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What’s up PROC? Committee filibuster over prorogation study passes 40-hour mark

By Laura Ryckewaert      

‘I don’t need to hear from Chrystia Freeland … about their most recent budget for 90 minutes in order to understand the decision about prorogation,’ says NDP MP Daniel Blaikie of a Liberal-suggested compromise.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is pictured crossing Wellington Street on his way to the Sir John A. Macdonald building, flanked by security, on April 16. An opposition push to have Mr. Trudeau appear before the House Affairs Committee for its study on the government's report on prorogation has proven a sticking point in the committee's now two-months long filibuster. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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The Procedure and House Affairs Committee has been at a standstill for the last two months, with a filibuster over an attempt to have Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and others, testify as part of its study on the government’s report on prorogation now past the 40-hour mark, a longevity NDP MP Daniel Blaikie says has been helped by its virtual nature. 

“It’s frustrating,” said Mr. Blaikie (Elmwood-Transcona, Man.), the lone NDP member of the committee. “The government is just as partisan as the Conservatives in all of this. They’re choosing to make this about the WE Charity scandal, because they refuse to put up the prime minister to talk about prorogation. If he could do that for one hour, this would be over.”

“The reason that the Liberals have wasted this much time at PROC instead of either going to a vote on the motion or accepting my proposal [to have the PM appear for an hour] is to protect their political interests.”

The trenches of the House Affairs Committee’s (PROC) current standoff began forming at the end of January, when Conservative MP Karen Vecchio (Elgin-Middlesex-London, Ont.) moved to invite Mr. Trudeau (Papineau, Que.), Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez (Honoré-Mercier, Que.), former finance minister Bill Morneau, and Katie Telford, the prime minister’s chief of staff, to testify for an hour each as part of PROC’s study on the government’s first-ever report on prorogation.

Those invitations, along with ones to WE’s Craig and Marc Kielburger, Speakers’ Spotlight’s Farah and Martin Perelmuter, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland (University-Rosedale, Ont.), and Diversity, Inclusion, and Youth Minister Bardish Chagger (Waterloo, Ont.), among others, were agreed to on Feb. 2. But ultimately, only Mr. Rodriguez appeared to testify, doing so on Feb. 16. 

On Feb. 23, Ms. Vecchio moved to once again invite Mr. Trudeau to appear, this time for at least three hours—along with Ms. Freeland and Ms. Chagger for 90 minutes each—and, if they don’t attend, instruct the chair to report to the House recommending the committee “be empowered to order his [or her] appearance from time to time.” It would also renew invitations to Mr. Morneau, Ms. Telford, and the Kielburgers to appear for three hours each—and the Perelmuters for 90 minutes—and if not, issue a summons for them to appear, as well as issue orders for the production of documents and communications between the PMO and the Privy Council Office on the decision to prorogue, and between the government, WE Charity (or its affiliates), the Kielburgers, or Speakers’ Spotlight on prorogation.

The committee has been at a standstill ever since, with an appearance by Mr. Trudeau (or Ms. Telford) proving the sticking point. As of last week, the filibuster had stretched over 12 sitting days, lasting almost 38 hours. It met again on May 4 (still April 13, as far as PROC’s calendar is concerned), passing the 40-hour mark, and is expected to return on May 6. 

Liberals on the committee, and their stand ins, have—as at other committees of late—pushed back against calls for the PM to appear, noting Mr. Trudeau has already made public statements on his decision to prorogue. 

One month in, on March 23, Liberal MP Ryan Turnbull (Whitby, Ont.) moved an amendment to Ms. Vecchio’s motion to only renew invitations for Ms. Freeland, Ms. Chagger, Mr. Morneau, and the Kielburgers to appear for 90 minutes each, and dispense with all the rest. 

Neither Ms. Vecchio’s motion or Mr. Turnbull’s amendment have come to a vote yet.

Mr. Turnbull, who said he prefers the term “extended debate” (as “filibuster” has “a negative connotation”), pitched his motion as “an attempt to compromise.” 

Liberal MP Ryan Turnbull. Photograph courtesy of Facebook

“We’ve seen the unintentional harms that have been done to private citizens when called before standing committees, and we’ve heard testimony on that, and the opposition parties seem to want to reignite an issue that they have studied multiple times in other committees. And it just seems to me that we’ve already had the prime minister appear, we’ve had everybody that they want to call appear,” said Mr. Turnbull, referring to testimony at other committees looking into the WE Charity and defunct Canada Student Service Grant. 

“It’s really sad, in my view, that we’re wasting time on such partisan games in a time of a public health crisis of epic proportions.”

The economic impact of COVID “and the inequalities that have been highlighted throughout this pandemic” were main themes of the Throne Speech, said Mr. Turnbull.

“I just don’t see how his [Mr. Trudeau’s] testimony in this particular case is going to be all that useful. I think it’s better for us to hear from Bardish Chagger and Chrystia Freeland,” he said. 

Mr. Turnbull said he personally doesn’t think PROC needs “any more testimony” on the matter, and has “more important work” it could be doing,” like a pre-study on Bill C-19, which proposes changes to the Canada Elections Act aimed at helping Elections Canada to run an election during the pandemic. That bill, tabled in December 2020, remains at second reading in the House. 

NDP MP Daniel Blaikie, pictured during a November 2019 caucus meeting. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

But without the prime minister’s appearance, Mr. Blaikie questioned the entire point of the exercise, saying Mr. Turnbull’s amendment is “not a real compromise, it’s just fluff.” 

“The fact remains that we’re setting an example for future Parliaments,” he said. “If this is Justin Trudeau’s idea of how we introduce political accountability for [prorogation] … if the idea is that the prime minister issues a public statement and then doesn’t show up at committee—what a ridiculous solution.”

The point, said Mr. Blaikie, is to give MPs a chance to question the PM on his decision, and while “WE Charity is obviously a part of that,” he doesn’t think PROC needs to “re-litigate all of that,” or that it could in a one-hour meeting.

“The government’s talked publicly about its budget, does that mean we should abstain from asking questions about it in Question Period?” he said, noting questions over the timing of the prorogation call on Aug. 18, 2020, and its length—Parliament returned for the Throne Speech on Sept. 23—remain, and, as stated by other witnesses, are questions only the prime minister can answer.

“I don’t need to hear from Chrystia Freeland … about their most recent budget for 90 minutes in order to understand the decision about prorogation.” 

Mr. Blaikie has pitched a compromise at committee: that he would agree to dispense with all other aspects of Ms. Vecchio’s motion if Mr. Trudeau commits “publicly” to appear for an hour. 

“My vote would be sufficient in order to move a solution forward at PROC,” he noted.

All three opposition parties on the committee have voiced opposition to Mr. Turnbull’s amendment.

Conservative MP Karen Vecchio is pictured speaking to reporters on Sept. 9, 2020. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

“I recognize that there’s multiple things in the initial motion, and those are things that, you know, the Liberals have said they’re willing to negotiate; well, let’s start having true negotiations on this,” said Ms. Vecchio, noting the “sticking point” is hearing from Mr. Trudeau or his office. “We want to talk to the prime minister or someone from the PMO specifically on this, and that is what’s holding this committee up for the last two months.”

“All three opposition parties have shared with them [that] this is our sticking point, they all know that; their sticking point happens to be the exact opposite,” she said, adding she’s made clear a willingness to reduce the witness calls in her original motion. “We’re trying to negotiate … but I have not heard back from my [Liberal] counterparts in a week and a half,” she said on April 30. 

Ms. Vecchio noted that, in the meantime, neither Ms. Chagger nor Ms. Freeland, who have already been invited, have scheduled appearances.

The Hill Times reached out to Mr. Trudeau’s office to ask whether the PM would agree to appear before PROC. The statement received in response did not directly address the question, but noted the prorogation report was tabled by Mr. Rodriguez, who has testified at PROC, and that “the prime minister has publicly shared those reasons directly with Canadians on many occasions, including on Aug. 18, 2020, and with MPs in the House of Commons.”

The virtual setting has changed the filibuster’s dynamics for the worse, said Mr. Blaikie, as limited resources—IT, translation, and other supports required to run virtual meetings—mean the committee has been forced to break up meetings. 

While it’s gone over on a number of days, PROC has generally not strayed far from its regular time slot every Tuesday and Thursday.

“There would be a lot more pressure on the government to find a compromise, or to accept a compromise, which they refuse to do … if we could run the meeting continuously, and we could do that if we were in person,” said Mr. Blaikie. “The issue now is that, you know, if you run a meeting over time, you’re running into the capacity for other committees to meet.” 

Done virtually, he said, “it’s easy for the government: they show up, they talk for a couple of hours, and then the meeting’s over.”

During in-person meetings, there’s also better opportunity to heckle to “keep people on topic and on track,” and “only being able to do [so] through formal points of order doesn’t quite have the same effect,” said Mr. Blaikie

Ms. Vecchio agreed, saying “much gets done in sidebar conversations” to committee, and none of those regular opportunities are there virtually.

“If we were in the room, two of us could pop aside. But what’s happening now is you’re sending an email to somebody and you’re waiting for them to respond. It could be two days, could be four days, it could be two weeks, you don’t know.” 

Asked to describe the experience of sitting through a virtual filibuster, Ms. Vecchio offered two words: “Not enjoyable.” 

She noted Liberals have filibustered at multiple House committees so far this year. “The government has to stop doing this. It’s not just PROC, it’s defence, it’s ethics … we’re seeing this type of behaviour in all of our committees.” 

Mr. Blaikie said he doesn’t think “Canadians are getting good value for money right now out of the Procedure and House Affairs Committee,” and that there’s other work it could get on to, including a motion he wants to move to study the role a citizens assembly could play in the federal electoral system, but said “we’re not going to get there until there’s a break in the logjam.”

PROC (like all committees) has until May 31 to report back on the main estimates for 2021-22 (or it “shall be deemed to have reported” back). The committee has confirmed its ability to pause the filibuster, deal with the estimates, and then return to it, if members so choose. Notice for around 10 motions for studies from PROC members has also been given.

lryckewaert@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times

Laura Ryckewaert

Laura Ryckewaert is a deputy editor at The Hill Times.
- lryckewaert@hilltimes.com


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