House Call with Carol Hughes

If Stephen Harper tried to do this….

Last week as parliament was focused on the federal budget a battle was playing out in Procedure and House Affairs Committee over changes to the way that parliament and committees operate. The committee was deadlocked and the opposition’s rancor spilled over to the House, delaying the start of the Finance Minister’s budget speech. The opposition concerns relate to both the content of the report and the way the government is trying to rush it through committee.

The government claims the changes they are proposing are the product of a discussion paper. But they commissioned the paper and it only reflects the message they were promoting shortly after being elected. They say it will bring the House of Commons into the 21st century, but it is being seen by the opposition as a way to limit the ability of MPs to do their jobs.

The one proposed change that is getting  some attention would severely reduce the Prime Minister’s exposure to the House by specifying he will participate in Question Period once a week. In addition to that, the government is proposing the House only sit four days a week and wants to move to electronic voting in the chamber.

While the government is trying to make everything sound as simple as adding a new coat of paint, the opposition sees it differently. New Democrats and Conservatives say the government is trying to do away with some of the same parliamentary tools used in the last parliament to keep the Conservatives in check. The most glaring is the government’s attempt to control how committees study legislation.

To someone outside the parliamentary bubble that might only sound as if the government is trying to limit committee speeches to ten minutes, but it’s not as simple as that may sound. Committees are supposed to be their own masters, and this measure would dramatically change an important tool for parliamentary oversight. It also sets a dangerous precedence for more government control of committees in the future. In that respect it is a political Pandora’s Box.

While committees usually chug along doing their work well out of the public’s eye, there are times when a  long and rough committee ride is the only thing that makes Canadians aware of divisive legislation. If the right to speak is limited, then contentious bills, like last parliament’s C-51, will be whisked through committee for the convenience of the governing party. As it stands, committees are one of the few tools available to opposition parties that force MPs to work towards some element of consensus.

Throughout this debate Liberals are being asked to consider what the reaction would have been if Stephen Harper had tried to make these changes. So far their response has been limited to side issues and not the substance of the opposition’s concerns. That is a classic misdirection tactic, but the government is going to have to address the meat of these objections if they want to get things moving on the committee studying the paper. Right now, New Democrats and Conservatives are willing to dig in to protect the right of the opposition to oppose. The Liberals may not be thankful for these efforts now, but they will when the spend time in opposition in some future parliament.