MACLEAN’S REPORTS

Why the fair brought peace to parliament

Anxious to be off to Expo, MPs showed a refreshing penchant for co-operation

BLAIR FRASER June 1 1967
MACLEAN’S REPORTS

Why the fair brought peace to parliament

Anxious to be off to Expo, MPs showed a refreshing penchant for co-operation

BLAIR FRASER June 1 1967

Why the fair brought peace to parliament

Backstage in Ottawa

Anxious to be off to Expo, MPs showed a refreshing penchant for co-operation

ONE SIDE EFFECT of Expo 67 is that parliament gets another chance to make its operation more efficient. Fanciful? Maybe. But without the tempting salt of the Expo opening, and the still more tempting 10-day vacation that followed, would the House of Commons have re-adopted its new, still-experimental rules of procedure without even a word of argument?

For whatever reason, that in fact is what the House did. On one Thursday the Conservative opposition spent all day pronouncing the magic word “closure,” the witch’s curse that is supposed to blight and wither a government in its tracks, because the Liberals had invoked the new rules of procedure for limitation of time on the unification debate. On the following Thursday, at 2.45 a.m., the same Conservatives wouldn't allow the government even two or three minutes to explain a motion for re-enactment of the same new rules, so eager were they to get the motion adopted and themselves off to the fair.

The second Thursday’s vote, the unanimous one in favor of re-adopting the rules, was a better index of the true mood of parliament than the first one had been. The true mood, despite appearances, is one of quiet co-operation among the parties. After next September, when the new Leader

of the Opposition takes his place in the Commons chamber, this mood will become more clearly visible than it can be now.

Only John Diefenbaker and a few of his most docile supporters still believe it is the duty of the Opposition to obstruct. (Even they, of course, would not admit any such belief, but in practice it’s the principle they act upon.) Most MPs in all parties are much more concerned with getting parliament’s work done, and incidentally restoring parliament’s good name, than they are with the so-called right of parliament to keep on talking forever.

Routine or ritual proceedings take up a fixed period of 52 sitting days, or IOV2 weeks, in any session of parliament. Debates on legislation are additional. Up to now there has been no serious attempt even to plan, let alone assign, the amount of time to be allocated to each new bill. Debates run on until every member who wants to speak has had his say, and estimates of their probable length invariably turn out to be under-estimates.

These protracted discussions are not to be confused with filibusters. Systematic blockades are set up from time to time, as in the flag debate or the long fight against unification, but most of the time-wasting in parliament is spontaneous, a mere droning on for no particular strategic purpose. The real problem is to set some bounds to this, without impairing parliament’s function as a deliberative body or forcing it into hasty, ill-considered action. And obviously the best way to do this is by agreement, as nearly unanimous as possible.

Such agreement is not as far beyond the range of possibility as it has seemed to. be lately. As individuals, the House leaders of the various parties normally get on well together. If they are allowed to do so they're quite capable of reaching unanimous conclusions and recommendations. These recommendations, when referred to the whole House, could then be adopted by simple majority if necessary — they would no longer be vulnerable, as informal agreements have been in the past, to the objections of individual troublemakers.

Nobody expects the new' session of

parliament to reach Utopia in a single bound. The whole idea of limiting debate, so long associated w'ith the bogey of “closure,” is one MPs approach with an excess of caution. They are far from ready to let any all-party committee sit down at the beginning of a session and decide in advance who shall be allowed to say what, or for how' long, on a new legislative program. They’ll proceed in this direction, if at all, by one short step at a time. All that can be said now is that the first short step has been taken, but even that is cheering enough. BLAIR FRASER

BLAIR FRASER