Procedural changes would 'neuter opposition,' Schmale says
By Chad Ingram
Published March 30, 3017
Canada’s opposition parties say the Liberal government wants a four-day work week for Parliamentarians and they’re not OK with that.
The government is proposing a number of procedural alterations that would, among other things, reduce the number of days Parliament sits, the number of days the Prime Minister would be in the House of Commons and limit filibustering.
“They’re calling it a discussion paper to change the standing orders,” says Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock MP Jamie Schmale, who is a member of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs. “They’re basically changing how our system works.”
Standing orders are the rules that govern the procedures of the House of Commons.
Among the changes the Liberals are proposing are getting rid of Friday sittings (MPs currently sit half days on Fridays); having one day a week where the Prime Minister would answer all questions in House (opposition parties say he would not be present other days); limiting filibustering at the committee level by imposing a 10-minute maximum speaking time per member; prescribed time periods for legislation to make its way through the House, quickening the process and limiting debate; and allowing parliamentary secretaries more power on committees, something the Liberals promised they would not do.
Schmale says the Liberals are using their majority status to ram the changes through the committee stage.
The committee is to have a report back to Parliament by June 2 and if everything goes according to the government’s plan, Schmale believes that, after a potential prorogation, changes could be instituted when the House resumes sitting this fall.
“The Liberals are saying, ‘here’s what we’re doing,’” he says, adding that traditionally, changes to standing orders are made with agreement from all parties. “Go all the way back to Sir John A. It was always done by mutual agreement. This is unprecedented. It has never happened before. The opposition would be completely neutered.”
Having Parliament sit only four days a week, with no reduction in pay, would be insulting to Canadians, Schmale says.
“You don’t hear military personnel complaining about seven-day work weeks,” he says. “You don’t hear truck drivers complaining about being away from their families. This is the job we were elected to do. No one’s holding a gun to our heads.”
The Liberals have cited a better work-life balance for MPs, as well as more time for constituency work, among reasons for ditching Friday sittings.
Schmale says that if MPs really need to get back to their constituencies before Friday, “you can do that now. You just have to ask your whip for permission.”
In what some Ottawa political pundits are referring to as a veiled threat, the government has also suggested Friday sittings could be extended to a full day, if the opposition parties are adamant about sitting on Fridays.
On Trudeau’s attendance in the House of Commons, the Liberals’ paper recommends adopting a question period model used in the U.K., where, one day a week, the Prime Minister personally fields the questions.
However, the paper doesn’t mention whether the Prime Minister would be required in the House the rest of the week.
“Certainly, the Prime Minister is a popular person,” Schmale says, alluding to the fact that Trudeau, like many of his predecessors, is often absent from Question Period on international business.
However, he says there’s no need to formalize a requirement that the Prime Minister need only be in the House of Commons one day a week.
“He can do that now,” Schmale says.
Filibustering is a political tactic where MPs eat up time by talking at great length.
Last week, Conservative and NDP MPs used the tactic in protest of the Liberals’ procedural plans, with members of the committee beginning a filibuster Tuesday evening that lasted until the early morning hours of Wednesday, delaying the adoption of a motion to begin studying the procedural changes.
“Filibustering to preserve the right to filibuster,” says Schmale, adding the opposition parties are united and will continue to protest the proposed changes.