OTTAWA — The federal Liberals want to act on their ambitious legislative mandate, but they also hope to avoid looking like bullies when they do. As they retreat to their ridings for the next two days, here is a recap of how those competing interests recently came to a head.
The filibuster goes on and on
More than a month ago now, government House leader Bardish Chagger released a discussion paper with suggestions for changing the ins and outs of parliamentary procedure, such as devoting one day a week for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to take questions in the House of Commons. Their political rivals were cool to the ideas. Then things got really, really hot. On March 21, the Conservatives and New Democrats teamed up to keep talking — and talking and talking and talking — to prevent the procedures committee from voting on a motion that would require them to consider the paper and impose a deadline on its study. Chagger says she wants to start a “conversation” over the suggestions, but those on the other side say they first want assurances the Liberals won’t push through changes without agreement from the other parties. More than three weeks later, the impasse remains and the tensions have been colouring many of the interactions between the Liberals and their counterparts.
One of the more arcane — but no less controversial — proposed changes in the discussion paper is something called “programming,” which involves scheduling a set amount of time to move government bills through the legislative process. It brings some predictability, but also cuts down on the need for the government to use heavy-handed moves if it feels the opposition parties are slowing things down. Right now, the government can bring in hammers like time allocation to end debate, but it can come with a political price. Somewhat ironically, the ongoing fight over the suggested changes to procedure had the Liberals arguing they had no choice but to bring out that blunt instrument this week. The Liberals gave notice of time allocation on two bills they believed the opposition was stalling. That fight is expected to resume when everyone returns to the House May 1.
On the omnibus bus
The Liberals said they would not bring in omnibus bills, and then they did. What gives? As the Liberals are quick to point out, they promised not to abuse the use of omnibus bills as a way to ram controversial legislation through Parliament without proper scrutiny and debate, as the Conservatives were often accused of doing. “Any budget bill contains a broad range of provisions … that will touch on a broad range of issues,” Trudeau said during question period Wednesday, which had NDP MP Nathan Cullen saying he sounded just like former prime minister Stephen Harper. The Liberals argue there is nothing in the new omnibus bill that was not in the budget. But the budget did leave out some potentially devilish details.
Open to amendments
The March 22 budget said the Liberals would be giving the parliamentary budget officer some greater independence and power, but the omnibus bill revealed it would come with new restrictions. That raised alarm bells for none other than Kevin Page, who clashed with the previous Conservative government when he was in the role. That criticism did not go unnoticed. “We are open to amendments on how to further improve the proposed legislation so that it accomplishes the goal of an independent PBO,” said Mark Kennedy, spokesman for Chagger.
Meanwhile, in the other place
Trudeau had promised to do away with partisan appointments in the Senate, and brought in an new merit-based process overseen by an independent advisory board. The thing is, though, the Liberal government still needs to move its legislation through the upper chamber, and by design, the senators sitting across the aisle are not always going to be okay with it. Enter Peter Harder, the government representative in the Senate, who has become vocal in his frustration with Conservative senators for slowing things down. Harder has suggested an all-party committee to come up with schedules for moving individual pieces of legislation through the process. As with the proposed changes in the House of Commons, it has its detractors, with Conservative Sen. Denis Batters being particularly blunt. “What will it take for you to admit that this whole ill-conceived scheme has been a colossal mistake?” she asked in Senate question period Wednesday.