Canadians bemused by their MPs' shenanigans could hardly have been surprised to hear Commons
Speaker Jeanne Sauvé lament last week that “it is not easy to determine what time it is in the House of Commons.” For two bell-ringing weeks the House
had seemed even more than usually removed from any known time or place—and perhaps from common sense. Then, on a sunny St. Patrick’s Day afternoon, the longawaited vote was finally taken. But Sauvé was explaining that, by the Commons’ own rules, it was really just after 10 p.m. on the night of March 2—the day the division bells first sounded.
As a result, instead of buckling down to a backlog of work, the MPs abruptly adjourned for the day. As MPs in all parties already sensed,
Parliament’s arcane ways were again inviting public ridicule. Said Sauvé the next day in an unusual speech from the
Chair: “What ensued from our failure to bring our rules up to date earned us shrugs and even sneers from our fellow citizens.” The Tories manipulated those very rules to some advantage. By forcing a routine vote to adjourn for a day, then refusing to show up in the House, they had squeezed a concession out of the majority Liberal government. The Liberals had agreed to split their vast energy security bill into smaller parts, which would permit the Tories to support some elements and vote against others. In return, Conservative House Leader Erik Nielsen tacitly consented to hasten debate on the least controversial parts of the package.
The fact that it took 15 days to strike such a simple-sounding deal says as much about the poisonous atmosphere hanging over the Commons as it does about faulty procedural rules. With government House Leader Yvon Pinard refusing to negotiate under the duress of the bells, the suspicion-laden bargaining with Nielsen was pursued through alternating news conferences. “We are willing to negotiate splitting
the energy bill,” asserted Pinard on a Friday night, offering as well to hold an Opposition-day debate on another topic to allow time for negotiating. Nielsen returned at the beginning of the week with a written plan for cutting up the bill and with hints of a speedy passage for some of it.
A day later, the Tories had what they
wanted — Pinard’s “guarantee” that the bill would be split. A relieved Tory caucus was then advised by leader Joe Clark to call off the boycott. To give an extra cushion of time for negotiating the new energy timetable, Pinard had also offered to keep the disputed bill out
of the Commons until this week. Said Clark: “This is a victory for Parliament and for democracy.”
To the extent that an aroused minority of MPs had forced the government to amend its legislative program, Clark could claim a victory of sorts; the episode certainly heartened his troubled
band of MPs. Said Tory Caucus Chairman Ron Huntington: “I’ve never seen such unity of purpose in the Conservative caucus.”
Like Speaker Sauvé, however, many around Parliament Hill worried that the bells were tolling for the Commons itself, or at least for its reputation. As if responding to that concern, Clark chose
to use the Conservatives’ Opposition day for a debate on reforming Commons procedures. Among his proposals: smaller, stronger committees to vet government bills and spending; less party discipline over MPs’ votes; and a reversal of the trend toward government by federal-provincial conference. “We all wear the clothes of authority,” said Clark, “but only a handful of members of this House, the central ministers, have any real authority.”
Pinard was unpersuaded by Clark’s argu^ment. “For more than itwo weeks he has been ¿sabotaging this institution in an irresponsible, childish and shameful
manner,” Pinard declared, “and now he has the audacity to tell us to save Parliament, modernize the institution and change the Standing Orders.” The exchange seemed to confirm New Democrat Leader Ed Broadbent’s view that the best rules imaginable could not have prevented the latest impasse. “Bad feeling that got beyond differences in policy and bad feeling that got beyond differences in philosophy interfered with the effective working of Parliament,” said Broadbent. In the end, it was a debate like too many others in the Commons: no vote was taken, no decisions were reached and few minds were changed.
We all wear the clothes of authority, but only a handful of members, the central ministers, have any real authority ’
No reform of the rules, of course, can dissolve the natural conflict between a government seeking to pass its program quickly and an Opposition committed to opposing. The real issue is how much influence the Commons can have on the government of the day—and whether that power can be wielded other than by filibuster, bell-ringing and fatuous, futile speechmaking.
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