Bloggers note: read the Paper
Battle over House rule changes could put Liberal backbenchers back in the spotlight
Let the parliamentary power games begin!http://ipolitics.ca/2017/03/16
Heads up, Liberal MPs: Last week, 101 of you teamed up with your colleagues on the other side of the chamber to block the government’s attempt to amend former senator James Cowan’s bid to ban genetic discrimination.
It was a rare – and, by all accounts, unexpectedly robust – show of collective independence that left many watching from the sidelines wondering if it could mark the start of a new era in front-to-backbench relations in Ottawa.
When the Commons chamber reopens for business next week, many of you may find yourself under gentle, but unyielding pressure from those same opposition parties to give a repeat performance – not through a vote this time, but by joining their campaign to prevent the government from rewriting the rules of the House itself.
A quick recap for those who may have tuned out the latest developments: Last Friday, Government House Leader Bardish Chagger released a discussion paper that outlined possible changes to the Standing Orders.
As opposition members were quick point out, while some were in line with both Liberal campaign pledges and their practices to date – giving the speaker the power to split omnibus bills, for instance, and requiring a government to provide the House with a written rationale for proroguing Parliament – the bulk of the proposed changes would have the end result of giving the government more control over how the Commons goes about its day-to-day business.
Among the suggestions: Standardized time limits on debates to shorter speaking slots for individual MPs to switching to the British tradition of having the prime minister take questions once a week, rather than being on call, at least in theory, every day, and moving to a four-day parliamentary work week by eliminating Friday sittings.
Chagger, for her part, steadfastly maintains that the paper is meant to serve as a conversation starter.
More precisely, it is her first official contribution to a conversation that is already underway, albeit currently on hold, within the procedure and House affairs committee, which has already begun to review the suggested changes to the standing orders brought up by MPs during a one-day Commons debate on the topic last December.
“I really do want to have this conversation,” she told iPolitics in an interview.
“I think it’s important for [me] to be part of this discussion, especially as the Government House Leader who is trying to work more collaboratively with members on all sides.”
On the proposed change to Friday sittings, “it’s a matter of looking at the time spent on Fridays, and could it be used in a more efficient manner,” she explained.
“If you take the two and a half hours on Friday, can we reallocate them – or can we extend the time on Fridays so we can actually get to other work? Let’s have … a level-headed discussion, and let’s allow [the committee] to have a conversation that, perhaps, is about efficiency over partisanship.”
She stressed that it in no way is an attempt to cut down on “meaningful debate.”
“I’ve introduced a discussion paper to say, ‘Let’s study it, and let’s see if we can come up with a made-in-Canada approach that actually fits our traditions, and with the work that we want to do.”
She’s not “coming in with answers,” she insisted.
“I’m coming in as being part of the discussion, and saying, ‘Let’s look at it, let’s look at options to modernize how it works and bring it into the 21st century.'”
The discussion paper, she says, is “meant to add to the conversation,” not lay down rigid parameters.
“I actually respect the committee process, and believe the committee does important work, and I want them to be able to do it,” Chagger said.
“But I would like to be part of the discussion, which is why I made my views and thoughts known, and that’s why I shared them not only with committee members, but all MPs as well as the public.”
Not surprisingly, Conservative MP Mark Strahl – who spent nearly a decade on the same government benches now occupied by Chagger and her fellow Liberals, and now serves as his party’s natural resources critic – has a very different perspective.
He notes that Chagger’s discussion paper includes many of the same ideas being put forward by Liberal MPs during debate last December.
“Clearly, they have a plan in place for what they want to see here, and it hasn’t changed one iota based on our concerns.”
And while his party fully intends to make the case against the proposed changes when it makes it back up to the top of the committee’s to-do list, he’s not sure how much good it will do.
“Unless we can get Canadians animated about this, it’s fairly clear that they’re going to try to ram these changes through without people noticing, by using the appropriate buzzwords about ‘work/life balance.'”
(In fact, the same committee was asked to consider many of the same recommendations, including, notably, eliminating Friday sittings, as part of an earlier study on making the Commons a more “family-friendly” workplace. It eventually concluded that there was no consensus that reijgging the sitting schedule would make much of a difference.)
And despite Chagger’s frequent reference to working collaboratively, he wouldn’t rule out the possibility of the government using its majority to get its way.
“They’ve showed their willingness to go it alone on some of these things, so obviously, we’re very concerned that they are moving unilaterally.”
A lot of people may not fully understand how substantially the proposed changes would affect the functioning of the House.
“It doesn’t sound like much to reduce speaking times, to reduce the opportunities to have the prime minister there for a few days a week.
But it fundamentally changes how Parliament operates, and fundamentally diminishes Parliament to have one less day, or perhaps several less days for the prime minister to be in the House for question period.”
He’s also all too aware of how it would undoubtedly be perceived by the public if MPs were to shorten their Ottawa work week.
“There’s a fragile respect for the place, anyway and when you start taking Fridays off, and you start debating serious issues with five minute speeches, when you start eliminating the ability for the prime minister to be held accountable more than one day a week” – all of that, he says, could ultimately lead to politicians of all stripes and of all levels being held in even less regard.
“Most of the paper that I’ve looked at, I reject out of hand,” he says.
“There’s just nothing there that needs to be done. I spoke on it during the standing order debate: if you don’t want to give a ten minute speech, sit down … if you’re going to lose your family because of this job, quit. It’s a great job, a great honour, but don’t sacrifice your family for it. If you need to be home on Friday
, talk to your whip. We don’t need to shut the whole place down so you can do that.”
The suggestion on formalizing prorogation, he says, “was the only one I didn’t viscerally react to.” He’s interested in hearing more about that, but the as for the rest, he “knows what the code words mean.”
And that is where those 101 Liberal MPs could end up holding the balance of power in this particular debate.
“If non-cabinet members of the governing caucus realized they weren’t part of the government, I think this would be a non-starter,” Strahl points out.
“We have to find ways to reach out and convince Liberal members that this is a bad idea for Parliament. Everyone who sits on those benches on the governing side … thinks that the good times are going to be there forever.
But when you make changes to the standing orders, or change the way Parliament works, you better be thinking about how that’s going to work when you’re in opposition, because you will be back there. No one governs forever.”
It’s a lesson he knows firsthand – and yes, he recalls that during a standing order review under the previous government, he and other Conservative MPs did indeed raise concerns about unintended consequences during discussions in caucus.
“People were floating ideas about severely limiting the ability of opposition members to ask order paper questions [by] limit[ing] the number of words.” Another proposal would have doubled the number of MPs who would have to stand up to demand a recorded vote.
“Myself and others raised the point to say, look, this is bad for Parliament. I come to vote. Part of my job is to vote, and if you see that as an inconvenience as a government, I think that’s a real problem,” Strahl recalls.
“We need to talk to our friends that we’ve made on committees, and in the hallways and say, this is bad for Parliament.” You need to reach that critical mass of opposition, and to their credit, I’ll say this about the Liberal backbench: they have shown themselves to be willing to stand and be counted.”
As for the Conservatives, Strahl sees it as their duty to convince both Canadians and their parliamentary colleagues “on all sides” that they have a duty to look beyond partisan interests.
“We should protect, as much as we can, the ability of all members of Parliament to hold the government to account on behalf of our constituents., because when you lose that, it’s really tough to get it back.”
The Honourable Bardish Chagger, Leader of the Government in the House of Commons