Canadians have to wonder not only about the federal Liberals’ commitment to democratic reform, but about their understanding of democracy itself.
For the second time in less than a year, the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is attempting to change the rules of Parliament to limit the opposition’s ability to hold the Liberals to account and delay the passage of government bills.
That’s only fair, you say. The Liberals have a majority. They should be able to get what they want through the House of Commons, within reason.
Well, if that’s your position, don’t worry. The rules of the House are already stacked in favour of the Trudeau government, as they always have been stacked in favour of majority governments of either major party.
For the most part, all opposition parties can do against majority governments is give them a little heartburn now and then. They can hold legislation up a few days or weeks in the hope that public opinion can be brought to bear on the PM and cabinet. Or maybe the Parliamentary session comes to an end and a bill dies on the order paper.
The ability to use procedures such as filibusters to hold up government motions or keep legislation bottled up in committee is an important check on government power, a safeguard against the tyranny of the majority.
In a subtle way, Parliamentary procedures are also a recognition that our first-past-the-post electoral system frequently gives majority power to a party that received only 40% (or less) of the vote at the most recent election.
You want to talk about unfair? At the very least, it is unwise to give a government that won support from only 38 or 40% of voters (the Liberals won just 39.5% in 2015) unfettered power to do what it wants as though it had won 50 or 60% of the vote.
What the Trudeau government is attempting to do this time around is have the House sit fewer days each week (four, rather than the current four-and-a-half), limit the number of days for debate at each stage of a bill’s passage, shorten the amount of time a Parliamentary committee has to review proposed legislation and make it unnecessary for the government to introduce a special motion when it wants to force a vote on a bill.
The new rules, introduced last week by Government House Leader Bardish Chagger, would also appear to oblige the PM to show up for question period just one day a week.
Under the proposed changes, it would be even easier for a government to prorogue Parliament when it finds itself in a political tight spot. (Remember how the Liberals squawked about prorogation in 2008 when then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper used it to fend off an attempt by the Liberals, NDP and Bloc Quebecois to overturn the results of the federal election earlier that year?)
The changes the Liberals are proposing are, they say, in the name of “efficiency.” However, greater control is more likely their goal.
These changes go even further than a Liberal proposal last spring that would have taken away the pesky opposition’s right to hold up the enlightened, “progressive” government’s legislation. That earlier effort was sheepishly withdrawn only after Trudeau’s shamefully undemocratic behaviour in the Commons, in which he strong-armed a Tory MP to go back to his desk, elbowed an NDP MP in her chest and told a group of members to “get the f— out of the way.”
As he has on feminism, middle-class tax cuts and budget deficits, Trudeau is showing himself to be either clueless or entirely hypocritical.
Ottawa Sun by Lorne Gunter
March 28th 2017