MPs take stock as they wrap up Commons' spring sitting
Caucus meetings on the Hill before MPs leave Ottawa for the summer
The NDP and Liberals held their final caucus meetings this morning before leaving Ottawa for the summer after MPs voted unanimously last night to wrap up the spring sitting of Parliament.
Liberals emerged from their caucus with the big news that former interim leader and Toronto MP Bob Rae was stepping down. Rae said he had to make the difficult decision because of his other role as chief negotiator for talks between the Ontario government and Matawa First Nations.
Trudeau said Rae was a great leader at a difficult time for the party and that he will be missed.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, meanwhile, emerged from his caucus meeting with praise for his MPs, who he said forced the Conservatives to abandon a controversial citizenship and immigration bill. He also had tough words for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, accusing him of "dodging" Parliament and criticizing him for only attending question period five times in the last five weeks as the Senate spending scandal continued to develop.
"Stephen Harper still owes a lot of answers to Canadians," Mulcair said to reporters.
"We're facing a tired Conservative government, one that no longer listens to Canadians, if it ever did," said Mulcair.
MPs are heading out of town after agreeing to a motion last night that in one swoop passed a number of bills. They also agreed to a proposal from the NDP to begin a study on the idea of a new independent body to oversee MPs' expenses and House of Commons spending.
Mulcair called this past sitting of Parliament a "pivotal" one that showed Canadians the NDP is the government-in-waiting.
But Conservative House leader Peter Van Loan said the government was busy getting results during the spring sitting, while the other parties were busy watching question period.
Van Loan ran down a long list of legislation passed during the sitting, including bills to implement the budget, to speed the removal from Canada of "foreign criminals," to bring greater financial transparency to First Nation governments and provide clean drinking water on First Nation reserves, to give more disciplinary powers to the RCMP commissioner and to restore two anti-terror measures that had been sunsetted.
Van Loan said some of the government's measures strengthened the national institutions that "make us proud to be Canadians," including a law to create a national park on Nova Scotia's Sable Island and the tabling of a bill to create a new Canadian Museum of History.
"Some of the legislation we passed had a lower profile because it's technical, but necessary," Van Loan said, pointing to C-32, which fixed "a decade-old gap by the previous government" in the Civil Marriage Act that affected same-sex couples being able to get a divorce.
Van Loan observed that former prime minister Pierre Trudeau referred once to MPs as "nobodies." (The late Trudeau actually said that MPs are nobodies once they're 50 yards from Parliament Hill.)
But Van Loan went on to say Conservative backbenchers have seen 14 of their private member's bills passed in the past two years, whereas the previous rate was about one a year.
Van Loan said several Conservative private member's anti-crime bills will continue when Parliament resumes, including a bill by MP Devinder Shory to strip citizenship from convicted terrorists.
Still, the party's treatment of its backbenchers by the government has been a hot topic on the Hill this sitting, with Conservative MPs Mark Warawa, Russ Hiebert, Brad Trost and others complaining about not being able to speak freely in the House of Commons, culminating with Brent Rathgeber quitting the Conservative caucus because he is not, as he put it, a "trained seal" and was tired, he said, of taking orders from PMO staffers half his age.
Defence Minister Peter MacKay was also still on Parliament Hill to make an announcement about Canadian troops going to Haiti to support peacekeeping efforts there.
Harper returned to Ottawa late last night after a week away in Europe where he visited London, Paris and Dublin, and then attended the G8 summit in Northern Ireland.
MPs unite to adjourn early
The early rising of the House of Commons – it was scheduled to sit until Friday – means Harper won't have to face another question period where he and his cabinet have been fending off repeated questions from the opposition parties over the Senate spending scandal and the $90,000 cheque from Nigel Wright, Harper's former chief of staff, to Senator Mike Duffy.
The House of Commons had extended its hours and was sitting until midnight for the last few weeks to deal with a list of bills. The ones MPs agreed to pass Tuesday night include:
- C-54, a bill that reforms the not criminally responsible part of the Criminal Code.
- S-14, the corruption of foreign public officials act.
- S-17, a bill dealing with double taxation agreements with Namibia, Serbia, Poland, Hong Kong, Luxembourg and Switzerland.
- S-15, a bill to make Nova Scotia's Sable Island a national park.
- C-32, to amend the Civil Marriage Act so non-resident same-sex couples who got married in Canada can end their marriage.
Twenty-one bills are being given royal assent Wednesday afternoon in the Senate, including some of the ones that were passed Tuesday night.
The motion voted on Tuesday night was a rare moment of agreement after weeks of acrimony among the parties. The motion contained measures, however, that appear to satisfy everyone. The Conservatives got several of their bills passed, the NDP got its proposal for the procedure and House affairs committee to study the idea of abolishing the board of internal economy and replacing it with an independent body to oversee spending, and the motion also included mention of studying proposals made by Trudeau on spending and transparency.
Trudeau has been under fire from the Conservatives for accepting speaking fees from charities and they have also been going after Mulcair for running stop signs while driving on Parliament Hill. The Liberals and NDP say the Conservatives are trying to change the channel and distract Canadians from the Wright-Duffy affair, which is being investigated by the RCMP.
Both Mulcair and Trudeau defended their decisions to wrap the sitting up a few days early, saying Harper had made it clear he wasn't going to be in the House of Commons this week anyway to answer their questions.
"I have the sense that we were no longer accomplishing much in this session of the House of Commons," Trudeau said in French. "As we see it, three extra days were not going to contribute to any improvement in terms of Canadians' lives and we felt that going back to our ridings to rebuild Canadians' trust and confidence in Parliament was more of a priority."
Mulcair indicated that agreeing to rise early was in exchange for the Conservatives dropping Shory's bill and allowing the NDP proposals to abolish the board of internal economy to proceed.
He said ending the sitting early doesn't mean the Conservatives and Harper are off the hook for anything and the NDP will continue to hold them to account.
"We'll be here waiting for him in September when we get back," said Mulcair.