PARLIAMENT HILLâFour days of filibustering the Liberalsâ attempt to expedite House rule changes was a product of Conservative and New Democrat backroom collaborative efforts to present a âunified frontâ in the face of what the opposition called âpolitical thuggeryâ from the Liberal government.
In interviews withÂ The Hill TimesÂ during and proceeding the initial four days of filibusteringâwhich is scheduled to resume when MPs return to the Hill on Monday, April 3âopposition MPs on the Procedure and House Affairs Committee detailed the joint efforts taken to present what NDP MP David Christopherson (Hamilton Centre, Ont.) called a âunified effortâ responding to the governmentâs attempt to push through changes to the Standing Orders, the rules that govern MPs, by the summer without all-party support.
The opposition response to the Liberalsâ âpolitical thuggeryâ was about protecting as many procedural tools as possible that allow the opposition to slow down the government, Mr. Christopherson said.
âIf our rights are lost, itâs not just the official opposition or the third party, itâs all of us. âŠ Weâre working very closely,â he said.
âNothing is more important to us right now than stopping the government from unilaterally changing how we do democracy here in Parliament. âŠ Itâs so important that youâve got the NDP and the Conservatives arm in arm, singing Kumbaya, and nothing right now is going to phase us from continuing this fight,â he said.
As soon as the opposition decided a filibuster might be needed, Conservative and NDP staff began preparing notes for MPs to speak to, and worked jointly on a speaking list that would have enough members to run through the weekend and beyond. The delay in letting Finance Minister Bill Morneau (Toronto Centre, Ont.) table the federal budget on March 22 was also a coordinated effort, said Mr. Christopherson, who said meetings happened âall through the morningâ to plan how theyâd be able to bring national attention to the âinsider baseballâ fight.
Conservative MP Scott Reid (Lanark-Frontenac-Kingston, Ont.) said that while public opinion doesnât support the opposition using these procedural tactics all the time, this occasion could be a chance to ârally public opinion behind something that we think might be of importance, if the public has a chance to look at it.â
He said: âWe canât win this if the government is ableâafter people had a chance to look at itâto show that the population supports it. But if it turns out that the public doesnât support it, then the government has to back down. Thereâs lots of examples of this, most recently being the electoral reform issue.â
The opposition chose to dig in its heels now against a motion proposing a study on the Standing Orders, as opposed to later in the process, because they worried it might be too late to make a difference later on, and their efforts could be reduced to a dissenting report filed against the Liberal majority on committee.
Mr. Christopherson said past studies of the Standing Orders acknowledged that less was able to get done when the need for all-party support was upheld, but upholding that process was more important.
Opposition MPs spent March 21-24Â in Centre Block meeting rooms filibustering, first in the basement, and then moved to the Reading Room so the proceedings could be televised. The standoff is set to continue following the constituency week on Monday, April 3.
The Conservative and NDP members of the Procedure and House Affairs Committee began their procedural manoeuvring shortly after the March 21 regularly scheduled meeting got underway when it became apparent the Liberal majority on the committee wanted to vote that day on the motionÂ calling for the committee toÂ complete a study and issue recommendations on possible changes to the Standing Orders by June 2.
The opposition wanted to wait until the March 23 meeting to vote so theyâd have time to consult their caucuses on it. It quickly became about the opposition wanting to show the government that it wasnât going to back down on its request, and they proposed a sub-amendment to the motion that no changes would be reported back by the committee that did not have the backing of all parties.
The March 21 meeting was supposed to end at 1 p.m., and opposition MPsÂ tried to adjourn in an effort to push the vote on the motion to two days later. But the Liberal MPsâled by Deputy Government House leader Arnold Chan (Scarborough-Agincourt, Ont.)ârefused to grant the unanimous consent needed to adjourn the meeting, and so, with some breaks for votes, pizza, Question Periods, and a few hours of sleep, the filibuster continued up until Friday at 11 a.m., with plans to return.
âThey have a right to filibuster. I would never want to take their right to filibuster away, never. And so I gleefully walk in this room at one oâclock in the morning, knowing that democracy is being preserved,â said Liberal MP Scott Simms (Coast of Bays-Central-Notre Dame, N.L.), a member of the House Affairs Committee, and the one who introduced theÂ controversial motion.
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 membersâ bills are handled. As well, it suggested limiting the amount of time members can speak at committee in an effort to prevent filibustering.
âIf we lose this filibuster, we may be seeing the last filibuster in Canadian history, and none of us want to be authors of that,â Mr. Christopherson said.
Simms lobbied for a seat on House Affairs committee
Mr. Simmsâ 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 Houseâs scheduled summer breakÂ on June 23.
Opposition MPs have alleged that Mr. Simmsâ motion was not done on his own volition, but rather on the direction of Prime Minister Justin Trudeauâs (Papineau, Que.) office, a charge that Mr. Simms denies.
âI guess when you spend 13 years [as an MP], 10 of which are in opposition, now youâre back in government, I donât get too angry about antics. These are antics,â Mr. Simms said.
Mr. Simms is one of the editors of a book of essays coming out in May,Â Turning Parliament Inside Out,Â for which he wrote and edited alongside Conservative MP Michael Chong (Wellington-Halton Hills, Ont.) and NDP MP Kennedy Stewart (Burnaby South, B.C.) on the urgent need for Parliamentary reform and possible suggestions that could actually see it done. In it, he says his focus is more on empowering provincial backbenchers to have a voice in Ottawa, but says his reason for taking on this motion is the same as why he contributed to the book.
He said in the process of writing, he had âseveralâ conversations with Ms. Chagger, which he said evolved in to him going over the discussion paper before it was released, and indicating he wanted to be put on the committee to further the Standing Order conversation.
Mr. Simmsâ appointment to the committee was fairly recent. He said being on the committee wasnât solely about the discussion paper, but more about being connected to his interest in the issue.
âThe government has again absolutely mishandled thisâ
Up until the end of last week, members of the opposition took turns holding the floor by going 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. They also discussed reasons for opposing the changes as proposed, and took the opportunity to highlight previously broken promises or contradictions of the Liberal governmentâs word on things like electoral reform and the independence of committees.
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 governmentâs behaviour.
At what seemed like the apex of the tension, at about midday on March 23, Ms. Chagger held a media availability in the House Foyer in which she doubled down on her position and attempted to offer explanations to what she called âmisconceptionsâ in what sheâs proposing, and placed the blame for the filibuster on the oppositionâs skewed view of whatâs on the table.
âThis was not a recipe to say this is exactly what we will do and this is how weâll do it. I believe we can improve upon the ideas that we campaigned on, hence thatâs why I want to have the conversation,â Ms. Chagger said. âI do believe this place needs to be modernized. The more hours I sit in the House, the more I believe that we do need to do things better.â
But her plea was unconvincing to opposition, as both Conservative House leader Candice Bergen (Portage-Lisgar, Man.) and NDP House leader Murray Rankin (Victoria, B.C.) said this attempt to change House rules is unprecedented.
âThe government has again absolutely mishandled this,â Ms. Bergen told reporters following Ms. Chaggerâs time at the microphone, calling her counterpartâs response to the bubbling issue a âword salad.â She pledged that until the all-party agreement was part of the study going forward, the opposition has plans to use âevery toolâ at their disposal.
Mr. Rankin toldÂ The Hill Times:âAnd [the Liberals] havenât even got the majority. âŠ They have 39.5 per cent, only, of people who voted for them. They act as though they have 100 per cent of the power. âŠ That is something that Stephen Harper never once in 10 years tried to do.â
Mr. Rankin was planning on staying in Ottawa over the weekend to sub in at committee if the proceedings ended up going over the weekend and into the break week, as was anticipated up until late Thursday evening when committee Chair Larry Bagnell (Yukon) indicated he didnât intend to have everyone push through their off-time, House staff included.
Government âblinkingâ by suspending to April 3
Mr. Bagnell toldÂ The Hill TimesÂ it was ultimately his decision to make as to when the committee would suspend until, and after taking the temperature of some Conservative and Liberal members on the committee, decided that was the schedule desired.
In committee on Friday morning, Mr. Christopherson called it the government âblinkingâ by letting the reprieve of a week come.
âWe are seeing public pressure mount on the executive to end this,â said Conservative MP Tom Kmiec (Calgary Shephard, Alta.), who despite not being a regular member of the committee, held the floor for one of the longest amounts of time during the filibusterâabout nine hours.
His colleague, Conservative MP Blake Richards (Banff-Airdrie, Alta.), a member of the committee, toldÂ The Hill TimesÂ that Conservative MPs have been getting âhundreds, thousands of emails from Canadians that are saying âthis is not acceptable.â â
Mr. Reid said, âMy guess is this is the governmentâs chance to sit down and figure out and rethinkâ what he called a âhasty and ill-thought out initiative.â
The opposition say they have enough speaking material to filibuster until the end of the sitting and delay a vote that canât be called as long as there are speakers on the roster. They say this would force the government to either compromise or vote in support of the oppositionâs requirement for all-party consent.
If the opposition is unable or declines to hold the filibuster, the Liberals on committee can push forward and report recommendations for rule changes that the government can then move in motions in the House for all MPs to vote on, and potentially have the new rules in place for the fall sitting.
The Hill Times
Proposed changes to the Standing Orders in Government House Leader Bardish Chaggerâs discussion Paper: