By Richard Forbes.
Confusion erupted across the House of Commons as the opposition’s standing ovation continued for several minutes. The stall tactic, a naked and dramatic attempt at upstaging Morneau’s budget speech with concerns of their own, helped to direct public attention to the government’s hopes to change how parliament works.
For the past twenty four hours, opposition members via the House of Commons procedure committee had been keenly filibustering the Liberals’ attempt to pass a motion to further study rule changes to the House of Commons. Laying their statements thick with hot outrage and incredulousness, opposition members till the dead of night and beyond, charged the prime minister with no less than laziness – wanting to skimp on House duties – and petty authoritarianism in his party’s hopes to limit the opposition’s opportunities to delay the passage of legislation.
“Canada is not China,” chides opposition House leader Candice Bergen. “Canada is not a dictatorship. The prime minister is not the supreme emperor, so maybe he could do Canadians a favour, take another vacation, and not come back until he is ready to stop acting like those dictators he so admires.”
In truth, House leader Bardish Chagger had only put forth a discussion paper: a trial balloon for bigger plans. That paper, ‘Reforming the Standing Orders of the House of Commons‘ advocates many changes to parliament that are far from authoritarian.
Chief among its most innocuous proposals is its plans to try electronic voting out when the House of Commons relocates to the West Block. Why not try something new out to speed up the House’s process? If the romantics are correct in saying that traditional head-counting for divisions is an essential feature of the parliament’s character, I’m sure they’ll be proven right over the course of the pilot. Chagger also proposes a number of changes that would make MPs more independent, government more transparent and parliament more democratic: more flexibility for Private Member’s Bills, while allowing the speaker to divvy up omnibus bills with separate votes, and the government to respond to member questions during adjournment (rather than have a major backlog.)
But the opposition are right to be upset, albeit perhaps not for the issues they’ve identified with the government’s proposals. Obscured by intellectual prose is an authoritarian undertone in its juxtaposition of the opposition and the government: “a recalibration of the rules,” Chagger writes in describing her proposed reforms, “to balance the desire (sic) of the minority’s right to be heard with the majority’s duty to pass its legislative agenda.” Indeed, it’s unusual to hear anyone, even a government minister, describe the unobstruction of a majority government’s legislation as a major priority for parliamentary reform. Chagger reduces the opposition to that of a minority ‘desiring’ rather flippantly to be heard but in fact both have duties to the public. The government is expected to carry out its agenda and the opposition is expected to scrutinize that agenda.
Chagger cannot seriously be proposing that the standing orders, the same rules of the House of Commons that (roughly) applied to Stephen Harper, Jean Chrétien, and even Pierre Trudeau’s majority governments, give too much room for the opposition to stall and delay legislation? None had any conceivable problem getting their legislation passed – that’s a problem that has near distinctly applied to Justin Trudeau’s Liberals.
His government has been frustrated and besieged from the get-go – on its democratic file especially – but curtailing the opposition’s ability to filibuster is not an acceptable answer to his problems. Contrary to Chagger’s assertion, filibustering is a “rational (and) defensible way of trying to defeat a government bill.” It’s a human act – an expression of passion – that attracts the public’s attention to issues of great importance. What the Trudeau government needs to do – rather than trying to adopt the Harper approach to ‘message control’ – is to find a way to govern that works for its caucus. Accomplishing that doesn’t require parliamentary reform, rather, it requires rethinking their own government’s communication strategy and their dynamics within and outside caucus.
Its democratic reform agenda has brought out the best and worst of the Trudeau government. At their best, the Liberals established an independent advisory board for Senate appointments. At their worst they’ve picked fights with the parliamentary budget officer over financial transparency and worse still, dropped their pledge to replace Canada’s first-past-the-post system unceremoniously.
That early defeat on electoral reform was a result of their dogged inflexibility, spite and a failure to communicate with the public and the opposition beyond mechanical talking points. The Liberals could have easily have announced it wouldn’t be able to meet its legislative deadline, acknowledging instead that reaching a compromise within its caucus and with other parties – a plan that was best for Canada – would take more time. Instead, they recruited the brightest face in their caucus to kill a project they had already spent $4.1 million and an inordinate amount of time defending, despite still being early in their mandate.
Recent news of Fair Vote Canada cooperating with the NDP in the Ottawa-Vanier by-election against the Liberals should not be such a source of glee for many Liberal supporters as it has been. “See, they were opposing us all along!” they cry. While it may indeed be true Fair Vote Canada undermined the government’s electoral reform efforts, activists tend to do that. On every file, you can find cases of activists frustrating government attempts at reform but it would be lousy reasoning for any government to drop its environmental agenda because “ugh, Greenpeace” or its animal abuse agenda, “ugh, PETA” or its anti-racism agenda, “ugh, Black Lives Matter.” The government of the day is ultimately responsible for not following through on its electoral reform promise – not activists.
If the Liberals want more painful about-faces in the same vein, they should carry on with the same heavy-handed approach to the democratic file. We’ll start the clock for Chagger to be booted out for Karina Gould.
Accomplishing something positive on parliamentary reform will require patience – a willingness to slow discussion down and go beyond mere political automation to let caucus politick, discuss, chat and compromise. Airing publicly and telegraphing its willingness to compromise and alter its plans would go a long way to setting the right tone for the discussion – never once did I hear a Liberal MP utter their interest publicly in meeting the NDP and the Greens in the middle on electoral reform, despite it being possible to combine proportional representation with ranked ballots and majority governance. “My way or the highway,” is not an effective negotiating tactic when you’ve done nothing to convince the opposition your way is preferable to the highway.
The discussion paper’s proposals, far from perfect, are not a hill worth dying on. Certainly, there are ideas in the paper that can be pursued, but among them are ideas too that I truthfully believe even the government can be convinced to either amend or scrap if either side cared to have an adult conversation on them.
In the latter category stands the proposed ‘Prime Minister’s Question Period.’ A campaign promise no less, the proposal may shape up in time to be a fine idea but as it stands it has a notable drawback that even its proposers – I would hope – can recognize as a major problem.
No, that drawback is not that it would lower expectations for attendance for the prime minister: the opposition, in trying to paint the Liberals as simply ‘lazy’ are overlooking that Chagger’s paper also calls for earlier fall and winter sessions and longer sitting hours if necessary to make up for a loss of Friday sittings (which otherwise complicate travel to visit family and constituents.) Nor do I believe the prime minister’s attendance in Question Period after a crisis is essential. There’s no obligation he attend currently and even if he were, the limited information available when a crisis breaks restricts the quality of discussion. In that sense, it’s more important the prime minister attend parliament a week after a crisis breaks.
The critical flaw in holding a Question Period for the prime minister specifically is its ‘executivization‘ of Canada’s head of government. Sure, the model functions fine in a practical sense in Britain but Canada ought to steer clear of further centralizing power under one individual even in cases of symbolic measures like Question Period. Future parliamentary reform should – if anything – be focused on making parliament less centralized around the prime minister – not more!
There’s no reason why, for instance, Environment minister Catherine McKenna cannot answer a question about (god-forbid) an oil spill rather than the prime minister. We should prefer hearing from ministers on subjects, even crises, related to their ministries. By and large, the prime minister is an unnecessary middleman in that conversation. Senior staffers who described Trudeau’s intentions for the current PMO as ‘Pearsonian’ should ask themselves whether a Question Period dedicated to the prime minister is really what Lester B Pearson would have wanted? A Question Period dedicated solely to the prime minister contradicts the Trudeau camp’s own calls for more ‘cabinet government,’ and the principle of primus inter pares (first among equals.)
A recent debate over social media between Trudeau’s principal secretary, Gerald Butts and columnist Andrew Coyne on the selection of party leaders underscores this central tension between the informal ‘centralization’ of power under the prime minister that’s occurred over the years versus the formal legitimacy of all members of parliament.
Coyne held the prime minister is only prime minister “by virtue of commanding the confidence of a majority of members of parliament in the House,” while Butts replied that this was only “conventionally true,” arguing instead, that the prime minister holds his position “by virtue of having led his party to an election victory.” Coyne’s recent call to select party leaders via caucus go too far in recognizing the authority of backbenchers by disenfranchising party members, but in the context of Question Period, it’s fair to argue that we should avoid giving Canadians the impression that their leader is a president, when he is, in fact, a prime minister.
As the House of Commons pursues this belated adventure in parliamentary reform, my advice to both parties is to play fair. They probably won’t, but hey, it doesn’t hurt to try. Fairness on both sides on subject like parliamentary reform – devising a better functioning parliament – is in everyone’s interest. The challenge to spurring a compromise on reform is neither side thinks it’s they who needs to do the compromising. For example, on the controversial issue of a Prime Minister’s Question Period, perhaps the Liberals could create a system where if the prime minister attends, Question Period is extended, but questions need not be directed to the prime minister exclusively? The House of Commons has an opportunity before them to reform parliament for the better but that has to begin from a position of common ground.
Let’s hope, perhaps futilely, they don’t blow it.
Richard Forbes studied Political Science and Philosophy at the University of Waterloo. Winner of the Peter Woolstencroft Prize in Canadian Politics (2015).
When asked what ‘one does exactly’ with said degree, he laughs and politely declines to answer. A perfect night for him involves a cup of Lady Grey, writing and a re-run of Yes Minister.