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Legislation

Opposition House leaders want new special committee to take over Commons rule changes study, vow to continue filibuster against Libs’ plan to ‘unilaterally rewrite’ playbook

By Rachel Aiello      

The filibuster at the Procedure and House Affairs committee is back on after two days of unsuccessful talks between Government House Leader Bardish Chagger, Conservative House Leader Candice Bergen, and NDP House Leader Murray Rankin.

Conservative MP Scott Reid, pictured at a recent House Affairs Committee meeting. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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PARLIAMENT HILL—Conservative and NDP House leaders want the government to set up a new House committee to study its proposed sweeping changes to parliamentary rules and say they will continue to filibuster the Procedure and House Affairs Committee in the meantime.

Conservative House Leader Candice Bergen (Portage-Lisgar, Man.) and NDP House Leader Murray Rankin (Victoria, B.C.), who had private negotiations with Government House Leader Bardish Chagger (Waterloo, Ont.) on the Hill over the last few days, released a letter addressed to Ms. Chagger outlining their request on Wednesday to the media.

“With the Procedure and House Affairs Committee set to resume its tainted and unproductive meeting to deal the government’s plan to unilaterally rewrite the rules of Parliament, we, the opposition House leaders, are reaching out to offer a reasonable alternative to the current fruitless standoff,” Ms. Bergen and Mr. Rankin wrote.

The two suggested the government set up a Special Committee on Modernization and Improvement, similar to the one set up by prime minister Jean Chrétien’s government from 2001-2003. That committee operated on all-party consensus and presented six reports to the House. It was also made up of one representative from each recognized party in the House and chaired by the deputy House speaker.

“We remain committed to the Canadian parliamentary tradition, dating back to the original drafting of our Standing Order in 1867, of having all-party support for overhauling the rules of the House. Without your clear commitment to respect that tradition, a good-faith study is impossible. As an alternative, we would like to propose the mode used by the Chrétien government,” the two wrote in the letter to Ms. Chagger.

“We are always open to thoughtful discussions about improving the way the House of Commons operates. That being said, we also recognize the strong historical precedent that has been established for making significant changes to the Standing Orders. As you know, history has demonstrated that the overwhelming majority of substantial Standing Order changes only occurred after receiving consent from all parties,” they wrote, adding that they believe a “consensus-based approach to modernizing the House of Commons, along the lines of the Chrétien model, would respect the time honoured tradition of this Parliament and be more fruitful and productive.”

The opposition parties filibustered the committee two weeks ago for about 38 hours, before the House broke for a week, and picked it up again on Wednesday after the government stopped the filibuster on Monday.

The filibuster, in protest over the government’s attempt to expedite a study and report on the Standing Orders—the rules that govern MPs and the House—by the summer, without a preset condition of all-party support, resumed shortly after 4 p.m. on Wednesday after it was put on-pause on Monday to allow for two days of negotiations between the three House leaders.

The filibuster is scheduled to run through to midnight Wednesday, and pending a breakthrough, will pick back up again at 9 a.m. to midnight on Thursday, with a break from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. for Question Period and for MPs of the committee to fulfill a pre-existing commitment, to meet with the Speaker of the Scottish Parliament.

After Wednesday’s Question Period, Mr. Rankin released the open letter to media in Commons foyer.

The Bloc Québécois also suggested a similar proposal in the House on Wednesday, a separate committee modelled after that of the Special Committee on Electoral Reform, which the Liberals vocally opposed.

The government has made it clear it is not prepared to give in to all-party consent, arguing it would give the opposition parties, namely the Conservatives, the opportunity to veto their mandate commitments.

“Within the election campaign, we made a commitment to Canadians to modernize the way this place works. There is a need for that conversation to take place. Every Member of Parliament has a responsibility just like every party in the House has a responsibility. I understand that. What’s important is that everyone recognize that we have been given a mandate. I will not give the Conservatives a veto over our campaign commitments,” Ms. Chagger told reporters Wednesday afternoon following Question Period, the first in which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) took all questions that were directed at the government in an effort to show the House how a Prime Minister’s Question Period could work under the proposed changes.

The government said the prime minister answered all the questions to make the point that although nothing in the current Standing Orders prevents the prime minister from answering every question now on convention, formally putting it on the books would strengthen the mechanism.

During the election campaign, and as part of Ms. Chagger’s mandate letter, the Liberals committed to finding ways to make the House of Commons more “family-friendly.”

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.

But the opposition parties say the Liberals have backed off other campaign promises, including electoral reform.

On March 10, Ms. Chagger published a discussion paper with a number of proposed reforms to “modernize” the House’s Standing Orders.

Shortly after, 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 parliamentary rules be made by June 2. Opposition MPs fought back and started the filibuster because they said they hadn’t received assurances from the government that any changes will require unanimous consent from all parties and they said they’re being rushed.

The Liberal majority on the House Affairs Committee refused to agree that all-party consent would be necessary to make the changes, which also led to the ongoing filibuster by the opposition.

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

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