BACKSTAGE

CAN THE TORIES STREAMLINE PARLIAMENT? Yes—if Opposition leads

BLAIR FRASER September 12 1959
BACKSTAGE

CAN THE TORIES STREAMLINE PARLIAMENT? Yes—if Opposition leads

BLAIR FRASER September 12 1959

CAN THE TORIES STREAMLINE PARLIAMENT? Yes—if Opposition leads

BACKSTAGE

AT OTTAWA

WITH BLAIR FRASER

WHETHER OR NOT the Conservatives realize it, they have a chance to do something at the next session of parliament that has needed doing for years —reform the rules and procedures of parliament itself, so that democracy in Canada won’t waste so much time.

Opposition leader L. B. Pearson has quietly let it be known that he, for one, would be in favor of some changes that might look on the surface like curtailment of the opposition’s rights. That’s the only kind of change that will do any good, as Pearson well knows. The saying that “government decides when a session will open, and the opposition decides when it will end” is a slight exaggeration, but only slight. In the main, the conventions that prolong debate are conventions originally designed to protect parliament against the crown —which means, in modern practice, to protect the loyal opposition against the government's obedient majority.

Luckily for the present government, though, the Liberals have not been long out of office, and they hope to be back before many years have gone by. They look at public business from a government's point of view. They know, from bitter and well-remembered experience, that trying to handle modern public business by these seventeenth-century rules is like trying to drive a horse and buggy in a modern stream of traffic. They think some fairly drastic changes are necessary if democracy in Canada is to remain in effective operation.

One example of obsolete procedure is the “resolution stage” of a money bill. Ever since the days of the Stuart kings, Ship Money and all that, parliament has stipulated that whenever the crown plans legislation that will cost money, the bill itself shall be preceded by a resolution: "Resolved that it is expedient to introduce a measure to spend such-and-such an amount for such-and-such general purposes.” Thus parliament protected itself against the danger of having something sprung on it under the pretext of urgency and made sure of a chance to consider the principle of impending legislation, even before seeing the statute itself.

But in actual modern practice, the resolution stage is redundant. At best it merely duplicates the debate on second reading, when parliament discusses the general principle of the bill. At worst it is empty rhetoric, because half the time the debaters don’t know what the bill is going to contain, and can’t really tell whether they arc for it or against it. This is one thing that the Liberal opposition would be willing to let go.

However, that kind of change will not be enough. That’s the kind of change that was made last time, when the rules of the House were overhauled in 1955. Some of the alterations were

useful enough; for instance, the previously interminable throne-speech and budget debates were cut down to fixed periods of ten and eight days, and individual speeches in certain circumstances were reduced from forty to thirty minutes. But in practice these reforms didn’t amount to much. Parliamentary sessions remained almost as tedious and enervating as ever.

Ihe central, essential requirement is that the government should assume responsibility, in Ottawa as in Westminster, for allocating the time for each debate. This is done, of course, in the British parliament, by consultation among the party whips. Within reason, any party whip can have a debate prolonged if he thinks the government is allotting too little time. But the indispensable thing is that a time should be fixed, and that the government should use its authority to enforce that decision if necessary.

I he last time a Canadian government tried to use its authority to fix the period of a debate was in 1956, when the Liberals used closure to ram the pipeline bill through. It is not an encouraging precedent. The Conservatives took various solemn vows against closure at that time, and although the Liberals favored it in principle they privately decided never to try to use it again. Certainly no government, and least of all the present one, would try to impose a new closure rule on a protesting opposition.

Old-style closure was never used except in emergencies — solely as a means of ramming through government bills to which other parties were implacably opposed. It was a steamroller, a juggernaut for crushing the opposi-

tion. That’s why it got such a bad name, and why it will never be used again.

But in ordinary, run-of-mill debates the opposition has no more interest than the government has in letting talk drone on for weeks on end. It would benefit every party to have parliamentary sessions planned, to know not only when they will start but when they w'ill end each year, above all to know how much time will be devoted to each topic. Under the present rules, year after year the House spends months wrangling over trivia and then rushes more important business through in the last few days.

The present parliament has already demonstrated that this can be avoided. Without fanfare and without any change of rule, the three parties did get together to plan the final week of the session. By agreement, debates began and ended on time. An enormous amount of work was done in that last week—too much, in fact, as all parties now agree, because some important matters got scant attention. But if the same kind of planning were applied to the whole session instead of to the closing rush, this wouldn't need to happen.

It couldn’t be entirely voluntary, though. In the heat of an Ottawa July, the House is unanimous in its anxiety to break up and go home, but without that united urgency it couldn’t be depended on to honor any agreement by the party whips. Under present rules, they have no authority (except the cumbersome and discredited rule of closure) to prevent any member or group of members from prolonging debate if they want to.

What dangers would the change of rules entail? What would be lost, to the opposition parties or to Canadian democracy, by letting the government allocate the debating time?

The most obvious loss would be the right of filibuster, the right to block legislation by interminable discussion. There would never be another pipeline debate, under the suggested new rules. If nothing were put in its place, this removal of a parliamentary safety valve might be serious.

How'ever. there are other devices that work equally well and take a lot less time. One, much used in Britain, is suspension of the usual hour of adjournment. At the request of a fairly small number of members the House can be required to sit late, and these all-night sessions are dramatic affairs that focus public attention on the issue just as effectively as a long-drawn filibuster. To focus public attention as much as an opposition can do. anyway, under our system. Filibusters do not prevent legislation from being passed, they merely delay it. The pipeline bill was enacted, and very close to the original Liberal timetable: all the opposition could do was rouse public opinion against it—an operation that was successful beyond the wildest dreams of 1956.

If the change were once introduced, it’s a safe bet that no party would find itself seriously impeded or would wish to go back to the chaos we have now. The difficulty is to introduce it.

This government is very much aware of its crushing majority, very much afraid of being called a big bully. It came into office pledged to abolish the closure rule, a promise not yet carried out. There is no chance whatever that the government will take the initiative in streamlining procedure.

If the Liberals give a lead, the government may follow, but even that would probably depend on the reaction of the CCF’s eight-man group. A change as radical as the one now proposed should have unanimous support, at least of parties if not of MBs.

Looking back to the rules committee of 1955, Conservatives and Liberals both say that the obstacle to drastic reform was Stanley Knowles, the CCF expert on procedure. Knowles den es this with some heat—he would have welcomed various changes, and suggested some, that the other parties wouldn’t tolerate. But it’s true that the CCF is a chronic opposition with no hope of office, and that Knowles tended to look at every rule from the opposition’s point of view.

Now, Stanley Knowles is a private citizen living in Ottawa, and a frequent visitor to the House of Commons galleries. With some amusement, friends have heard him say about Commons debates: “There’s too much talk." (In his day as an MP, few talked longer and none talked oftener than Stanley Knowdes.)

Frank Howard of Skenna, the present CCF whip, takes the rules less seriously than Knowles used to do. Most of the CCF group are newcomers, and the average newcomer is alw'ays bored and bewildered by the interminable oratory. What with one thing and another, it’s just possible that they too would be willing to have debating time cut and dried and give parliament a chance to operate on a rational schedule for the first time in history.*