Why the Liberals are still struggling to change how Canadian democracy works: Aaron Wherry

Before the Liberals' debate on parliamentary reform has even begun, there remains an opposition-led impasse over how the discussion should conclude.

The Liberals abandoned electoral reform, now parliamentary reform debate has stalled before even starting

Government House leader Bardish Chagger says the Conservatives shouldn't have a veto over Liberal commitments to reform the House of Commons. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Badgered again during question period Tuesday about her government's interest in changing the rules that govern the House of Commons, Bardish Chagger protested that Liberals "will not give a veto to the Conservatives over our campaign commitments."

It is on this basis that the House of Commons remained, for another day, no closer to reform.

Before a debate on parliamentary reform has even begun, there remains an impasse over how the discussion should conclude. 

Wednesday offers another opportunity for progress, or continued stalemate.

Rushing reforms?

The procedure and House affairs committee, which might otherwise be studying possible changes to the standing orders, has been stuck since March 21 because of a Conservative and NDP filibuster.

Last month, the Liberals released a discussion paper that outlined various possibilities for change, including reforming question period, changing the way debates are scheduled and implementing new rules for committee business.

The Liberals then sought to have the committee study the possible changes and report back by June.

But the Conservatives and NDP joined forces to stall the committee, arguing that some of the proposed changes could erode the ability of Parliament to hold the government to account and alleging that the Liberals are trying to rush such reforms through the House.

The opposition are refusing to stop talking out the clock unless or until the Liberals agree to put in writing that no changes will be made without all-party support — what Chagger, the Liberal House leader, called a veto.

After suspending its proceedings for a week, the committee was expected to resume on Monday, only for the chair to abruptly adjourn proceedings again, apparently so the parties might have more time to resolve their differences.

Chagger met with her Conservative and NDP counterparts twice on Monday, but no deal emerged. 

In the meantime, the Conservatives used a procedural manoeuvre in the House to force a vote on a motion calling on MPs to agree that the procedure committee should only recommend changes to the standing orders if all-party agreement exists.

Conservative House leader Candice Bergen has condemned the way the Liberals have handled the issue of parliamentary reform. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

After Liberals voted to reject that motion on Tuesday, Conservative House leader Candice Bergen and NDP House leader Murray Rankin issued a joint statement of condemnation. 

"The Liberal government has confirmed its intention to run roughshod over the opposition's rights to hold the government to account," they declared. "This is truly regrettable."

Campaign commitments and the filibuster

There is a certain logic to Chagger's complaint of a Conservative veto.

In their 2015 platform, the Liberals vowed to pursue a number of reforms including implementing a "prime minister's question period," restricting the use of omnibus legislation and empowering House committees.

Liberal MPs now occupy a majority of the seats in the House. And that Conservative MPs could, nonetheless, have the collective power to veto any or all of those changes might seem somehow unfair.

But the campaign commitments in question relate not to differences of opinion or policy, but to the rules of the House of Commons: the mutually accepted standing orders that govern the people's business and all of the people's representatives, both government and opposition.

Conservatives and New Democrats note there is history of such changes only being made with broad agreement. In response, Liberals have pointed out that changes have sometimes been made without unanimous support.

In fairness, the opposition might be getting ahead of itself: the government hasn't yet really had a chance to run roughshod, regardless of whether it actually wants to. But it's also not yet clear whether the Conservatives or New Democrats would necessarily try to veto anything. 

In the meantime, there is the reality of a filibuster.

The Liberals could resort to extraordinary procedural steps to override the opposition's efforts, but at the risk of generating only louder complaint about running roughshod.

They could attempt to wait the opposition out, but at the risk of not getting anything accomplished.

Or they could compromise, at the risk of ending up beholden to the Conservatives or New Democrats.

Either way, the committee is due to reconvene at 4 p.m. on Wednesday.

Incomplete record of reform

A little less than a year ago, the Liberals were fighting opposition complaints that they were preparing to ram through changes to the electoral system. In that case, the Liberals backed down on the composition of a special committee, surrendering their own majority. 

Several months later, they abandoned electoral reform on the grounds there wasn't sufficient consensus to proceed.

In lieu of a new electoral system, they might hope to deliver other democratic reforms, but now they find themselves trying to assert a limit on how much support is necessary to proceed.

Justin Trudeau and the Liberals are looking to deliver parliamentary reforms after abandoning their big campaign promise of electoral reform. (Jim Young/Reuters)

Meanwhile, certain other hopes for reform remain unfulfilled.

Legislation to empower and reinforce the parliamentary budget officer has yet to be tabled. The beleaguered access-to-information system remains unreformed. The much-lamented estimates process — through which Parliament approves government spending — remains unchanged.

On Tuesday, Liberal MPs approved a bill to create a special committee on national security. And the Senate, when it's not having to decide whether to discipline its own members, continues to show new life as an independent forum.

But a party that promised real change would hope to have a substantial number of things to say for itself at the next election. And 2019 is getting closer by the day.

If the House reforms they desire are worthy, the Liberals might have faith they can convince Conservatives and New Democrats to agree.

If the Conservatives or New Democrats try to stand in the way, the Liberals might have to fight to make the case for change.


Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.


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