NDP scores surprise win on e-petitions thanks to 8 Tory MPs

In these days of majority Parliament, it's rare to find oneself impatiently waiting for the Speaker to read out the results of a vote. But that's exactly what happened on Wednesday night with an NDP MP's motion on online citizen petitions. Kady O'Malley has the details.
A motion from NDP MP Kennedy Stewart, left, to update the rules around citizen petitions in the House of Commons passed by a two-vote margin Wednesday night.

In these days of majority Parliament, it's rare to find oneself impatiently waiting for the Speaker to read out the results of a vote.

But that's exactly what happened on Wednesday night, when the fate of New Democrat MP Kennedy Stewart's bid to bring electronic petitions to the House of Commons was ultimately decided by the eight Conservative backbenchers who broke ranks with their caucus colleagues.

Count 'em

Conservative MPs who voted in favour of M-428 (electronic petitions):

Leon Benoit (Vegreville-Wainwright)

Garry Breitkreuz (Yorkton - Melville)

​Michael Chong (Wellington - Halton Hills)

James Rajotte (Edmonton - Leduc)

Kyle Seeback (Brampton West)

Brad Trost (Saskatoon - Humboldt)

Maurice Vellacott (Saskatoon - Wanuskewin)

John Williamson (New Brunswick Southwest)

After a roll call vote that was too close to call based on eyeballs alone, it took several minutes for the clerks to tally the numbers.

The reveal was delayed still further when Conservative MPs Diane Ablonczy and Michelle Rempel rose on points of order to make sure that their names were duly recorded amongst the nays.

There's no way to know if that was, in fact, the case, but as it turned out, it wouldn't have made a difference.

In the end, the yeas had it, albeit by the narrowest of margins: 142 to 140.

The applause that followed the reading of the results drowned out the rest of the Speaker's words, and carried on for a full 30 seconds before the Speaker kindly but firmly called his charges back to order.

Now up to the committee

Having successfully garnered the approval of the House, Stewart's proposal will now be sent to the procedure and house affairs committee, which will have 12 months to come up with a plan to turn his vision for an e-petition system into parliamentary reality.

Chief among the questions with which the committee has been tasked is the threshold for triggering a special House debate, particularly the number of signatures that would be required, and how many MPs would have to sign on as sponsors.

It's worth noting that, although the terms of reference would seem to bar the committee from simply advising the House to decline to proceed further with the idea, committees are, of course, masters of their own destinies.

As such, Stewart will have to be ready to re-rally the troops in the event the government attempts to use its majority at committee to block the proposal before it can be finalized and put into effect.

Still, for a motion officially opposed by the majority government to make it even this far is a victory for Stewart — and, indeed, for anyone who dreams of an alternate universe democratic chamber where votes don't so often go down along unwavering party lines.

Committee chairs

Meanwhile, last fall, the government indicated that it would give a tentative thumbs up to Conservative MP Brad Trost's pitch to consider giving the House the power to decide who can wield the gavel at committee through a preferential ballot at the start of each new Parliament.

(Under the current system, committees hold pro forma votes to confirm chair and vice-chairs who invariably stand unopposed after being selected by the respective party leadership.)

Trost, who was one of the eight Conservative MPs to vote in favour of Stewart's motion, will see his motion come up for a vote next week, at which point it looks like it could end up enjoying the unanimous support of the Commons, at least as far as sending the matter to committee — the same committee that will handle the e-petition proposal, in fact — for further study. 

While an unopposed vote likely wouldn't pack the same democratic punch as Wednesday's cliff-hanger verdict on e-petitions, it's a good bet that Trost would celebrate its passage with just as much enthusiasm as Stewart and some of his colleagues on both sides of the aisle did last night.