A slide into anti-democratic ways

Political party partisanship showed up in an unexpectedly spectacular fashion on Wednesday, May 18, but began much earlier.

Soon after the election, talking with a Liberal committee chair, I explained that the motions passed in the last parliament—to prevent my smaller party MP rights being exercised at Report Stage in every committee—had died with that parliament. It was a shock when the friendly committee chair then explained that he had been told the motions were all about to be brought back.

Report Stage

All bills follow the same process to get passed into law. In the House, they go through First Reading, Second Reading, following which they are sent to committee for study and possible amendment, are returned to the House (reported back) for Report Stage, followed by the final vote in the House at Third Reading and then on to the Senate.

Up until the year 2002, members of parliament of all parties had the right to put forward amendments at Report Stage. The trouble started in 1999 when the Alliance party put forward more than 700 amendments to the Nisga’a Treaty in an attempt to derail it at Report Stage. The Liberal government of Jean Chrétien, over a period of years, changed the parliamentary rules such that a Member of Parliament who had an opportunity through their party to put forward amendments to a bill in committee had no such right to put forward further substantive amendments at Report Stage.

That created the unintended reality that the only members of Parliament with an opportunity to put forward substantive amendments at Report Stage were those who (again through an irregular process creating two tiers of members of Parliament) were in parties smaller than 12 or sitting as independents. MPs in smaller parties were the only ones who did have rights to put forward amendments, other than deletions, at Report Stage.

I was the first MP to notice this. I used it effectively on bill after bill put forward by the Conservative majority, most notably in fighting Omnibus Budget Bill C-38 in spring of 2012. I moved
over 400 amendments at Report Stage, and with full support from the Liberal and NDP members, fought the bill with 24 hours of straight through voting.

The Conservative House Leader Peter van Loan complained to the Speaker about one MP having the ability to ‘hold the house hostage.’ But Speaker Scheer refused to disallow my rights as long as I had had no chance to present amendments in committee.

This hint at a loophole was seized upon by the Conservatives. Rather than go through the long process to actually change the rules of the House, as the Chretien Liberals had done, they found a shortcut. They drafted a motion and had every committee pass it, offering MPs in smaller parties the ‘opportunity’ to present amendments in committee in clause-by-clause consideration of every bill.

There are strict timelines, giving an MP 48 hours notice of clause-by-clause and a requirement to submit amendments in that window. Then MPs are allowed to speak briefly to each amendment (most committee chairs deciding that one minute was sufficient) but not allowed to move them or vote on them. It is hardly an equal opportunity. Nor is it one I wanted.

Report Stage can only occur for one bill at a time, since it takes place in the House itself, whereas clause-by-clause review of bills can and does happen simultaneously in committee rooms in various buildings in the parliamentary precinct. In the last parliament, I literally ran from one bill’s clause-by-clause to the Environment Committee to try to defend my amendment to disallow oil and gas activity inside Sable Island National Park, only to arrive after the committee had defeated my amendments.

So, after the October election, when I read Dominic LeBlanc’s mandate letter as Government House leader, I was thrilled: ‘Respect for the opposition’, ‘a spirit of generosity’, no more improper use of prorogation or omnibus bills. In my first phone call with Dominic LeBlanc last November, I asked if I could count on not having those dreaded motions crafted in Harper’s PMO brought back in committee. Leblanc said he did
not think I would have to worry about that.

Until I did. Leblanc said it had to be done so the Bloc Quebecois would not slow down the House. I protested. It was about democracy, after all. And, in my specific case, it would likely take years off my life with the extra workload of running to simultaneous committees. He said he would think about it.
But within days every committee was passing motions identical to the one drafted under Harper. I had run from committee to committee to ask to present reasons why the motion should not be passed. I begged. I argued from high principle. Nothing worked. All the Liberals followed instructions and passed the motion. None of the media noticed—or reported on this regression to Harper tactics.

Time Allocation

Next, came the use of time allocation to shut down debate on bills: the Air Canada bill (C10) to end the requirement for maintenance work in Canada—twice at second and third reading—the budget bill (C15), and then the medically assisted dying bill (C-14)—again twice at report stage and third reading. Closure on debate was rare before Harper’s majority. But Conservatives used it over 100 times in four years. So now the Liberals are using it too. Some media noticed that.

Motion 6: The Calendar Control

Everyone noticed the attempt to control the calendar without the normal effort to come to consensus between House leaders; Motion 6 was a reach too far. It would have allowed the House to run 24-hours-a-day, with no opposition parties having access to the calendar or having notice of when bills would be
introduced or voted on. Only Liberal Cabinet members would control the calendar.

The now infamous Motion 6 was the Liberal reaction to the Conservatives and NDP having collaborated to trigger an unexpected vote on Monday May 16—just after noon. For only the 11th time in the history of parliament, the vote was a tie. The Conservatives and NDP crowed about how the Liberals were caught napping. More like, they were sucker punched. There had been no reason to suspect there would be a vote on that Monday. The NDP had committed to fill every speaking slot. But they did not rise to speak. Debate collapsed and that triggered the vote.

Motion 6 was the government’s anti-democratic response. Further escalation ensued. Motion 6 triggered the May 18 protest of Opposition MPs milling about to impede the progress of the Opposition whip—with the goal of delaying the vote on C14 by at least another 24 hours.

Following unacceptable behaviour by quite a few party leaders and their members, the Prime Minister among them, by Thursday, May 19, Motion 6 was withdrawn.

I will continue to press for all the ‘might makes right’ tactics of the Harper majority to be rejected by the Trudeau majority. Withdrawing Motion 6 was a good start, but it is not enough to restore ‘sunny ways’.

Originally published in Island Tides.