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Legislation

Opposition parties signal readiness to get to business in House, saving delay tactics for rule-changes motion

By Rachel Aiello      

Though changes to the Standing Orders are off the table for now, left in its wake is a ‘poisoned’ tone in the House, with all sides pointing fingers.

Government House Leader Bardish Chagger, left, said last week that she hopes to reach an agreement with her opposition counterparts on the length of debate on bills, but if that agreement can’t be made, time allocation will be required. However, Conservative House Leader Candice Bergen and NDP House Leader Murray Rankin say Ms. Chagger's approach has been 'their way or the highway.' The Hill Times photographs by Jake Wright
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With the Procedure and House Affairs Committee filibuster behind them, opposition House leaders say they’re ready to back off of continued delay tactics and get back to debating legislation at least until the government’s unilateral rule changes are introduced.

“Now we’re talking about legislation at this point,” Conservative House Leader Candice Bergen (Portage-Lisgar, Man.) told The Hill Times late last week. “There are other things we can do to register, to debate strongly our opposition to things.”

The comedown follows the government’s decision to pull some of the more contentious government-proposed changes to the Standing Orders—or House rules—off the table.

On April 30, Government House Leader Bardish Chagger (Waterloo, Ont.) sent a letter to her opposition counterparts, saying the government would axe some of the proposed changes, while doubling-down on the Liberal government’s determination to make other unilateral changes that the letter says are in line with its mandate and campaign commitments to modernize Parliament.

For example, a legislative programming tool to determine how much debate will be scheduled for new bills, electronic voting in the House, and eliminating Friday sittings are off the table for now. However, the government still wants to give the House Speaker the ability to separate portions of omnibus bills for study, require governments that use prorogation to justify it in  reports to Parliament, and create a Question Period for the prime minister.

As a result of this letter, the committee filibuster saga that lasted more than a month at the House Affairs Committee came to an end—albeit an acrimonious one—last week.

On Tuesday, May 2, Liberal MP Larry Bagnell (Yukon), chair of the committee, adjourned the filibuster meeting without unanimous consent, which spurred Conservative MP Scott Reid (Lanark-Frontenac-Kingston, Ont.) to storm after him and other Liberal committee members who quickly exited the meeting room, while yelling “that is bullshit.”

Mr. Bagnell said his reason for doing so, and Liberal MP Scott Simms’ (Coast of Bays-Central-Notre Dame, N.L.) May 4 withdrawal of the controversial motion to study the rule changes, was because the privilege motion that the House voted to send to the committee to study last week would take precedence.

“I think you’ll see that we decided to not continue [delay tactics],” NDP House Leader Murray Rankin (Victoria, B.C.) told The Hill Times, while adding that he thinks the opposition made its point.

“At the moment, we have legislation to do, we have a budget … we have a softwood crisis. … I think Canadians want us to get on with the business of Parliament, and we’re going to do that. But we continue to reserve our right to make people aware of what this Liberal power grab is all about,” Mr. Rankin said.

The government will be introducing a motion to implement changes to the Standing Orders sometime before the end of the spring session, and because it has majority, it will not require opposition support for it pass.

Ms. Bergen said that, for now, there are other things the opposition parties can do to register their opposition, but once the motion advancing the government’s desired Standing Order rule changes comes down, they still plan to use “every tool available to stop it.” She said Mr. Reid is seeking to have Ms. Chagger come before the House Affairs Committee to hear opposition feedback on the points that the government is going ahead on as they’re being drafted.

“The motion is out of PROC, we know it will come at some point to the House of Commons, and we’re going to be fighting that. But when legislation is before the House now, we’re going to be fighting and protesting legislation in the normal way, which is we’re putting up and have many, many people who want to speak on it,” Ms. Bergen said.

But what’s left after these weeks of hostility is a chilly relationship between the government and opposition in the House, said Mr. Rankin.

“It’s sad that what this has changed is the climate in the House. … It all can be traced back to a lack of respect for the opposition by the government,” said Mr. Rankin. “The climate they’ve created by this effort to unilaterally amend the rules obviously doesn’t inspire trust and confidence on the other side. … They’ve poisoned that well.”

Ms. Chagger did not respond directly to questions from The Hill Times, but in an emailed statement said that while parties might not always agree, they “owe it to Canadians to talk about the things that matter.” She added that it’s her government’s intention to have a “well-functioning House of Commons.”

‘A dialogue requires two people to talk and two people to listen’

Early last week, Ms. Chagger announced that the government is now planning on using time allocation as the solution for the foreseeable future of its mandate to move their agenda forward after not getting support from the other parties to bring in a new legislative-scheduling model.

Ms. Chagger said she hopes to reach an agreement with her opposition counterparts on the length of debate on bills, but if that doesn’t happen, time allocation will be required.

Meanwhile, all sides are blaming the other for the inability for compromise.

“A dialogue requires two people to talk and two people to listen,” Mr. Rankin said.

On Ms. Chagger, Ms. Bergen said: “She doesn’t try to have conversations. She doesn’t try to have dialogue. It’s their way or the highway.”

Deputy Government House Leader Arnold Chan (Scarborough-Agincourt, Ont.) said last week: “The government has an obligation to try to get the business of the government to move forward in a reasonable and timely fashion. We would like to have a reasonable opportunity to negotiate a debate time with the opposition. But if the opposition doesn’t come back and prepare to have any kind of substantive conversation on that point, then you can’t say that the government’s at fault.”

He added that the opposition has overplayed its hand when it comes to holding things up, something he partly attributes to the ongoing leadership races for both the Conservatives and New Democrats. Mr. Chan said it’s in their self-interest to keep things “mucked up,” which doesn’t require them to take substantive policy positions until a permanent leader is chosen.

“And then they turn around and have the gumption, like at the end of last year’s session, and say, ‘Well this government is totally ineffective and can’t get its legislation through.’ Come on, you can’t have it both ways,” Mr. Chan said.

However, Mr. Rankin said the opposition’s tactics are about standing up to the Liberals’ attempts to ram through Standing Order changes, not ongoing leadership races..

“This has nothing, I repeat, nothing to do with leadership. This has everything to do with unilateral changes to the rules,” he said.

Liberal MPs think opposition should wear some blame for slow pace of bills passing 

Liberal MPs The Hill Times spoke with say the opposition should wear some of the blame for the state of affairs.

Maybe [the opposition] will have to wear the lack of progress in terms of making Parliament more efficient,” Liberal MP Wayne Easter (Malpeque, P.E.I.) said last week, after last month suggesting the government should change its approach to changing the Standing Orders so that it could advance its overall legislative agenda.

“When there’s a willingness, which there is now, on the government side to move forward and make the House work more effectively … then it’s really the opposition itself that’s blocking the ability for government to pass legislation,” he added.

“Look, did we go too far? Maybe we did, but the House Leader has come around to say, ‘Look, we’ve got to make this place work,’ ” Mr. Easter said last week.

Liberal MP Rodger Cuzner (Cape Breton-Canso, N.S.) said he wishes there could be an “adult conversation” with the opposition parties about practical improvements that can be made to the way Parliament operates.

“Just from the efficiency perspective, I know they couldn’t run the fish plant like this. … I would think that the Conservatives would certainly understand just how frustrating it is to advance an agenda under the current rules, or just how unnecessarily cumbersome it is and the amount of time that’s wasted in this place. I think any truthful long-serving parliamentarian will tell you that,” Mr. Cuzner said.

Other Liberal MPs voiced concern more generally for how time is spent in the House.

“We waste time. We waste a lot of time over politics instead of really over substance, so I really do want to see things change so we can actually get more done,” said Karen McKrimmon (Kanata-Carleton, Ont.).

On the agenda this week:

Monday, May 8, is scheduled to be the Conservative opposition day that the government bumped off the agenda last week. On Tuesday, May 9, the House will wrap up second reading debate on Bill C-44, the 2017 budget implementation omnibus bill. On Wednesday, May 10, the House will complete its debate on considerations of amendments from the Senate to Bill C-4, the bill that repeals Conservative private member unions bills C-525 and C-377 from the last Parliament.

Thursday, May 11, is set to be an NDP opposition day, and Friday, May 12, it’s possible the House will finally consider the Senate amendments on Bill C-7, the RCMP union bill that was kicked back to the House last June and hasn’t been touched by the Liberals since.

raiello@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times

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