NDP takes fight for cross-country election bill hearings to House floor

Procedure and House Affairs isn't the only committee to be grounded for the foreseeable future after the New Democrats blocked a motion to allow all-expense paid committee trips to New York, Washington DC, and Chile, among other far-flung locales.
Will he or won't he? Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre's appearance before a committee studying his Fair Elections Act is up in the air. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Unpack your bags, Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, you're staying in Ottawa.

Despite a concerted effort by opposition members to convince their Conservative colleagues to support their call for cross-country hearings on the election bill, it appears the government will use its majority to quash an NDP motion to move the debate off the Hill and out of the political bubble.

Initially, the government had seemed open to at least considering the idea of taking the committee show on the road.

After taking the rare step of opening up what had been billed as a closed-door planning meeting to the press, the committee appeared to wrap up on a cautiously optimistic, albeit somewhat confused, note.

In exchange for the unanimous support required to authorize the chair to invite Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre to appear on Thursday, Conservative committee lead Tom Lukiwski promised to take the NDP proposal under advisement.

But while the New Democrats seemed willing to accept Lukiwski's offer, lone Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux refused to give his consent without what he described as a "firm commitment" to cross-country hearings, which Lukiwski was unable to provide.

"It's a trust issue," Lamoureux explained as the clock ticked away the remaining minutes before the committee was scheduled to adjourn.

As a result of Lamoureux's hesitation, when the gavel came down, no one — not even the MPs at the table — was entirely sure whether the minister would be invited to appear on Thursday or not, as they hadn't actually passed a motion instructing the chair to make it happen.

"It's the chair's problem now," NDP MP David Christopherson told reporters.

But without an agreement on travel, he hinted that the ensuing debate on his motion would likely preempt any putative ministerial appearance.

A few hours later, Lukiwski confirmed, via email to CBC News, that his party will not be supporting the NDP proposal, a move that he acknowledged could scuttle the plan to have Poilievre present his bill to the committee later this week.

"I suspect even if the minister plans to attend, the NDP and Liberals will try to filibuster the meeting to prevent his appearance," he predicted.

"It is apparent to me that they will do everything in their power to prevent the committee from commencing the study unless they get agreement to hold meetings outside of Ottawa."

Given the already tense state of inter-party relations across the committee table, that seems like a safe bet.

UPDATE: It looks like Procedure and House Affairs isn't the only committee being grounded for the foreseeable future.

In a possibly unprecedented show of procedural passive aggression, the New Democrats have flexed their parliamentary muscle by blocking a motion to allow other House committees to travel over the coming weeks, including previously scheduled all-expense paid trips to New York City, Washington D.C., Houston, Chile, Peru and several other far-flung locales.

NDP House Leader Nathan Cullen made sure to put the rationale behind the move on the official record.

As soon as the consent had been formally denied, he rose on a point of order to highlight, once again, his party's frustration over the government's refusal to allow cross-country hearings on the election bill.

"Typically parties are able to establish the working conditions for our committees and do the good work of Parliament," he noted. 

"What is also unprecedented is that the government has refused, absolutely refused Canada-wide public hearings on its unfair and rigged elections bill, in which the Conservatives are seeking to change the fundamental democratic values in this country." 

In response, Government Whip John Duncan could do nothing but grumble about being "held hostage" by the Official Opposition.

Even without all-party consent, the government could put the travel authorization motion up for debate, which would almost certainly eat up a few hours of Commons time — and, perhaps even more politically problematic, draw more attention to its intransigence on the still-pending review of the election bill.

More likely, the committees will simply have to cancel their planned excursions, and content themselves with fact-finding within the borders of the parliamentary precinct.

That is, unless the government comes to the conclusion that this particular battle isn't worth fighting, and gives the green light for Procedure and House Affairs to hit the road.