OTTAWA — Anyone watching the televised proceedings in the House of Commons one night earlier this month might have thought they’d mistakenly tuned in to a travelogue.
One after another, dozens of members of Parliament — primarily Conservatives — stood to wax eloquent about the geography, history, culture and cuisine of Central and South America.
Among other things, observers learned that Latin America consists of 20 countries — each one helpfully enumerated by a number of MPs — that it’s “part of our hemisphere,” that its culture is “diverse and rich” its food delicious, its natural landmarks “stunning,” and its dances often “incorporate a lot of hip movement as well as quick steps and spins.”
As each MP strove to fill his or her 10 minutes of allotted speaking time, observers were regaled with descriptions of the various signature dishes of each country and even the list of ingredients that go into Argentina’s “go-to condiment,” chimichurri.
And they heard all about every Latin American baseball player who has ever contributed to Major League Baseball in Canada.
The government had planned for MPs to debate its landmark legislation to legalize marijuana. But, at the instigation of the Conservatives, they ended up instead talking about a private member’s bill — first introduced by late Conservative Sen. Tobias Enverga — to designate October as Latin American heritage month.
And talk they did. For six hours. On a bill that was unanimously supported by all parties and could have been approved in minutes.
It was just one of a number of procedural tactics the Conservatives, and occasionally New Democrats, employed during the waning days of the spring parliamentary sitting to eat up time and prevent the government from proceeding with its legislative agenda.
In Green Party Leader Elizabeth May’s view, it was the worst example of what she sees as a disturbing trend among opposition parties to obstruct the work of Parliament just to make the government look bad — an echo of the hyper-partisan dysfunction that has paralysed the U.S. Congress.
“There’s nothing that will score higher for absurdity, that’s for sure,” May says.
Among other procedural time-wasters, Conservatives and NDP MPs repeatedly moved concurrence in months-old committee reports, prompting an hour-long debate in each case.
The Conservatives also forced an all-night voting marathon, moving to delete each clause in the government’s spending estimates, line by line, and keeping the voting going just long enough to ensure that the next day’s proceedings had to be cancelled — or “flushed,” in parliamentary parlance.
And then there were copious points of order and questions of privilege that chewed up more time.
The most notable was a point of order last month by New Democrat MP Daniel Blaikie, complaining about a $7-billion reserve fund — or “slush fund” as the opposition calls it — in the government’s spending estimates. After 25 minutes, Commons Speaker Geoff Regan interrupted to say he’d heard enough and that there was nothing he could do about the matter since it was still before a Commons committee.
An uproar ensued, with NDP and Conservative MPs banging their desks and bellowing that they had points of order about Regan’s interruption as the Speaker vainly called for the House to come to order.
The uproar continued as government House Leader Bardish Chagger introduced a motion to extend the sitting hours of the Commons until midnight for the duration of the sitting, in order to give MPs more time for debate on the government’s heavy legislative agenda. Conservatives would later argue that the motion wasn’t actually introduced because no one could hear Chagger.
While Blaikie raised a valid issue in his point of order, former Commons procedural clerk Thomas Hall says Regan’s ruling was correct and the ensuing fuss suggests to him that the entire episode was really intended to delay introduction of the extended hours.
“If they could keep the government from doing extended hours, it means that some of the government bills wouldn’t get through, so in a sense it’s just general opposition again,” Hall says.
In his view, it’s legitimate for opposition parties to use procedural devices to slow down legislation they believe is flawed or to draw public attention to an issue. But he frowns on tactics with no apparent objective other than to disrupt proceedings.
“There doesn’t seem to be any message attached to it, so in that sense I don’t think it is helpful democratically,” Hall says, adding that opposition MPs’ behaviour after Blaikie was cut off by the Speaker “was completely unparliamentary because it was just to disrupt.”
John Brassard, the Conservatives’ deputy whip, counters that all the procedural manoeuvring was in fact aimed at shining a light on important issues.
The voting marathon was a bid to draw attention to the government’s refusal to disclose how much its carbon pricing plan is going to cost Canadians — and it worked, Brassard contends.
“They haven’t released that information but right now Canadians are clearly aware there is a cost to the carbon tax, they’re quite concerned about it and they want the government to release that information.”
A previous voting all-nighter in March was to put pressure on the government to allow Justin Trudeau’s national security adviser to testify publicly about the prime minister’s ill-fated trip to India — which he eventually did.
As for wasting hours debating points of order, old committee reports and Latin American heritage month, Brassard says that was done to highlight the government cutting short the time to debate more serious matters.
“In some cases, we had less than an hour or two hours of debate on a major piece of legislation … before they invoked time allocation. So, for us, it was a way again to bring attention to that.”
And Brassard says the Liberals have no one to blame but themselves if time allocation is their only way to get bills passed. They’ve mismanaged their legislative agenda, accomplishing little in the first two years and now, with an election looming in 15 months, he says they’re in a panic to get things done.
“They’re ramming these pieces of legislation through, they’re silencing the voices of members of Parliament and they’re certainly controlling committees,” he says, calling Trudeau’s promises of more transparent, open government “false platitudes.”
But May believes it’s the other way around; the obstruction is aimed at forcing the government to invoke time allocation precisely so that opposition parties can then rail about how Trudeau’s dictatorial tendencies are every bit as bad as those of his Conservative predecessor, Stephen Harper.
As the Trudeau government approaches the end of the third year of its four-year mandate, the opposition tactics may also be aimed at ensuring another round of unfavourable comparisons between the Liberals’ legislative record and that of Harper’s. (52 Liberal bills have so far received royal assent, compared to 81 at the same juncture in Harper’s last mandate).
“This is what’s so tragic is it’s about positioning the opposition parties for the election campaign, to build up ammunition against the government. Now, that may appear to a lot of Canadians as if that’s normal but it’s not right,” says May, who believes the problem stems from backroom political spin doctors orchestrating Commons proceedings.
“The purpose of all of us, once we’re elected, is to work for our constituents, to hold government to account and, ideally, to pass laws and make wise decisions … We’re not there to try endlessly to make the other guy look bad and we’re certainly not there to waste everybody’s time.”
The Liberals were hardly blameless when they were in opposition. But in May’s view, the obstructionism has gotten worse over the past three years because New Democrats, who fish in the same voter pool as Liberals, “are far more willing to work with the Conservatives to make the Liberals look bad than they were in the 41st Parliament to work with the Liberals to make the Conservatives (look bad).”
NDP House leader Ruth Ellen Brosseau did not respond to a request for an interview.
Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press