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Government compromises on Standing Orders changes, takes PM’s Question Period off the table

By Rachel Aiello      

The government insists that prime minister’s question time is here to stay, by convention, after days of backroom negotiations with the opposition parties. The opposition, meanwhile, is casting doubt on that claim.

Government House Leader Bardish Chagger has shared her motion to change the Standing Orders with the other parties and will put it on the notice paper on the evening of June 15. The motion is expected to be debated on Monday. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

PARLIAMENT HILL—Government House Leader Bardish Chagger is putting her motion proposing changes to the Standing Orders of the House of Commons on the notice paper tonight, and it includes walking back the government’s plan to add a weekly Prime Minister’s Question Period to the rules.

The final text of the motion is the result of days of backroom negotiations with the opposition House leaders on a version they’d be able to swallow so as to avoid further procedural tricks to slow the House down.

Pulling the creation of the Prime Minister’s Question Period off the list was done after the Conservatives and New Democrats took issue with the prospect of it being in the rulebook that the prime minister only has to appear before the House once a week.

However, Conservative deputy House leader Chris Warkentin (Grande Prairie-Mackenzie, Alta.) told reporters Thursday afternoon that formalizing the Prime Minister’s Question Period was not on the negotiating table to begin with.

“To see that this is now not included today is very strange,” he said. “To my understanding, at no time was that included in the negotiations, so it’s a surprise. We’re going to take a look at this and see where we go from here.”

NDP House leader Murray Rankin (Victoria, B.C.) said the Liberals “pulled almost all their proposals off the table on their own.”

“We did not agree or give up anything for this to happen. This is simply a hasty retreat by the Liberals on what has been a complete failure,” said Mr. Rankin in an emailed statement to The Hill Times. “And we will still be voting against this motion.”

The opposition has speculated the Liberals decided to scrap the formalization of the PM’s Question Period on their own because they didn’t want to be held to the rule indefinitely. Ms. Chagger’s office wouldn’t comment on the negotiations.

The government has already decided itself to hold Prime Minister’s Question Period on Wednesdays. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) answers all questions, regardless of whether they are from a party leader or another MP. On any other day, the PM typically only answers questions from party leaders.

Mark Kennedy, the director of communications to Ms. Chagger (Waterloo, Ont.) told The Hill Times that the government’s practice of holding a weekly Prime Minister’s Question Period is not going to end.

“The Prime Minister’s Question Period is here to stay under this government. Just as it became the convention—not something in the standing orders—in the United Kingdom, we are confident that it will become the convention here,” said Mr. Kennedy.

So far, Mr. Trudeau has answered a total of 233 questions during the six times he’s answered all the questions in Question Period. In the British Parliament, Prime Minister’s Question Time is done by convention and has been followed by successive prime ministers for some time.

The changes to the rules for all MPs are:

  1. Within 20 days of a new session following a prorogation, the government has to submit a report explaining the reasons why it prorogued. That report will be sent to the Procedure and House Affairs Committee for study.
  2. The Speaker of the House of Commons will have the power to divide omnibus bills for the purpose of voting “where there is not a common element connecting the various provisions,” the motion reads, with the exception of budget bills.
  3. A new schedule for budgets and main estimates documents will be created so that the Treasury Board Secretariat can have time to have the main estimates reflect what is in the budget, according to the government. The opposition views this as reducing the amount of time opposition and stakeholders will have to examine the main estimates.
  4. Parliamentary secretaries cannot be voting members of committees.
  5. During a committee filibuster, members can’t call a vote by challenging the chair if there are members still on the speaking list.

Once passed, the motion states these changes will take effect on Sept. 18, 2017. In the case of the changes to the main estimates, those will stay in effect for the duration of this Parliament.

The motion is set to be debated for the first time on Monday.

This agreement comes after the Conservatives, backed by the NDP, threatened over 30 hours of votes on the main estimates Wednesday night, a move they ultimately retracted yesterday evening because they felt enough progress was being made in the negotiations.

Previously, the government said it wanted to change the Standing Orders to institute a Prime Minister’s Question Period; to give the House Speaker the ability to separate portions of omnibus bills for study; formalize the roles of parliamentary secretaries; change the timing of main estimates; and require governments to justify prorogation in reports to Parliament.

Appearing before the Procedure and House Affairs Committee on Thursday morning about the Standing Orders and parliamentary procedure, Ms. Chagger reiterated her commitment to the initial five changes she viewed as delivering on her mandate or election commitments.

The motion proposed does not include Prime Minister’s Question Period, but does include the addition of changes around filibustering at committees.

“It is about future parliaments, it is about future governments, when it comes to a lot of what we’re proposing,” said Ms. Chagger “[What] we do need to do is ensure that any strengthening that takes place continues to take place for future governments as well.”

She also encouraged the committee to try again at studying other possible changes to the way the House works, after her initial attempt spurred by a discussion paper her office released in March resulted in weeks of filibuster at the committee and procedural delays in the House, instigated by the Conservatives.


The Hill Times

Correction and update: This story has been updated with comments from the NDP and Conservative deputy House leader. It has also been changed to remove the characterization of pulling the Prime Minister’s Question Period as a compromise, and to clarify the changes to omnibus bills. It has been corrected to clarify the proposed duration of the Standing Orders changes, and the fact that Ms. Chagger’s five initial pledges are not the same as the ones proposed in the June 15 motion. 

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