, according to a copy of the letter sent to The Hill Times by Mr. Simms’ office.

This renewed push for MPs to get serious about looking at potential reforms was sent to committee members the same afternoon as Government House Leader Bardish Chagger’s (Waterloo, Ont.) discussion paper on reforming the Standing Orders of the House was released.

Mr. Simms’ motion also asks for the study to be divided into three themes: management of debate, management of the House and its sittings, and management of committees. They are nearly identical to the three main themes in Ms. Chagger’s paper.

Mr. Simms’ office denied coordinating with the government in sending the motion to the committee, saying Mr. Simms was acting as an MP and committee member that is interested in seeing the House become more productive through these reforms.

It is unclear yet whether other members of the committee will back Mr. Simms’ motion, which they could look at during their next meeting, expected March 22.

It was a Liberal campaign promise to see Parliament modernized, and MPs of various political stripes have indicated to The Hill Times that there is an appetite for the Standing Orders to get more than the usual pruning.

In addition to touching on some of the reforms first brought up as part of the October 2016 House-wide day of debate on the Standing Orders that routinely happens early in each new Parliament, Ms. Chagger floated some other changes that touch on her mandated responsibilities to reform Question Period, such as ending to use of omnibus bills and unnecessary prorogation, strengthening committees, and making the Commons more family-friendly.

Mr. Chagger’s paper also proposes tools be put in place to stop filibustering at committees, extending the deadline for written questions to 65 days from 46 days, improving the predictability in the scheduling of House time for government bills to avoid using time allocation, and ways to split up omnibus bills.

Ms. Chagger said the main aim of changing Standing Orders is to balance the government’s requirement to pass its legislative agenda with the rights of all MPs to be heard.

“I believe these are sensible reforms that will serve to modernize the House and bring it into the 21st century, and make it more relevant, transparent, and accountable to Canadians, exactly what we committed to in the campaign,” Ms. Chagger said in an interview on Friday.

She added that she hopes the discussion paper, which she also sent to the opposition House leaders, is given a “good look” from the members of the Procedure and House Affairs (PROC) Committee.

“I would hope that they look at it sooner [rather] than later, but we will have to allow PROC to set their agenda,” she said.

Another change floated in the discussion is to allow parliamentary secretaries to be considered “independent members” of committees, as opposed to their current status as non-voting members, a provision the Liberals put in place at the start of their mandate.

“We think it’s worth considering having the minister’s link to Parliament, which is the parliamentary secretary, be more involved in the process at this key stage,” Ms. Chagger said.

As well, while the Liberals have promised to end the use of prorogation, now the government, through the discussion paper, is laying out some conditions that could justify prorogation, such as if a report is tabled explaining the government’s rationale for doing so.

When asked if the government is considering proroguing in this mandate, Ms. Chagger said, “There are times when a prime minister asks the Governor General that a session be ended with prorogation,” and went on to say she wants the committee to look at how to deal with the “improper use” of this procedural tool.

As The Hill Times has previously reported, there had been skepticism growing at the end of last year over whether the government would be able to deliver on its commitment to modernize Parliament, or at least get all-party consent on changes, as is normal for such operational changes. Government officials have said the best time to make such changes, with all-party consent, is within the first two years of a mandate, before tensions in the House get too strained.

In early December, the Procedure and House Affairs Committee had its first meeting on the proposed changes and has not met on it since, as the committee has been almost solely focused on its report on recommendations from the chief electoral officer on the 42nd election. Its next priority will be studying Bill C-33, amending the Canada Elections Act once it passes second reading.

Following that first meeting on the Standing Orders, Liberal MP Larry Bagnell (Yukon), chair of the committee, told The Hill Times in December it’s unlikely the committee will have the time to make significant progress on Standing Orders until later this year, especially given that some of the more radical suggestions being considered could take weeks to get through.

At the time, Conservative MP Tom Lukiwski (Moose Jaw-Lake Centre-Lanigan, Sask.), a former member of the House Affairs Committee and former parliamentary secretary to the government House leader, told The Hill Times that there absolutely should be unanimous consent before anything is done to Standing Orders, which would whittle down the reforms considerably, as his party has already come out hard against getting rid of Friday sittings, among other proposed changes.

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