Filibuster over House rules on hold for talks

Conservative, New Democrats started protest last month

OTTAWA — A group of MPs were just settling in for what they thought would be another marathon meeting over the ins and outs of parliamentary procedures, some wondering whether this would be another long night calling for pizza and caffeine.

Then suddenly, seemingly before some in the room had even begun paying attention, it was over — for now.

Conservative and New Democrats had started a protest at the procedures committee last month, speaking for hours over four days as they tried to prevent the Liberals from passing a motion that would impose a deadline on their study of proposed changes to the way the House of Commons conducts its business.

The opposition filibuster was set to start up again Monday at noon, likely with bluster and bombast from NDP MP David Christopherson, who was raring to go as he spoke to reporters before the meeting began. But then Liberal MP Larry Bagnell, the committee chair, suspended the meeting to allow for more negotiations behind the scenes.

They are scheduled to meet again Wednesday at 4 p.m.

The word was that Opposition House Leader Candice Bergen and NDP House Leader Murray Rankin had headed into a meeting Monday morning with Government House Leader Bardish Chagger, whose discussion paper on suggestions for legislative reform had started this contentious ball rolling in the first place.

“It’s nice to see that we are all coming together to have that conversation and hopefully we can work collaboratively together to really modernize the way this place works,” Chagger told reporters Monday on her way into question period.

That discussion paper proposes changes the Liberals argue are meant to modernize the House of Commons, making it more efficient and relevant.

The ideas include doing away with sparsely attended Friday sittings, or making Fridays like any other day of the week, with the same hours and business to be done.

Other suggestions include allowing electronic voting, scheduling a specific amount of time to debate government bills — as well as deadlines to move it through the legislative process — and creating a special question period one day a week for the prime minister to be the one answering all the questions, as is done in Britain.

Opposition MPs are taking issue with both the suggested changes, which they argue will take away some of what little power remains to opposition MPs, and the way the Liberals have been trying to implement them, especially since they are not guaranteeing a need for unanimity or even consensus before they move ahead.

That includes notice of a motion by Liberal MP Scott Simms to not only have the paper studied by the procedures committee, which would normally be free to set its own agenda, but also have the committee report back on the paper by June 2.

That is what set off the filibuster last month.

The Liberals were the ones who had asked for the Monday meeting, and now they seem open to where the cooling-down period will lead them. But they’re unlikely to back away from the suggestions stemming from campaign promises, such as measures meant to make prorogation of Parliament more difficult.

Simms, who said he welcomed the pause, suggested the June 2 deadline is up for discussion — but not an indefinite delay.

“We don’t want it to drag on. By the same token, I would be willing to discuss the option of amending June 2,” Simms said.

Christopherson saw the suspension as a good sign.

“The government is blinking,” he said Monday.

“The government realizes they’re in some trouble and they want now to have some discussions with the House leaders to see if they can get off this dime.”

Bergen, meanwhile, saw the fact that the Liberal chair of the committee had put the filibuster on hold as another power grab.

“They are taking all of our tools away,” said Bergen.

Bergen said that in her meeting with Chagger, both she and Rankin were clear they were not changing their position.

“The government needs to agree there would be a consensus,” she said.

— Follow @smithjoanna on Twitter

Joanna Smith, The Canadian Press

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