Liberals' latest attempt at parliamentary reform remains a tale of woe, for now

The latest attempt at parliamentary reform in Canada seems in danger of being strangled by parliamentary democracy.

A Liberal proposal to reform Parliament is met with an opposition filibuster

The Liberals are proposing that a weekly session of question period be dedicated to questions for the prime minister. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The state and functioning of the House of Commons have been widely and sorrowfully lamented in recent years. 

But to the list of lamentable things might now be added the latest attempt at parliamentary reform, an effort that seems in danger of being strangled by parliamentary democracy.

Our current tale of woe begins, as many do, with a discussion paper.

Bardish Chagger, the House leader for the Liberal government, released such a document two weeks ago on the subject of the "Modernization of the Standing Orders of the House of Commons."

Conservatives and New Democrats immediately raised concerns with some of the ideas contained therein.

But the real fun began earlier this week, when a Liberal member of the procedure and House affairs committee — Scott Simms — moved to have the committee, which was already reviewing the standing orders, study the government's paper over the next two months and report back with recommendations in June.

Arguing that the government was moving to ram its proposals through, opposition MPs moved to filibuster the meeting, preventing the motion from coming to a vote. The proceedings have been suspended periodically to allow MPs to vote and sleep, but otherwise Conservative and NDP MPs have taken turns talking out the clock, filibustering through Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. 

Citing precedent, opposition MPs are demanding the Liberals agree to not proceed with any changes to the rules of the House unless there is unanimous support for those reforms. The Liberals are so far unwilling to provide such assurances.

The conflict spilled over to the House of Commons, with the prime minister accused of being a Mao-admiring dictator-to-be and opposition MPs using procedural tactics and interruptions to delay the tabling of the budget on Wednesday.

What the Liberals are proposing

Beyond the question of how the changes might be implemented, there are complaints about the proposals on offer: that changing question period to dedicate one session each week to questions for the prime minister, eliminating Friday sittings or reorganizing debate might diminish the opposition's ability to hold the government to account.

In some ways it might go too far; in others it might not go far enough.

There is perhaps some irony in the Conservatives complaining that another party is threatening to run roughshod over Canadian democracy after a time in government that included:

Turnabout being fair play, both interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose and NDP Leader Tom Mulcair asked the prime minister on Wednesday what he would have said if Stephen Harper had released the same discussion paper. (Chances are, an eyebrow would have been raised.)

But the existence of irony doesn't necessarily disqualify questions, complaints or ideas. And there is much in the Liberal paper that deserves consideration.

Take, question period (please!).

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How question period could be reformed

There are arguments to be made for overhauling the Parliament's signature forum. The Liberals haven't yet made those arguments. But Conservative MP Michael Chong made the case nine years ago when he first pushed for question period reform.

Chong would have lengthened the amount of time for each question and response, removed the power of party whips to determine who gets to ask questions and also moved to a rotation that had different ministers in the House to take questions on different days.

On the one hand, it is perhaps a credit to Canadian democracy that the entire cabinet is generally expected to be in question period most afternoons. On the other hand, it's debatable whether that's the best use of everyone's time.

Question period itself is 45 minutes. But the entire cabinet also generally spends an hour each day preparing for question period. And for all that, the minister might only take a few questions (or none at all) in a given session.

Adopting a weekly session dedicated to the prime minister could, conceivably, result in the prime minister taking more questions in a week than he does now. The weekly Prime Minister's Questions in the United Kingdom is a much-watched institution that is a proving ground for both the prime minister and his or her rivals.

Chagger clarified Thursday that the Liberals were not looking to have the prime minister take questions just once per week.

But the Canadian Parliament might borrow another mechanism from the British Parliament — the "urgent question" — that allows MPs to summon a minister to the House to take questions on a new matter of concern.

Oddly enough, when Chong put forward a motion calling for a study of his proposal in 2010, it received overwhelming support, including every Conservative MP in the House and all but two New Democrats. Now, the notion is caught up in partisan tumult.

But all that (and more!) could still be considered by the procedure and House affairs committee. A grand bargain on comprehensively sprucing the place up could be hammered out.

If the filibuster ever ends.

The fight over Friday sittings and the genius of Parliament

But that the consideration of reform can quickly collapse into conflict was made apparent last year when a Liberal proposal to eliminate sparsely attended Friday sittings — so that MPs might more easily get back to their ridings and their families for the weekend — was framed by some as a matter of Liberals trying to get out of work.

The Liberals might have added to their woes now by reviving that proposal, alongside a proposal to limit "obstructionist tactics" at committee meetings that could undermine the opposition's ability to delay government action.

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It's possible that the other parties are seizing an opportunity to undermine the prime minister's claim to doing politics differently.

But it is also possible that, like their initial proposal for a committee on electoral reform last spring, the Liberals have made it very easy for others to accuse them of ill intent. Perhaps the Liberals might have better engaged this debate. And, once engaged, they might have agreed to not move forward without consensus.

Now, the Liberals have themselves another brouhaha, and another debate tinged by accusations of self-interest

Part of the genius of parliamentary democracy is that nothing can happen too easily.

Thing is, that includes reforming Parliament.


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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