Backed into a corner, Liberals seek compromise on parliamentary reform

Posted on April 4, 2017 in Governance Debates – Full Comment
April 3, 2017.   JOHN IVISON

The opposition members were just settling in for the fifth day of their filibuster when they discovered that the committee examining the Liberal government’s suggested changes to the standing orders had been suspended before they’d even popped a throat lozenge.

The Liberals came in like lions last month, thrusting a “discussion paper” of reforms to parliament under the noses of the opposition and imposing a deadline on the study of the proposed changes.

But it looks like the whole kerfuffle will go out like a lamb, with yet another government climb-down. The opposition claimed the changes to the standing orders are a power grab, an attempt to alter the rules to their own advantage using their parliamentary majority.

Conservative MP Scott Reid noted there is more than a hint of irony in the fact that the Liberals are attempting to get rid of omnibus bills by introducing what might legitimately be dubbed an omnibus document of parliamentary reform.

The opposition parties have, consequently, invoked a filibuster at the procedure committee in order to defend their right to filibuster.

It is the united front presented by the Conservatives and the NDP that has apparently prompted a government re-think. Bardish Chagger, the House Leader, called a meeting of her colleagues from the other side of the aisle Monday, to search for a compromise.

Chagger has backed herself into a corner — she can’t be seen to cave in to opposition demands for unanimity, since a number of the changes in the “discussion document” were also in the Liberal election platform. “It would give them a veto over our election promises,” said one senior Liberal.

However, Chagger was appointed to reduce the temperature in the House after the Motion 6 debacle last year, when the Liberals were accused of trying to commandeer House procedure.

The Liberals complain the Conservatives are intent on obstructing their agenda. That’s a battle as old as parliament itself — opposition parties trying to use procedural rules to slow the progress of legislation versus governments attempting to change the rules to speed the passage of their business.

But the Conservatives and NDP have made their point, and would appear obstructionist if they turned down a reasonable offer of accommodation by the government.

Reid has suggested a motion that may offer everyone a face-saving compromise, calling for each of the recommendations agreed upon from the discussion paper to be reported separately to the House. This would allow the opposition to vote against the proposals it finds most offensive, while letting slide those it secretly supports.

The government has narrowed the list of issues that it considers crucial — reforming question period to institute a Prime Minister’s Questions once a week; ensuring governments are forced to justify proroguing the House; ending the use of omnibus legislation; and, reform of the Estimates process to give MPs a better sense of what it is on which they are voting.

What’s not to like in any of those if you are an opposition MP? Each one of those changes would make the life of the opposition much easier, so why not support them? Justin Trudeau would be on his feet more in one Prime Minister’s Questions session than he would in a month of regular question periods.

If the Liberals were able to enact these modest changes, they would probably consider it a victory of sorts.

The opposition’s biggest complaint is the proposal to limit the length of interventions at committee. The fear among opposition MPs is that the Liberals will ram through changes that reduce one of the few weapons at their disposal — the ability to slow legislation passing through committee.

The Liberals have a point when they say they could have used their majority to bulldoze any opposition without any discussion.

But changing the rules of the House is a delicate business. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

Parliament is a living entity and its conventions evolve over time. At Confederation, there were few rules to curtail debate. Closure was introduced in 1903 and time allocation was implemented in 1969.

The rules of parliament were agreed unanimously in 1867 and consensus has most often accompanied major changes.

There have been exceptions. In 1991, Brian Mulroney tabled a motion with 64 changes to the standing orders and used his majority to ram it through.

The Liberals take some glee in pointing out that in 2015, a private member’s motion by their tormentor Reid, on changing the standing orders so that future elections of the Speaker would be held using a preferential ballot, was passed despite opposition from 97 MPs.

But governments tamper with the smooth running of democracy at their peril.

Arcane procedural points become hills to die on and mild-mannered parliamentarians turn into blue-woad dubbed William Wallace figures. It seems the Liberals have been persuaded by the opposition argument that, while they might be able to take away their Friday sittings, they will never be able to take away their freedom.

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