Former House leaders defend Tories' majority tactics

Depending on who you ask, the government's move to limit debate on its budget legislation is an attempt to avoid public scrutiny or a valid and necessary tactic for majority governments.
Government House leader Peter Van Loan is using time allocation to limit debate on crime and budget implementation bills. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Depending on who you ask, the government's move to speed up passage of key budget legislation last week is an attempt to avoid public scrutiny or a valid and necessary tactic for majority governments.

Liberal critic Marc Garneau called the government's decision to limit debate on a 642-page budget implementation bill part of a "disturbing pattern ever since the Conservatives received their majority" to exclude the public and avoid oversight of its legislation.

But former Conservative House leader Jay Hill and former Liberal House leader Don Boudria say tactics like time allocation and closure, which cut off debate at different stages of a bill’s passage through Parliament, have been used for years. And they both say those tactics are necessary to push legislation through the House.

"If the opposition is entitled to filibuster, then the government is entitled to un-filibuster," Boudria said.

The second-longest serving House leader in Canadian history, Boudria said the government needs to be able to speed up a bill if the opposition has slowed it down.

His counterpart, Hill — who was often the target of the measures Boudria used under Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien — said parliamentary rules that allow the government to end debate are necessary.

"Although we railed against their usage at times by Mr. Chrétien and Don Boudria, we recognized even then that in our system of government, if you’re going to actually get something done, you have to be able to use them," Hill said.

"Because at some point in time, you have to actually be able to move legislation through the process. Even with the use of some of those measures, it still takes a long time to get a bill passed into law."

Liberal MP Marc Garneau said Wednesday that the government was pre-emptively cutting off debate on its budget implementation bill after Conservative House leader Peter Van Loan limited second reading of the bill to four days.

'Not legitimate'

It was Chrétien who introduced many of the measures that can be used to cut off debate, an NDP official pointed out.

But Garneau, who was first elected under a Conservative minority, took issue with the Harper government use this month of similar tactics.

"This government believes it’s above scrutiny by the opposition and above all they believe they can hide from the Canadian public," he said.

"Something as important as this does require a longer period of time."

A Conservative official said last week that the four days allowed for debate on the budget implementation bill is more than the Liberals allowed for equivalent bills under their last two prime ministers.

Garneau said cutting short the debate is still wrong.

"We should be debating this … there’s a lot of the taxpayers’ money that’s at stake," he said.

NDP watching committees

NDP MP Joe Comartin, who was an MP under a Liberal majority in the past, said it’s too early to see whether the Conservatives have a pattern of abusing the tools they have.

But the party is watching. NDP MPs who act as vice-chairs for committees are meeting Monday to compare notes and come up with a strategy for dealing with Conservative committee chairs who try to move meetings behind closed doors, he said.

Several NDP MPs have already complained about the tactic. The Conservatives also blocked the NDP’s attempt at calling witnesses in their favour at a meeting over union sponsorship of NDP events, he said.

While the government has said the previous minority parliaments slowed their ability to move their agenda, Comartin said they actually kept up with previous majority governments.

And though the crime bills didn’t go through as fast as the Conservatives wanted, Comartin said it was because of the sheer volume of the bills.

"These were significant changes in policy direction, so you would expect that if we were doing our jobs properly as parliamentarians, the kind of time we were taking on it was appropriate," he said.

"They clearly have this level of frustration and almost the self-righteousness that somehow the democratic process was curtailed during the minority government, when just the opposite is true, and [they’re] using that as an excuse to try and shove stuff through now that really should be getting more debate and more exposure to the public."