The persistent, nerve-shattering Hangings could have driven bats from the Peace Tower belfry. Last week, the Commons division bells— which summon MPs to vote—rang uninterrupted and without result in an unprecedented marathon. To the hard-line Conservatives they were “the bells of freedom,” pealing in protest against a federal plot to shove indigestible legislation down Parliament’s throat. To the equally stubborn Liberals they were the shrieks of anarchy, the ploy of an electionstarved Opposition to drown out freedom of speech. After 45 painful hours, most of the 100 bells were muzzled for humanitarian reasons, but the political discord continued unabated.
While MPs angled for talk-show invitations to plead their cases, the House of Commons remained paralysed in a bizarre procedural time warp that left proceedings frozen at 4:30 p.m.,
Tuesday, March 2.
The unprecedented war was triggered by the parliamentary debut of a 149-page omnibus energy bill. This extraordinary legislation amends and then tinkers with seven acts, repeals one, amends two others and creates four brand new pieces of legislation. As the final package in the Liberals’ ambitious National Energy Program, it doles out popular exploration incentive grants and encourages increased Canadian ownership of the oil and gas industry. It also, however, formally raises the ceiling on an embarrassing new oil tax, allows the National Energy Board to expropriate land for power transmission lines, grants Ottawa the right to impose fuel consumption standards and blesses the creation of more Crown energy corporations. Press releases from Energy Minister Marc Lalonde isolate seven main thrusts in the bill—with 14 sub-categories. Conservative energy critic Harvie Andre charged that the bill crams “everything, including the
kitchen sink,” into one politically convenient bundle.
For their part, the Conservatives first tried to avert the chaos. Last December, Andre privately suggested to Lalonde that the grant portions of the bill should be sheared away from the rest of the legislative jumble. In return he guaranteed speedy passage. Lalonde shot back with a counteroffer to split the bill—if the Conservatives agreed to limit debate on everything. When
Andre refused, Lalonde informed him that the bill would not be touched. “I felt like I’d offered to shovel his walk and he told me that I could do it if I also did the driveway and the porch,” says Andre. “The next thing they’ll do is whip up one bill to cover the whole session. If this goes through this way, I’d rather not stay here. I’ve had it, I’ve had the biscuit,” he declares.
The bitter behind-the-scenes wrangle spilled onto the Commons floor at the beginning of the week. In a lengthy and detailed argument, Andre contended that the bill should simply be disallowed because there must be limits on
what can be tossed into an omnibus bill. Lalonde countered that the bill has the single theme of energy security. He also charged that the Conservatives want to expedite the attractive grant sections while they delay the unpalatable tax portions to embarrass the government. Then, Commons Speaker Jeanne Sauvé dismissed Andre’s argument on the grounds that she could not find precedents for his request. A furious Andre challenged Sauvé to exercise her right to set a precedent. Finally, after a prolonged and futile skirmish, he moved that MPs vote on a motion to adjourn.
The traditional motion of disgust was given a new twist, however, by the Conservatives. By long-standing practice both the government and Opposition whips must be present before a vote can be taken. The Conservative whip simply refused to return to the Commons. That ploy, in turn, paralysed the proceedings. No one could do anything in the august chamber until the MPs voted on whether or not they wanted to stop Tuesday’s debates. Unwilling to set a precedent on this point, either, Sauvé pleaded that she could do nothing. And Awhile the Conservatives 3 chuckled gleefully at I their stunt, the bells ¡¿clanged their age-old summons to a vote.
The most immediate effect was agony. Commons staffers shoved cotton batting in their ears, slammed their doors and vainly tried to quell the bells with cardboard wedges. Public Works electricians trudged through the parliamentary corridors, charged with the thankless task of repairing the overworked machines. Inside the chamber sleepy Liberal MPs maintained an around-the-clock vigil in the Speaker’s chair—a traditional requirement while the House is still formally in session. “I had such a headache that I went to bed at 6 p.m. and woke up at 7 the next day,” groaned Montreal Liberal MP Pierre Deniger.
Meanwhile, MPs from both parties launched a public relations blitz. The
Conservatives selected the novel tactic of bell-ringing because they privately believe that the public cannot grasp the complexities of the energy dispute. They reasoned that their “bells of freedom” theme would unite all voters who are distressed by high-handed Liberal practices. So they piously and repeatedly recited lists of rankling Liberal sins, such as the imposition of metric conversion, to anyone who waved a microphone. Conservative House Leader Erik Nielsen insisted that his party would not return to the Commons until the Liberals set the bill aside for negotiation, agreed to split it or called an election. He also argued that MPs should not be forced to a single “yes” or “no” on a complicated bill that spanned agreeable and disagreeable concepts. “The principle at stake is whether Canadians want to retain ultimate control of Parliament or whether it is going to become the personal preserve of the Liberal party and the personal tool of [Prime Minister Pierre] Trudeau to accomplish his aims,” Nielsen muttered. “The Liberals are telling us to take off
The bell-ringing tactic united Tory dissidents and Clark loyalists, all exhilarated by the taste of Liberal blood
our handcuffs so we can slip into a straitjacket.”
In return, the Liberals charged that the Tories were gagging everyone until they got their own way. His teeth clenched in fury, House Leader Yvon Pinard accused the Conservatives of attacking the institution of Parliament because they were sulking about Sauvé’s ruling. He argued that the government is responsible for the timetable and the content of Commons business. And he pointed out that “the Conservatives are asking for equal power with the government” when they try to dictate the Commons agenda. “This new kind of opposition is totally unacceptable,” fumed Pinard. “I cannot accept— because I respect the people of this country—to negotiate with a knife at my throat. There is nothing in parliamentary practice that justifies someone being so childish and so irresponsible as to take Parliament as hostage.”
Many Liberals, meanwhile, are convinced that the Conservatives simply crave an election since the current polls indicate that they would probably win. That would, of course, save the imperilled head of leader Joe Clark. Last month Clark apparently lost control of the Quebec executive wing of his party
at a weekend convention. The bell-ringing tactic has united the party dissidents and the Clark loyalists—since both sides are exhilarated by the taste of Liberal blood. Nielsen, a veteran infighter with a yen for the jugular, has confided to friends that “my job is to get this government defeated as soon as I can.”
Although the impasse seemed likely to be settled by a face-saving compromise, the disturbing consequences will echo long after the bells are stilled. The most immediate victim is the beleaguered Sauvé. Although renowned procedural experts such as St. Francis Xavier University political scientist John Stewart contend that she has the clout to order a vote, Sauvé has prudently declined to make more waves. At the same time the Liberals do not want to reinforce a public image of arrogance by prodding her to action. Nonetheless, the Conservatives are convinced that her quick dismissal of Andre’s request dramatizes a partisan approach to Commons wrangles. And that could permanently damage her credibility.
The episode has also troubled many parliamentary experts who believe that both parties are distorting long-standing democratic traditions. One senior cabinet minister admitted last week that even if Lalonde’s bill is strictly legal, it pushes the definition of omnibus bills to the outer limits. Political scientist Stewart laments that the Conservatives have abused a traditional mechanism designed to prevent the defeat of a government through snap votes. “I just don’t think people concerned with our form of government— regardless of what they think of the government—will be very pleased,” he says. The mutual grievances will keep tempers high and the parties at each other’s throats when the energy bill has passed into parliamentary history.
Above all, however, the face-off has tarnished the dignity of all parliamentarians. Although Commons committees did not function last week, 18 MPs and eight senators from all parties managed to jet to Key Largo on the taxpayers’ tab for weekend discussions with U.S. congressmen. And late last week, while the bells clanged, many MPs trundled to a lavish reception hosted by the Korean ambassador. “It’s hard to get somebody to believe that you can solve complex economic problems when you can’t decide how to get a bill before Parliament,” mutters NDP House Leader Ian Deans. Liberal MP Deniger adds that “Canadians are not passing judgment on the Tories or the Liberals or the NDP—they’re passing judgment on politicians and that’s the tragedy of all this.” As the economy slides deeper into recession, Canadians may view it not as a tragedy but a farce.
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