PARLIAMENT HILL—Opposition MPs spent nearly 15 hours in the basement of Centre Block on Tuesday, holed-up in a committee meeting room filibustering the Liberal government’s attempt to expedite a study on possible sweeping changes to how the House of Commons rules, and the saga is set to continue on Wednesday too.
After going through much of the day and well-into the night with just a handful of suspensions for votes and a pizza dinner, the Conservative and NDP members of the Procedure and House Affairs Committee will be back at it on Wednesday following their caucus meetings—a deal that was agreed to at about 3 a.m., according to Conservative MP Tom Kmiec (Calgary Shepard, Alta.) who is not a regular committee member, but is one of the Conservative caucus members who spent the night on the Hill to lend support to caucus colleagues.
NDP MP David Christopherson (Hamilton Centre, Ont.), a member of the House Affairs Committee, is calling it “war,” and told the committee on Tuesday evening that he would be addressing caucus on Wednesday with the plan of having everyone of his New Democrat colleagues “on the ceiling” and “ready to bleed” to defend the House rules from the Liberal majority interference.
Liberal MP Scott Simms (Coast of Bays-Central-Notre Dame, Nfld.), a member of the House Affairs Committee, introduced the controversial motion calling for the committee to complete a study and issue recommendations on possible changes to the Standing Orders by June 2, 2017.
The Liberal majority on the committee wanted the vote to happen on Tuesday to determine whether or not the committee could proceed with an expedited study of the Standing Orders, or House rules, by June. The opposition wanted to wait until Thursday’s meeting to vote, so they’d have time to consult their caucuses on it.
The motion proposing the study is strongly aligned in its wording with the March 10 ‘discussion paper’ from Government House Leader Bardish Chagger (Waterloo, Ont.) on potential reforms to the way the House operates, including introducing electronic voting, removing Friday sittings, and changes to how opposition days and private members’ bills are handled.
Tuesday’s meeting was supposed to end at 1 p.m., and opposition MPs tried to adjourn in an effort to push the vote on the motion to Thursday’s meeting, but the Liberal MPs—led by Liberal MP and deputy Government House leader Arnold Chan (Scarborough-Agincourt, Ont.)—refused to grant the unanimous consent needed to adjourn the meeting, and are continuing to do so.
So, in order to delay a vote being called on the motion, the opposition is continuing debate.
Conservative MP Scott Reid called it a “despicable attempt” by the government to ram through sweeping changes to how the House of Commons operates, even including when it sits. Mr. Reid (Lanark-Frontenac-Kingston, Ont.) made the comment about two hours into the filibuster. He said the way the government is going about forcing the vote to change the Standing Orders, or House rules, is a “contemptible abuse” of the system.
Throughout the evening, members of the opposition took turns holding the floor, including Mr. Christopherson, who went over previous parliamentary studies of the Standing Orders and the much longer timelines they had to complete them, compared to the time frame proposed by this motion. He also took every opportunity to highlight previous broken promises or contradictions of the Liberal government’s word on things like electoral reform and the independence of committees.
“We’re filibustering to protect the right to filibuster,” Mr. Christopherson said. “Who would have thought it would be this government, under this prime minister” to try to use its majority to make changes to the Standing Orders without all-party backing, he said. “It’s not your House… we have rights, too.”
Pizza was delivered to the committee members at around 10 p.m., and other MPs arrived to step-in and take their shift at the committee, which—for the Liberal members—essentially consisted of sitting there and saying nothing as the opposition continued their knocks on the government’s behaviour.
Once the cards had been put on the table at around 1 p.m. on Tuesday, and the opposition knew they’d have to continue filibustering to put off the vote, Mr. Reid said the Liberals were going to ram through “whatever the fuck they want,” and then quickly apologized for his vulgarity.
“This is directly from the Prime Minister’s Office,” said Mr. Christopherson, who called the Liberal procedural move “a joke.”
Conservative MP Blake Richards (Banff-Airdrie, Alta.), another member of the committee, said the Liberals are attempting to “force through” changes that will benefit the governing Liberals and that will make them less accountable to Canadians.
“Frankly, it’s disgusting and pathetic,” Mr. Richards said at committee.
Mr. Simms’ motion calls for the committee to, if needed, meet outside of its regularly scheduled committee sitting hours in order to complete the study on a wide range of potential House reforms. It also proposes that the study be completed by June 2, ahead of the House’s scheduled summer break on June 23, according to a copy of the letter sent to The Hill Times by Mr. Simms’ office.
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. These themes are nearly identical to the three main subjects in Ms. Chagger’s discussion paper, which included changing the Standing Orders.
The opposition MPs, throughout ongoing meetings, have continued to level allegations that Mr. Simms’ motion was not done on his own initiative and rather was a direction from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s (Papineau, Que.) office, which Mr. Simms denied, saying “my direction came from experience.”
The motion from Mr. Simms was sent to committee about two hours after Ms. Chagger’s discussion paper was released, and Mr. Reid said that between reading it, drafting the motion, and getting it translated, “clearly this is a coordinated effort.”
In arguing his proposed and defeated amendment to the motion—to make the deadline open-ended, and to require that all of the recommendations for Standing Order changes that the committee makes would need to be unanimously agreed to—Mr. Reid said it was completely unfeasible for all aspects of the Standing Orders and their potential changes to be explored by the motion’s proposed June 2 deadline.
Mr. Reid dominated the debate, taking the floor for the majority of the filibuster. Throughout his dialogue, he drew parallels between past Liberal procedural moves—including the controversial Motion 6 from May 2016 which would have given the majority government more control over Commons debate and sitting hours, and their broken electoral reform promise—and this new effort from the government to change the rules of the House.
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 and enough good-will, is within the first two years of a mandate, before tensions in the House get too strained.
“There’s no good will, I’m sorry… I don’t see any,” Mr. Christopherson said on Tuesday.
The committee, which is the one tasked with tackling the expansive review of rules that govern the House of Commons, has been very busy. The group has more meetings left to go on its report on recommendations from the chief electoral officer on the 42nd election, before aiming to report back in May.
Ms. Chagger’s office declined to offer comment on the opposition allegations of the PMO influencing the motion, or whether there is a lack of good-will between her and her Conservative and NDP House leader counterparts. When asked about the ongoing saga in the committee during Question Period on Tuesday, Ms. Chagger said, “Our objective has always been to ensure that Parliament is relevant to Canadians and that the House becomes accountable, predictable, efficient, and transparent.”
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