Inside Politics

Opposition MPs unite against Tory efforts to dodge marathon budget vote

New Democrat House Leader Nathan Cullen has served notice on the government that, despite occasional outbursts of inter-opposition rancour, he and his party are fully prepared to fight for the right of Green Party Leader Elizabeth May and any other independent MP to keep the House on its collective feet for hours -- or even days -- at a time when the latest omnibudget bill goes to a vote later this month.

During past budget bill debates, May has taken advantage of a heretofore little-known parliamentary perk accorded to independent members: namely, the power to propose substantive amendments to a bill at report stage debate.

Normally, such motions are dealt with during clause-by-clause review, but since independent MPs don't sit on committee, the rules permit them to bring forward amendments at report stage -- which, depending on how the speaker decides to group them, can result in marathon voting sessions, as was the case with the last two omnibudget bills.

In a landmark ruling handed down last December, House Speaker Andrew Scheer gently but firmly rebuffed the government's request that he throw out hundreds of amendments put forward by May and other independent members on the grounds that, as Government House Leader Peter Van Loan put it in his ultimately unsuccessful attempt to sell the speaker on his case, it allowed a single MP to "take the House hostage."

Instead, Van Loan proposed a system whereby the speaker would hold one 'test vote' per Independent MP in order to determine whether there was any chance that their amendments might succeed, a suggestion that Scheer kindly but firmly dismissed in its entirely, noting that, if "taken to its logical end, [it] might lead to conclusions that trespass on important foundational principles of our institution, regardless of its composition."

Scheer did, however, observe that it should be possible to come up with a way to allow independent members to bring forward amendments at committee.

Fast forward to the current omnibudget battle - specifically, May 7th, when, as part of the finance committee's otherwise non-controversial preparations for divvying up C-60 amongst the relevant committees, the Conservatives wielded their majority muscle to pass a motion instructing the chair to invite "each Member of Parliament who is not a member of a caucus" to send along "any amendments to the Bill which they would propose that the committee consider" -- in letter form, and in both official languages, "no later than 9am on Monday, May 27th."

Although May was instantly suspicious of the offer, she eventually decided to accept the chair's invitation that she attend clause-by-clause review earlier this week, which is how she found herself at the table alongside Bloc Quebecois MP Louis Plamandon, who had also submitted amendments to the chair.

Although the two non-member MPs were permitted to deliver brief -- one minute for May, two minutes for Plamandon -- statements in support of their respective proposals, that was it, as far as their involvement in the proceedings. They weren't permitted to take, or ask questions on their amendments, or even cast a vote.

That led May to make a point of noting, in each of her interventions, that her participation in the process was "without prejudice to [her] rights .. to propose amendments at report stage."

Yesterday afternoon, the committee reported the bill back to the House without a single amendment.

But before May could rise to her feet to lodge a formal protest against the process employed by the government in response to Scheer's ruling on the matter, Cullen leapt to his feet to make the very same case -- namely, that the May 7th motion was an attempt to circumvent that very ruling. 

He pointed out that neither May nor Plamandon could even move their own amendments directly, as they weren't members of the committee, but simply spectators with limited speaking privileges.

"Simply accepting motions from members who are not part of a committee and are not present to move the motion, contravenes the basic tenets of this place," Cullen noted. 

 "The presence and acknowledged presence of a standing member of any of these committees is required--it is a basic, fundamental requirement--for a motion to proceed."

Not surprisingly, Cullen's contention found immediate favour with other opposition members -- independent and caucus-affiliated alike.

Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux called the government's attempt to circumvent the Scheer ruling a 'red flag,' while Bloc Quebecois MP Andre Bellavance supported noting that the right to move amendments at report stage is one of the few remaining to his fellow Bloc MPs.

"We don't want additional privileges," he stressed. "We simply want our rights preserved."

Finally, May -- who thanked Cullen effusively, both in the House and on twitter, for bringing the issue to the attention of the speaker, reserved her right to speak on the matter until this morning, when she did so with her signature blend of passionate proceduralism and painstaking precedence references.

The speaker, meanwhile, has taken the matter under advisement, although at press time, he's still waiting for an official response from Van Loan, who, like May, pled for additional time to respond.

With report stage debate slated to begin as soon as tomorrow, however, Scheer is likely already hitting the parliamentary law books to determine what, if any, difference those committee invitations should make to his original findings. 

Stay tuned! 

Comments are closed.