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Legislation

Liberals’ House rule changes pass, will be in place for fall sitting

By Rachel Aiello      

The opposition says the government ‘chose to provoke a procedural war in an effort to get its own way,’ and Chagger remains non-committal on not forcing more unilateral Standing Order changes in the future.

The changes to the rules of the House of Commons will be in place when MPs return for the fall sitting of Parliament. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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The Liberal majority in the House passed the government’s Standing Order changes on Tuesday afternoon, though opposition Members are patting themselves on the back for fighting the government’s unilateral moves by forcing them to water down the proposals.

After two days of debate, the motion to reform the Standing Orders of the House of Commons—the rules that govern MPs—passed 168 to 128.

The clerk of the House of Commons will have to print a revised version of the Standing Orders in time for the fall sitting of the House, when the new rules come into force. 

The final version included some changes after backroom negotiations with the opposition to try to find a version that other parties could live with. This attempt at compromise comes after the government doubled down on moving ahead, despite protest and threats of further delay by the Conservatives and NDP.

During the debate on the motion, the opposition alleged the Prime Minister’s Office, through Government House Leader Bardish Chagger (Waterloo, Ont.), provoked the months-long “procedural war”—including a filibuster at the Procedure and House Affairs Committee, and similar tactics in the House—“in an effort to get its own way,” charged Conservative House leader Candice Bergen (Portage-Lisgar, Man.).

“As in every case throughout the centuries, when power-hungry kings and governments sought to curb Parliament’s powers, the House of Commons fought back. Just as in the past, the elected House won,” she said, denying that the opposition’s resistance wasn’t about being “stubborn or obstructionist.”

Among the changes that are coming, within 20 days of a new session following a prorogation, the government has to submit a report to the House explaining the reasons why it prorogued that will then be sent to the Procedure and House Affairs Committee for study. This change, according to the NDP, won’t stop the misuse of the practice.

As well, the Speaker 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.

There will also be a new schedule for budgets and main estimates created so the Treasury Board Secretariat will 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.

Under the proposed rules, parliamentary secretaries cannot be voting members of committees, among other changes to the way committees operate. For example during a committee filibuster, members won’t be able to call a vote by challenging the chair if there are members still on the speaking list.

The motion, as proposed, walks back the promise of formalizing a prime minister’s Question Period—a once-a-week appearance of the prime minister in which he takes all the questions, not only from the other party leaders, but from other members as well. Yet the government is adamant that the practice is here to stay by convention, as has been happening for more than a month. But the opposition have cast doubt on whether that’ll be the case.

The NDP had proposed an amendment to the motion to amend the section on omnibus bills to have them be separated into different bills based on themes for all stages of study. It was defeated by vote of 167 to 130, with all opposition parties supporting the amendment, just before the main motion was decided.

NDP House leader Murray Rankin (Victoria, B.C.) tried, unsuccessfully, to have Ms. Chagger commit to not making any other unilateral House rule changes in the future.

“Is the government House leader now committed to only changing Standing Orders in the future, the very rules of how our democracy functions, where there is multi-party support for the changes proposed; or does she still think that her government can amend these rules unilaterally?” he asked.

To this, Ms. Chagger responded: “I know we can work better in this place. It will always be my endeavour to have those tough conversations and to keep my door open.”

Mr. Rankin called the motion the “final act of a failed attempt” by Ms. Chagger to force rule changes.

Deputy NDP House Leader Matthew Dubé (Beloeil-Chambly, Que.) said during the debate that the changes don’t substantially do much to improve the House, and were the result of the government having to water down its wine because of the process it took to implement these changes.

“The government’s chosen approach to this issue is a product of its ultimate arrogance. The political will to discuss substantial issues was there. However, without a healthy process in which all voices can be heard, no progress can be made. Unfortunately, that is something the government still does not understand,” he said.

During the debate Liberal MPs, in defending the changes, doubled down on the pledge that prime minister’s Question Period will continue by convention despite being taken off the table of formal rule changes, and that the changes to do more to help opposition MPs than they do the government of the day.

“When I read this motion, I see a whole lot of things that would have helped us when we were in opposition and not a lot that would help us here in government,” said Liberal MP David Graham (Laurentides-Labelle, Que.).

The changes will take effect on Sept. 18, 2017. In the case of the changes to the main estimates, those would stay in effect only for the duration of this Parliament.

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