Budget bill debate set for shutdown as marathon vote looms

The Harper government's habit of using time allocation motions to cut off debate in the House of Commons took centre stage Tuesday, as government House leader Peter Van Loan moved the controversial measure to hustle MPs toward a highly anticipated marathon of budget amendment votes.

Hundreds of opposition amendments grouped for dozens of votes starting as early as Wednesday night

The Harper government's habit of using time allocation motions to cut off debate in the House of Commons took centre stage Tuesday, as government House leader Peter Van Loan moved the controversial measure to hustle MPs toward a highly anticipated marathon of budget amendment votes.

Van Loan's motion passed a nearly full and boisterous House just before noon on Tuesday, with 157 Conservatives in favour and 135 opposition votes against.

Debate on the budget bill at report stage is now limited to 10 further hours. Factoring in extended sittings planned for Tuesday and Wednesday, voting on the amendments could be underway by late Wednesday or early Thursday morning.

Van Loan gave notice of his intention to curtail debate at the report stage on Monday evening, as MPs began a series of late sittings to try to pass as much of the government's legislation as possible before the summer recess.

"We actually welcome debate on [C-38], although I must note that the opposition parties just voted against lengthening debate here in the House," Van Loan said, pointing out how MPs lined up during Monday's vote to allow for the late sittings through the remaining days on the parliamentary calendar.

"It seems that they only want to stall and delay the process by forcing hundreds of votes on a bill that they opposed before it was even introduced," the government House leader added, emphasizing the fragility of the global economic recovery and the government's goal of focusing on economic growth through measures like the budget bill.

NDP House leader Nathan Cullen reminded the House on Tuesday morning that this was the 26th time the Harper government limited debate on its legislation, "breaking the record of the previous government."

"Our words have not swayed them," Cullen said.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May appeared to lose her cool as the time allocation motion debate began, reminding MPs of the limited time for witnesses during the finance committee's review of the bill.

"That is an outrage," May said.

C-38, the massive omnibus bill styled as the government's budget implementation legislation, does far more than implement aspects of Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's March budget. It amends some 70 different laws, including a vast section of the bill that overhauls environmental regulations.

Prior to the current stage of debate in the Commons, the legislation was reviewed by the House finance committee as well as a special C-38 subcommittee. Amendments suggested by the opposition during the committee review failed, thanks to the Conservatives' majority.

Voting marathon ahead

On Monday, House of Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer outlined his decisions about how MPs would proceed in considering the hundreds of amendments the opposition suggested to delete clauses or rewrite sections of the bill.

The amendments have been grouped into between 67 and 159 separate votes, leading to estimates of at least 12 hours — even if things are not delayed procedurally and everything goes well — but possibly over 30 hours of continuous voting as MPs weigh in one by one.

The votes will not begin until report stage debate concludes — after 10 more hours, according to Tuesday's time allocation motion.


Are procedural tactics the best way for the opposition parties to oppose Bill C-38? Take our survey.

The government has some leeway in deciding on the timing for the votes, but once voting starts MPs have to consider all the amendments in one stretch. That's led to MPs joking about packing their pajamas, a toothbrush or a stack of paperwork to pass the time during what's expected to be an exhaustive stretch of individual votes.

Last week, NDP House leader Nathan Cullen mused about the government not being able to afford to "screw up" during lengthy rounds of voting. The small margin of the Conservative majority could see the government losing one or more of the dozens of votes on the budget bill if the government whip is not very careful with his head count of MPs present to vote through the entire marathon.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney spoke Monday about what he learned from experience as a young MP in 1999, when his then Reform Party forced votes on the Nisga'a treaty for three straight days of parliamentary time.

"I actually got one of those airplane neck pillows out so I [could] recline during the all-night votes, and that ended up on the front pages of newspapers," said Kenney. "So I'll be sure not to do that again."

Outcome inevitable despite protests?

The Conservatives have enough MPs to defeat every amendment and pass this legislation on their desired timetable, despite the opposition's vast amendments and numerous public protests.

One group is calling for a group of 13 "hero" Conservative backbenchers to step forward, break ranks, and stop the bill. Following a cross-Canada protest at MPs' offices against C-38 on June 2, a second protest organized by the non-partisan organization leadnow.ca is set for early Wednesday evening, when the voting marathon was expected to start.

Another social media campaign asking Twitter and Facebook users to speak up is being promoted by Cullen as a "budget engagement campaign."

MPs have offered various interpretations of whether any vote on an amendment should constitute a confidence vote for the Harper government. In practice, even if the government loses one of the votes through a tactical error, the government as a whole is unlikely to fall over the controversial bill.

Opposition parties argued since the bill was first tabled on April 26 that it needed to be split into several parts to more effectively review and perhaps amend its various measures. The government refused.

An avalanche of over 1,000 proposed amendments were submitted by all the opposition parties last week. Once duplications and out-of-order amendments were removed, it fell to the House Speaker on Monday to chart the course MPs will take through the bill's final marathon by grouping amendments for voting. 

Once those votes conclude later this week, the final stage of debate at third reading — which will be limited to eight hours, according to Tuesday's time allocation motion — could begin on Monday.

The final Commons vote for the budget bill could happen later on Monday or Tuesday.

Several Senate committees are reviewing C-38 in advance of the House of Commons passing the legislation at third reading, to further speed its passage toward royal assent before the summer recess.

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With files from The Canadian Press