OTTAWA – The Trudeau government is backing down from some of its most controversial proposals for reforming the way the House of Commons operates in the face of opposition filibustering that has tied parliamentary business in knots for weeks.
Government House leader Bardish Chagger has written to her opposition counterparts, announcing that she intends to proceed with only those reforms promised in the Liberal election platform – including having the prime minister answer all queries in one question period each week, as Justin Trudeau has already begun doing.
Chagger is dropping other more contentious proposals, which opposition parties have unanimously denounced as a bid by the Liberals to control the parliamentary agenda and hamstring their efforts to hold the government to account.
That includes a proposal to adopt the British practice to use “programming motions” to set in advance the amount of time to be devoted to debate and committee study of each bill introduced in the Commons.
Also being abandoned is a proposal to limit MPs’ speeches during committee hearings to 10 minutes, short-circuiting their ability to filibuster.
However, Chagger warns in her letter that without those reforms the government will be forced instead to impose time allocation to limit debate and get legislation passed.
“Canadians elected us to deliver an ambitious agenda, so it is with regret, but full transparency, that I want to inform you that, under the circumstances, the government will need to use time allocation more often in order to implement the real change we promised,” she says.
Chagger is also dropping a proposal to test electronic voting, rather than forcing MPs to stand in the Commons for all votes.
And she’s deferring a proposal to eliminate sparsely-attended, half-day Friday sittings of the Commons, asking opposition parties to consult their respective MPs on the idea of reallocating the time now spent on Fridays to other days or weeks in the parliamentary calendar.
Almost from the moment Chagger proposed the reforms in a discussion paper released in early March, opposition parties have been expressing outrage over what they described as a power grab by a dictatorial prime minister.
The discussion paper was sent to the procedure and House affairs committee, where a Liberal MP’s motion to study it and report back with recommendations by June 2 set off a days-long filibuster, which eventually spilled over into the House of Commons, where opposition parties used procedural manoeuvres to delay tabling of the budget, among other things.
Chagger’s retreat comes as the Commons prepares to resume Monday after a two-week break. The government is hoping to get back to business-as-usual and avoid a last-minute crush of frantic legislative activity before Parliament breaks for the summer in mid-June.
The reforms left on the table are among the least controversial. They include:
– Empowering the Speaker to allow separate votes and committee studies on different sections of omnibus bills, in which dozens of unrelated legislative changes are crammed into one massive bill.
– Requiring the government, at the first sitting following prorogation of Parliament, to issue a report explaining its reasons for proroguing, with that report then subject to committee study and Commons debate. That is aimed at forcing the government to publicly account for its action if it prorogues to avoid politically difficult situations – such as former prime minister Stephen Harper’s 2008 decision to prorogue to avoid a confidence vote.
– Changing the schedule for release of spending estimates so that they reflect measures included in the annual federal budget.
– Dedicating one question period each week to grilling the prime minister. Chagger has promised Trudeau won’t use that as an excuse to skip other question periods, which should help blunt initial opposition criticism of this proposal. In any event, Trudeau has already started implementing it.
The surviving proposals were promised in the Liberals’ 2015 election platform and were meant to address perceived abuses by Harper’s Conservative government.
“These commitments directly responded to the abuse of Parliament by Stephen Harper and his Conservative government,” Chagger says in her letter.
“We will not give the Conservative party a veto on the promises we made to Canadians.”
The New Democrats say they’re still not satisfied with the changes the Liberals are proposing.
“They have just announced that they will be unilaterally forcing through changes to the way our Parliament works, largely just to suit themselves,” NDP House leader Murray Rankin said Sunday night.
“For the past few weeks, the Liberals have tried to claim that all they’ve wanted was a discussion,” Rankin said. “Discussion was always just a pretence – it just took them a while to admit it.”