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Filibuster over potential House rule changes ‘a waste of everybody’s time,’ says former Liberal MP

By Rachel Aiello      

Former MP Paul Szabo say his party 'should have known that that was going to be the reaction.'

The filibuster at the Procedure and House Affairs Committee continued Tuesday morning, as the opposition continues to resist the government's proposed study and changes to the Standing Orders. By the end of last week, the committee had reached roughly the 60-hour-mark of the standoff. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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PARLIAMENT HILL—Former Liberal MP Paul Szabo says the ongoing filibuster at the Procedure and House Affairs Committee 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, is “a waste of everybody’s time.”

Mr. Szabo popped into Centre Block’s railway room on Tuesday to take in the ongoing procedural wrangling, along with fellow former Liberal MP Derek Lee. Mr. Lee was an MP for 23 years and in 1999, the year he became parliamentary secretary to then-government House leader, published a book on parliamentary subpoena powers, and in a second book he explored potential procedural reforms for the House, that to this day is used as a guide by MPs.

In an interview with The Hill Times Mr. Szabo said: “What is happening in there right now is really a waste of everybody’s time, and it’s unfortunate.”

On Tuesday, a cake was brought to committee to jokingly celebrate the three-week anniversary of the ongoing filibuster by opposition members. The Hill Times photograph by Rachel Aiello

The MP for Mississauga South, Ont., between 1993 and 2011 who, during his time as an MP, was recognized for holding the record for the most words spoken in the House of Commons, and spent time as chair of the House Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics Committee, said there are ways for Liberal MP Larry Bagnell (Yukon), chair of the committee in a procedural logjam, to shut the proceedings down—something he says he would advise at this point.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday morning, the committee celebrated the three-sitting-week anniversary of the filibuster with a cake, adorned with “Happy Filibay” in cursive icing, and candles. The filibuster began on March 21, when Liberal MP Scott Simms’ (Coast of Bays-Central-Notre Dame, N.L.) motion came up that calls for a study and recommendations on possible changes to the parliamentary rules be made by June 2.

The motion came after a March 10 discussion paper from Government House Leader Bardish Chagger (Waterloo, Ont.) that proposed a number of reforms to “modernize” the House’s Standing Orders, including: 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.

By the end of last week, the committee had reached roughly the 60-hour-mark of the filibuster standoff.

“Would you think this is reflective of a collaborative Parliament among the parties? No. It’s adversarial. And there are certain things that happen in Parliament that should never be dealt with on an adversarial basis,” said Mr. Szabo, who says he thinks the government should “retrench” and find a way to work with all parties.

MPs of all political stripes indulged in some ‘Happy Filibay’ cake. Liberal MP and committee chair Larry Bagnell; Liberal MP Scott Simms; Conservative MP Scott Reid; Conservative MP Tom Lukiwski; Conservative MP Phil McColeman, and NDP MP Matthew Dubé. The Hill Times photograph by Rachel Aiello

That is the current process underway between the House leaders, and has been for weeks, but no compromise or resolution has been reached yet, with the government making it clear it is not prepared to bend to the opposition’s request for all-party consent for any rule changes, arguing it would give the opposition parties—namely the Conservatives—the opportunity to veto the government’s mandate commitments.

“This is talking about: how do we make this Parliament more productive and efficient, and representative of what the people need from their Parliamentarians. I don’t think they have hit the nail squarely on the head with the discussion paper… and what happens is this,” said Mr. Szabo, speaking about the government’s handling of the standoff so far. “They should have known that that was going to be the reaction,”

“I am a Liberal, but it seems the government really hasn’t thought a few times before they did something, and it wasn’t quite right,” he added.

However, Mr. Bagnell told The Hill Times he’s not considering shutting down the filibuster at this point, and said he’ll let the committee decide how it proceeds.

For now, the plan was to continue to sit Tuesday, with the exception of Question Period and any votes, until midnight. On Wednesday, the filibuster is to resume at 4:30 p.m. following the postponed Question Period on account of Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai’s noon joint address of Parliament, and go to midnight. Thursday is to be treated as a Friday by the House, on account of the Easter long weekend, and at the time of publication, the filibuster is scheduled to go from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m.

Mr. Szabo’s comments, made just outside the door of the committee, came as Conservative MP Scott Reid (Lanark-Frontenac-Kingston, Ont.) had the floor inside the committee room, and took the opportunity to highlight that the longer the filibuster—which he initiated—continues, the work the committee still has to do before the end of the session continues to pile up.

Ahead of the filibuster, the committee was two-thirds of the way through the chief electoral officer’s report on the 42nd general election, which Democratic Reform Minister Karina Gould (Burlington, Ont.) told the committee she’d like to have them complete by May 19, or June at the latest, in order to give the government time to subsequently prepare legislation and give Elections Canada time to adjust ahead of the next federal election. As well, the government is expected to soon move forward on Bill C-33, which amends the Canada Elections Act.

During Tuesday’s committee meeting, Mr. Reid predicted that, given the current timeline and ongoing filibuster, Ms. Gould’s initial deadline for the report is “not achievable” and said he will be sending Ms. Gould a letter on Tuesday, seeking her guidance on what the committee should prioritize going forward, and suggest that “in light of the situation presently unfolding,” she speak with Ms. Chagger about shifting the priority off reforming the Standing Orders by June.

Interjecting, Mr. Bagnell suggested that once the filibuster is over, the committee could continue to sit its current hours, from the morning to midnight, in order to get the work it has before them done by the end of the session.

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