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Opposition parties say their ongoing filibuster a protest against Liberals’ ‘political thuggery’

By Rachel Aiello      

'It’s so important that you’ve got the NDP and the Conservatives arm in arm, singing Kumbaya, and nothing right now is going to phase us from continuing this fight,' says the NDP's David Christopherson.

Liberal MPs Nick Whalen, left, and Scott Simms at the Procedure and House Affairs Committee meeting on Wednesday night, March 22, 2017. The opposition MPs on the House Affairs Committee filibustered for about 38 hours last week and plan to continue delay the study of the government's discussion paper on sweeping changes to the House rules next week when the House returns. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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PARLIAMENT HILL—Four days of filibustering the Liberals’ attempt to expedite House rule changes was a product of Conservative and New Democrat backroom collaborative efforts to present a “unified front” in the face of what the opposition called “political thuggery” from the Liberal government.

In interviews with The Hill Times during and proceeding the initial four days of filibustering—which is scheduled to resume when MPs return to the Hill on Monday, April 3—opposition 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 “unified effort” responding to the government’s attempt to push through changes to the Standing Orders, the rules that govern MPs, by the summer without all-party support.

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The opposition response to the Liberals’ “political thuggery” was about protecting as many procedural tools as possible that allow the opposition to slow down the government, Mr. Christopherson said.

“If our rights are lost, it’s not just the official opposition or the third party, it’s all of us. … We’re working very closely,” he said.

“Nothing is more important to us right now than stopping the government from unilaterally changing how we do democracy here in Parliament. … It’s so important that you’ve got the NDP and the Conservatives arm in arm, singing Kumbaya, and nothing right now is going to phase us from continuing this fight,” he said.

Tyler Crosby, legislative assistant to NDP MP David Christopherson, at the Procedure and House Affairs Committee meeting on March 22, 2017. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

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 “all through the morning” to plan how they’d be able to bring national attention to the “insider baseball” fight.

Conservative MP Scott Reid (Lanark-Frontenac-Kingston, Ont.) said that while public opinion doesn’t support the opposition using these procedural tactics all the time, this occasion could be a chance to rally public opinion behind something that we think might be of importance, if the public has a chance to look at it.”

He said: “We can’t win this if the government is able—after people had a chance to look at it—to show that the population supports it. But if it turns out that the public doesn’t support it, then the government has to back down. There’s lots of examples of this, most recently being the electoral reform issue.”

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 21-24 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 motion calling for the committee to 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 they’d have time to consult their caucuses on it. It quickly became about the opposition wanting to show the government that it wasn’t 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 MPs tried to adjourn in an effort to push the vote on the motion to two days later. But the Liberal MPs—led by Deputy Government House leader Arnold Chan (Scarborough-Agincourt, Ont.)—refused 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.

They 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 o’clock in the morning, knowing that democracy is being preserved,” 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 the 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 members’ bills are handled. As well, it suggested limiting the amount of time members can speak at committee in an effort to prevent filibustering.

“If we lose this filibuster, we may be seeing the last filibuster in Canadian history, and none of us want to be authors of that,” Mr. Christopherson said.

Simms lobbied for a seat on House Affairs 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.

Conservative MPs Garnett Genuis, left, and Scott Reid at the Procedure and House Affairs Committee filibuster on March 22, 2017. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Opposition MPs have alleged that Mr. Simms’ motion was not done on his own volition, but rather on the direction of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s (Papineau, Que.) office, a charge that Mr. Simms denies.

“I guess when you spend 13 years [as an MP], 10 of which are in opposition, now you’re back in government, I don’t get too angry about antics. These are antics,” Mr. Simms said.

Mr. Simms is one of the editors of a book of essays coming out in May, Turning Parliament Inside Out, 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 “several” 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. Simms’ appointment to the committee was fairly recent. He said being on the committee wasn’t solely about the discussion paper, but more about being connected to his interest in the issue.

‘The government has again absolutely mishandled this’

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 government’s 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 government’s 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 “misconceptions” in what she’s proposing, and placed the blame for the filibuster on the opposition’s skewed view of what’s on the table.

“This was not a recipe to say this is exactly what we will do and this is how we’ll do it. I believe we can improve upon the ideas that we campaigned on, hence that’s why I want to have the conversation,” Ms. Chagger said. “I 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.”

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.

“The government has again absolutely mishandled this,” Ms. Bergen told reporters following Ms. Chagger’s time at the microphone, calling her counterpart’s response to the bubbling issue a “word salad.” She pledged that until the all-party agreement was part of the study going forward, the opposition has plans to use “every tool” at their disposal.

Larry Bagnell, chair, at the Procedure and House Affairs Committee meeting on March 22, 2017. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Mr. Rankin told The Hill Times:“And [the Liberals] haven’t even got the majority. … 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. … That is something that Stephen Harper never once in 10 years tried to do.”

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 didn’t intend to have everyone push through their off-time, House staff included.

Government ‘blinking’ by suspending to April 3

Mr. Bagnell told The Hill Times 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 “blinking” by letting the reprieve of a week come.

“We are seeing public pressure mount on the executive to end this,” 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 filibuster—about nine hours.

His colleague, Conservative MP Blake Richards (Banff-Airdrie, Alta.), a member of the committee, told The Hill Times that Conservative MPs have been getting “hundreds, thousands of emails from Canadians that are saying ‘this is not acceptable.’ ”

Mr. Reid said, “My guess is this is the government’s chance to sit down and figure out and rethink” what he called a “hasty and ill-thought out initiative.”

The opposition say they have enough speaking material to filibuster until the end of the sitting and delay a vote that can’t 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 opposition’s 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 Chagger’s discussion Paper:

  • Either get rid of Friday sittings and appropriate that House time to other days, or to make them full sitting days with extended Private Members’ Bill time in the afternoon so some MPs can still travel home.
  • Implement electronic voting in the House of Commons when it moves to West Block in 2018.
  • Schedule the House to resume sitting earlier in January, going later in June and back from the summer earlier in September.
  • Implement other ways than unanimous consent or closure to let the House to agree to sit beyond the dates of adjournment and to sit longer on any given day.
  • Study different ways to schedule debate on moveable motions and opposition day motions.
  • Adding another rubric for private members’ business every week, look at letting members switch places on the list for consideration, and possibly creating a second, separate list for Senate public bills.
  • On prorogation, make it so the government has to table a document explaining why they did so, or reinstate the prorogation ceremony.
  • Consider creating and applying a programming schedule for government bills, motions, and Senate amendments. It could include a time range for all stages of considering a bill.
  • Allotting one day of the week for a prime minister’s Question Period.
  • Extend the deadline for response to written question to 65 days from 45 days.
  • Give the Speaker powers to divide omnibus bills for the purpose of splitting votes and committee study.
  • Make one independent committee member an ex-officio member of with all privileges except for the ability to vote, or to constitute quorum to allow independent MPs to participate in in-camera proceedings, question witnesses, and travel.
  • Give parliamentary secretaries back some of their power by giving them the same powers as independent committee members.
  • Remove the ability for filibusters at committee by limiting speaking time to 10-minute interventions.

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