Earlier this week, Liberal House leader Bardish Chagger moved for a committee study on major changes to the way the House of Commons operates.
There’s a line in politics that even the most robust majority governments cross at their peril: whenever the party in power follows a course of action that unites all its political opponents in a coalition against it, trouble is sure to ensue.
That’s exactly what is happening in the House of Commons, which is transfixed not by Wednesday’s budget, but by the government’s attempt to unilaterally change the rules of parliament.
The House is always a crucible of heated debate but in the past few days it has become a cauldron. Earlier this week, Liberal House leader Bardish Chagger moved for a committee study on major changes to the way it operates, including ending Friday sittings and restricting the ability of opposition parties to filibuster bills.
The opposition parties claim the standing orders can only be amended by consensus.
Conservative MP Scott Reid pointed out, not only did former Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien set up a committee to review the standing orders with unanimous consent written into its mandate, the Fathers of Confederation also operated by the same principle when drawing up the rules in the first place in 1867.
As Murray Rankin, the NDP’s House Leader, put it: “I think it’s fair to say there’s a genuine inability to make the government understand the enormity of what they’re doing.
“It’s not always the case that the Conservatives and NDP are holding hands on issues of such importance. But we are united on this one.”
Liberals defend proposed four-day sitting in House 1:11
The Liberals appear to have short memories. They don’t seem to remember their own ignominious retreat last May, when they first attempted to ride roughshod over established parliamentary tradition in the Motion 6 debacle.
That power-grab would have stripped opposition MPs of the tools to delay government bills and would have given the Liberals almost total control over parliamentary procedure.
The opposition parties failed to accept this diktat with good grace, prompting Justin Trudeau to cross the floor and inadvertently elbow a female New Democratic MP, for which he had his knuckles rapped by the Speaker of the House.
The unanimity on the other side of the House forced the Liberals to back down — which makes it all the more baffling that they are attempting a similar manoeuvre and yet expect a different outcome.
Chagger called a press conference Thursday and there was some expectation that she might accede to opposition demands. But she merely reiterated her claim that the “discussion paper” submitted to the committee is “reasonable” and that her “door is always open.”
Substantially, she has a point — the paper is reasonable. Nothing ever happens in the House on a Friday, so the timetable could easily be amended without anyone noticing. The introduction of electronic voting has its merits; limiting politically motivated prorogations is a sound concept; even the introduction of UK-style time-allocation when it comes to the passage of bills, as an alternative to filibustering, is sensible.
But that’s not the point. The point is that these rules can’t be gerrymandered to suit the party in power.
Rankin scored a direct hit in Question Period when he asked Liberals what they thought a majority government headed by reality TV star Kevin O’Leary might do with the new powers they are proposing. From my vantage point in the press gallery, it seemed a number of backbenchers looked a bit queasy at the prospect.
The mood in the House was not helped by the bland talking points Chagger offered in response to the legitimate concerns raised by the Conservatives and NDP.
“This goes well beyond an innocent discussion paper and the Government House leader should not insult our intelligence by claiming otherwise,” raged New Democrat David Christopherson. He said Chagger should accept the government has “no mandate to change the rules of democracy over the united objections of the opposition.”
Unless the Liberals relent, the vitriol in the House will only intensify.
On Wednesday, Conservative MP Michelle Rempel accused the Prime Minister of staring down and yelling at Tory House leader Candice Bergen when she accused him of behaving in a dictatorial fashion.
“Will this so-called feminist stand up and apologize to my colleague or will he once again make a woman do his dirty work?” asked Rempel.
On cue, Chagger rose to answer. “I am very proud to be a strong women who has been empowered by a government to have a voice and help create the change we were elected to create,” she said.
She is a strong woman — I saw that on the doorsteps when I followed her on the campaign trail in 2015. But she is also this season’s Maryam Monsef — a rookie Cabinet minister asked to perform mission impossible by polishing a policy cow-pat.
— with files from Marie-Danielle Smith