Commons gamesmanship is ‘war by other means’


OTTAWA – For Canadians watching this week’s Parliament Hill meltdown with all its competing claims of procedural skulduggery, sorting out the House of Commons rules can feel like watching a game of Calvinball.

But unlike cartoonist Bill Watterson’s quirky world where Calvin and his stuffed tiger Hobbes play a never-ending game in which the only rule is that the same rules can’t be used twice, parliamentary procedure is based on a 400-year-old playbook that even most political reporters find bewildering.

“Parliamentary government is war by other means,” Ned Franks, the indispensable dean of Canadian parliamentary procedure, said in an interview Thursday from his home in Kingston, Ont.

The rules, said Franks, are what you can get away with, adjudicated by the Speaker.

“You’ve got basic human emotions and struggles between two clear sides — one for, one agin — and fortunately, it’s a war of words. Four hundred years ago it was a war of people. So the rules are to govern a hostile conflict, not to have sweetness and light.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued an abject apology Thursday for his angry charge into opposition ranks during yet another of the week’s interminable procedural games. New Democrat MPs were physically blocking Conservative party whip Gord Brown from taking his seat to start a Liberal-forced vote to restrict debate time on controversial assisted death legislation.

For those scoring at home, that made the incident a trifecta of Calvinball rule-bending.

The happy fall-out from Trudeau’s profanity-laced breach of parliamentary decorum was that the Liberals decided to rescind this week’s Godzilla of procedural manoeuvres — the benignly titled Motion 6. With its 20 paragraphs and 860 words, the motion effectively wrote opposition MPs out of any control over Commons proceedings — including allowing any Liberal cabinet member to close the place down for the summer without notice, debate or amendment.

And the average voter, looking at the collage of “Standing Orders,” “dilatory motions,” “concurrence,” “recorded division” and “deemed deferrals,” wouldn’t have a clue what the government was doing.

Andrew Scheer, the Conservative House leader who served as Speaker in the last parliament, likened Motion 6 to “this massive cannon barrel staring down our faces,” during an extraordinary news conference that saw representatives of all four opposition parties — Tories, New Democrats, the Bloc Quebecois and Greens — finding common cause in denouncing the Liberal motion.

As Ned Franks put it, “the rules of Parliament can be very arcane and you can always dig up a new one.”

There are actually three sets of rules, including the formal Canadian Constitution, the written rules of Parliament and the unwritten conventions.

The written rules can be found in the “House of Commons Procedure and Practice, Second Edition 2009,” which runs 1,520 pages and includes almost 7,000 footnotes.

Conservative MP Peter Kent, a former journalist, cut through the fine print during his Thursday intervention in the Commons debate.

The Canadian Parliament is built on “centuries of democratic evolution,” said Kent, including accumulated precedents, interpretations and “ancient custom.”

As Kent reminded MPs, the distance across the aisle separating government from opposition is two sword lengths plus one inch.

“Two swords and an inch clearly was not an adequate space last evening,” he said of Trudeau’s charge.

The prime minister’s behaviour should be treated as contempt of Parliament, Kent continued.

“I would respectfully suggest, Mr. Speaker, that the prime minister’s spontaneous, impetuous crossing of the floor last night, touching of a fellow colleague, pushing, and issuing profane comments is not only a breach of our privilege but it is a contempt of Parliament,” said Kent.

“The temporary delay of the Opposition whip at the other end of the House (by the NDP) may in itself have been ruled a contempt of Parliament.”

MPs have next week off to get an earful from constituents before returning for the final, four-week push to the end of the spring sitting.

Franks says Canadians at home should tell their MPs “get to work! Sort this out.”

“Parliamentary rule is based on rules, and if there aren’t any, make ’em. Stop mucking about this way.”

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