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House Affairs Committee puts filibuster on pause once again, as House leaders negotiate behind scenes to end standoff

By Rachel Aiello      

House leaders are discussing how to proceed with proposed changes to the Standing Orders, the rules that govern MPs and how the House of Commons is run.

Liberal MP Larry Bagnell, chair of the House Affairs Committee, announced on Monday that the ongoing meeting, which has stretched from March 21 as a result of the opposition parties' filibuster, has been suspended until Wednesday at 4 p.m. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

PARLIAMENT HILL—The Procedure and House Affairs Committee paused its filibuster Monday afternoon against the government’s proposed sweeping changes to House rules while the Liberal, Conservative, and New Democrat House leaders talked behind closed doors to end the standoff.

Deputy Government House Leader Arnold Chan (Scarborough-Agincourt, Ont.) told The Hill Times that it’s the “best way” for the two sides to come together over the proposed changes to the Standing Orders, outside the “theatre” of committee.

“There clearly are some discussions that are going on between the House leaders … this is an opportunity to see if we can find a pathway forward between both the House leader’s desire to have a study on the issue, and the opposition’s view that this be done under certain rules and conditions that they want to impose,” said Mr. Chan, following the brief noon meeting of the committee on Monday.

“Let them have those conversations. I think they need to have those privately. … The best way for this to resolve itself is for there to be honest discussions amongst the House leaders,” Mr. Chan said, noting that at the committee, as is the case with many televised aspects of the Commons there can be a “measure of theatre sometimes.”

The filibuster at the committee has been suspended until Wednesday, April 5 at 4 p.m. to allow for the House leaders to continue their conversations.

Liberal MP Larry Bagnell (Yukon), chair of House Affairs Committee, made the pronouncement seconds into the meeting that it would be suspended until Wednesday. Monday’s meeting what was meant to be the ongoing filibuster in protest over the government’s attempt to expedite a study and report on the Standing Orders—the rules that govern MPs—by the summer, without a preset condition of all-party support.

Government House Leader Bardish Chagger (Waterloo, Ont.), Conservative House Leader Candice Bergen (Portage-Lisgar, Man.), and NDP House Leader Murray Rankin (Victoria, B.C.) had met earlier in Ms. Chagger’s office on Monday morning.

Ms. Chagger told reporters Monday afternoon that conversations are continuing.

“As you know, we always have conversations behind closed doors,” said Ms. Chagger. “It’s part of the way things work here, so I appreciate having those conversations and we’ll continue to build off of them.”

Conservative MP Scott Reid (Lanark-Frontenac-Kingston, Ont.), who is a member of the committee, said Monday’s pause of the filibuster was “unexpected.”

Declared Mr. Reid: “I came with a mountain of speaking notes.”

Mr. Reid is next on the list of speakers following NDP MP David Christopherson (Hamilton Centre, Ont.), the vice-chair of the committee, who has the floor and was set to continue the filibuster on Monday.

On March 10, Ms. Chagger published a discussion paper with a number of proposed reforms to “modernize” the House’s Standing Orders, the rules that govern business and conduct in the Commons.

The discussion paper proposes changes to how government and private members’ bills are scheduled; bringing in electronic voting; creating a Prime Minister’s Question Period; lengthening the “upper limit” for responding to written questions from 45 to 65 days; giving parliamentary secretaries and those not belonging to major parties more committee powers; allowing the House to sit earlier in January and September and longer in June; and either changing or eliminating Friday sittings and allocating those hours to other days.

Shortly after Ms. Chagger introduced her paper on March 10, Liberal MP Scott Simms (Coast of Bays-Central-Notre Dame, N.L.) also introduced a motion before the committee calling for a study and recommendations on possible changes to the Standing Orders be made by June 2. Opposition MPs fought back and started the filibuster because they said they haven’t received assurances from the government that any changes will require unanimous consent from all parties and they said they’re being rushed.

A refusal from the Liberal majority on the committee to agree to an amendment that would make all-party consent necessary to make the changes has led to an ongoing filibuster by the opposition.

As a result, the March 21 meeting has yet to adjourn, and will now resume mid-week.

Procedurally, the filibuster can continue as long as the opposition have people ready to speak—which they say is indefinitely—unless an agreement can be reached that causes them to cede the floor.

“What is being potentially proposed here could be very substantial changes to the practices of the House of Commons, and people are afraid of change, but there’s a process and we’ll have to obviously find a pathway forward,” said Mr. Chan.

Ideas in the Liberal discussion paper on reform
Friday sittings: Noting that Friday’s reduced schedule provides for “no more than 2.5 hours” of government orders and committees don’t sit, it suggests Friday sitting hours could be “reapportion[ed]” to the other four sitting days or make Fridays like the other days with “the possible exception” of having two hours of private member’s business at the end of the day “to allow some MPs to leave earlier to travel to their ridings.”
Electronic voting: Stating that the “ringing of the bells and taking of recorded divisions is a time-consuming exercise,” it suggests electronic voting would allow MPs to “record their vote and then resume other political and constituency work.”
House calendar: If the House opts “to move to a more efficient week,” it suggests consideration for having the House sit earlier in January and September, and later in June, and to building in more flexibility to the number of House sittings each year. It notes changes to dates of adjournment could provide more opportunity for debate and would “calm the acrimonious proceedings” at the end of the summer and winter sessions.
Routine proceedings: It suggests changes to the scheduling of debate on motions from MPs, which it says can “deprive the House of the ability to deliberate on the intended item for debate during Government Orders.”
Private members’ business: It suggests that a “key way to empower” MPs is through private members’ business, like “adding another rubric for Private Members’ Business each week,” considering allowing MPs to swap places on the House’s list of consideration “under certain conditions,” and “ways to manage Senate Public Bills,” which delay PMBs, “possibly by having a separate rubric for these bills.”
Prorogation: Noting the government’s commitment to not abuse prorogation to “avoid politically difficult situations,” it suggests requiring the government to table a document in Parliament early in the session following prorogation outlining its reasons, which would be referred to committee for study, or to “reinstate the prorogation ceremony” at the end of the session.
Time allocation: It notes British examples of “alternative ways to manage time for debate” being implemented, namely through “programming,” which it suggests would provide great predictability to House proceedings and greater certainty for committees to plan work. Among other things, it suggests a “‘made-in-Canada’ programming scheme” for government bills, motions, and Senate amendments could be examined, which “could include a range of time for all stages” of considering bills.
Questions: It suggests reforms to Question Period could include creating a prime minister’s question time, and, perhaps, also lengthening time for questions and answers. It also suggests changing the upper limit for responses to written questions from 45 to 65 days.
Omnibus: Noting that the “only recourse” to omnibus bills currently is for MPs to seek to divide them at committee, it suggests the House Speaker could given authority to divide such bills, allowing for them to be debated together but subject to separate votes and separate committee studies.
Committee management: Noting committees have long been “lauded as the venue in which the substantive work of Parliament is conducted,” it suggests making one MP outside of the major parties an “ex-officio,” member of committee, with the ability to question witnesses and travel for studies, but not to vote or count toward quorum. It also suggests parliamentary secretaries could be given similar rights at committees. As well, it says MPs “are able to sow dysfunction in committees by filibustering proceedings,” and suggests a possible “remedy” could be limiting interventions to 10 minutes, after which time an MP would have to yield the floor, though they could make as many interventions overall as desired.—Compiled by Laura Ryckewaert.

The Hill Times 

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