The House: On time allocation


We return to our periodic series to consider recent efforts to limit the House’s ability to do one of the things for which it fundamentally exists.

In the thread under this post about the government’s recent penchant for limiting the time allowed for debate in the House of Commons, an astute commenter posited the following.

This is step one.  Step two is to skip the debate entirely, and just call the MPs together to vote on the foregone conclusion.  Step three will be to have the MPs stay home and vote electronically.  step four will be to have the PMO’s office submit all the CPC votes directly.

However sarcastic (or at least wry) this comment was meant to be, it begs the question: How far-fetched a scenario is this? Or put another way: How different would this be from the present situation?

For the sake of argument, let’s say debate serves, at least in theory, two purposes. First, it can be used to persuade: to change the minds of those you are debating or influence wider public opinion. Second, it can be used to delay: to allow time for the consideration and investigation of legislation.

On the former, what does debate in the House of Commons do to change minds? More specifically, what can it do?

Though the Conservatives committed in 2006 that all votes except those on the budget and main estimates would be considered “free votes,” the Harper government refuses now to comment on “voting strategies.” Generally speaking—for all parties—he only measures on which MPs are seemingly free to vote as they wish are private members’ bills and so-called votes of “conscience” (eg. euthanasia, abortion). I’m told that the vote last week on a non-binding, opposition motion about asbestos exports was whipped by the Conservatives. The NDP, to use another example, whipped its recent vote on the government’s gun registry legislation and subsequently punished two MPs who defied the edict. (Note: A similar attempt to eliminate the registry last year was officially a private members’ bill and was thus a free vote for NDP MPs.)

So never mind debate as a tool to influence other members. How about debate as a way to influence to public opinion? Well, for that to be the case, what is said in the House each day would have to be heard by or relayed to broad swaths of the public. As it is, almost all of each day’s discussion in the House pass without wide notice. (Committee testimony is only barely more covered. Question Period is covered with some regularity, although it is lamented as much as it is actually considered.) For the most part, the primary “debate” in this country now occurs on the evening chat shows, during which representatives from each party are lined up and asked to repeat their respective party’s script in 30 second bursts for the sake of the television cameras.

So what about debate’s second purpose? As a way of delaying the passage of legislation to allow for proper consideration and investigation, there is something to be said for what goes on in the House each day. Changes and points of contention that might otherwise escape attention are still discovered in the time allowed. Consider, for example, the “drafting error” that was spotted in the government’s omnibus crime bill.

Keeping that much in mind, imagine a scenario like what that astute commentator put forward:

Legislation is tabled publicly via news release and posted on the House website. No debate occurs in the House, but a 10-day waiting period is applied before a single and final vote on the bill’s passage is scheduled. If, during that waiting period, any “drafting errors” are spotted, the government or MP who authored the legislation is free to amend their bill. Otherwise, after the waiting period is over, the party leaders are required to call the Speaker and inform him or her of how the party’s MPs will be voting. After hearing from all the leaders, the Speaker sounds out a press release with the result of the vote.

Would such a process offend our notion of parliamentary democracy? Probably. Is it diametrically opposed to what we have now? Probably not as much as it should be.

That the Harper government insists on regularly limiting debate in the House of Commons is almost certainly a serious issue that needs to be confronted and considered. But it matters only so much as debate matters. It matters only so much as the House of Commons matters. So the basic questions remain: Does the House of Commons matter? And, if so, how?


The House: On time allocation

  1. Let’s skip the debate about debate and get straight to the conclusion: neither the House nor “debate” nor the Government nor the Opposition nor the Prime Minister nor Canadian democracy nor Canada matter even one little bit.

  2. Oh dear, Mr Wherry, please re-do this lecture about the function of the House in the parliamentary system, this time taking away the Harper Hatred.

    • Yeah, it sucks how people are always bringing up facts when talking about the Conservatives. Everybody knows the CPC and facts are enemies.

    • ‘Harper Hatred’ is a long outdated Con talking point.

      Please check your in-box for recent updates.

      • He probably did.  LOL

    • This Harper Hatred meme is getting really tedious. Governments get criticized, get use to it.
      If Harper wants adoration, he’s in the wrong business. 

  3. “So never mind debate as a tool to influence other members. How about debate as a way to influence to public opinion? Well, for that to be the case, what is said in the House each day would have to be heard by or relayed to broad swaths of the public. As it is, almost all of each day’s discussion in the House pass without wide notice. (Committee testimony is only barely more covered. Question Period is covered with some regularity, although it is lamented as much as it is actually considered”

    Shouldn’t you be answering this question AW? Has debate deteiorated because the media wont cover all of it, or only the more salacious QP; thereby arguably creating an incentive for outrageous grandstanding and theatrics. Or has the publics attention span simply atrophied and the members attitude along with it? Possibly the portion of the public who do watch like it this way? Even worse, was it always thus? Is it “our”fault, or the members, the parties or the fault of changes in the economics of media coverage?Or has the media, the parties, the members and eventually the public simply become less serious about the whole business?Who speaks for Canada in all this? My impression is that once upon a time all the participants,media. politicians and public had an underlying common assumption that that IS the whole point of having a house at all.

    • Alas, having been here for a scant four years, I can’t offer much in the way of historical perspective. That said, I tend to be suspicious of memory in this regard (it’s far too easy to imagine things were better) and I’ve come to think it doesn’t matter whether it was somehow worse or somehow better. If the present situation isn’t good enough or if it could be better or if it should be better, that should be sufficient. That should be the question: Are we okay with what we have?

      • thx for the reply.
        But it is not just memory Aaron. It is pretty well documented. I’ve just finished Ron Graham’s Last act…repatriation of the constitution. It is evident reading between the lines that while the politcs were as rough and ready as todays, there appeared to be an underlying respect for process all around. It was serous business and covered as such. It didn’t matter that much of the public was not particularly engaged in the small print. There seemed to be an assumption it mattered for its own sake. 
        Almost everyone who visits this blog is NOT ok with the present situation to some degree or other. Yet nothing changes. In fact this govt now holds FUs and media events seemingly designed or intended to avoid the scrutiny of the house. Whether that is purely out of malice or politcal expediency as my bias tells me, or whether it is a function of changing technology which permits new forms of outreach i cannot truely say – although i have my suspicions. At the very least there should be clear requirements to table important documents within the house, and a requirement from media organisations to cover it – no matter how unsexy or unprofitable. The more we let standards slip in this regard the more it seems pointless to maintain them  It might help if the media had the kind of respect for the house and process themselves when clear abuses occur, rather then shrugging them off as just the way politcs is going and who out there really cares anyway.  

  4. The omnibus bill format really makes debate so cumbersome, it’s  virtually impossible. 

  5. OK, let`s ask the people what they think of the HOC.

    Let`s have a minority Parliament where manufactured crisis are created every couple weeks by an angry opposition to such a degree that the government has to shut the place down just to let things cool off.
    And let`s top it off by convincing the Speaker that the government should be condemned for contempt.

    Now let`s have an election.

    One would think that after all that the people would toss out the scoundrels–replace them with the opposition.
    No the people returned the government with a comfortable majority, thereby sending a message to the opposition to oppose but do not obstruct for petty reasons.

    Liberals, this was a losing strategy last year and will be a loser next year. The people want a competent government to do it`s job–don`t obstruct, let the dippers do that, promote yourselves by coming up with viable alternatives…..Hint—Check out the first and last part of Bob Rae`s speech today when he talks about the importance of encouraging the health and wealth of Canadian business and Canadian middle-class.

    • …”manufactured crisis are created every couple weeks by an angry opposition to such a degree that the government has to shut the place down just to let things cool off.”

      Thank heaven we had Stephen Harper to act as the grownup eh? Those spoiled little opposition rugrats, they just have to learn to stop opposing and defer to the PM.

      See my post below about howlers.

    • Like not raising payroll taxes at all?  Instead Flaherty raises half the proposed amount and then claims he’s saving businesses money. 

  6. The following have been recently offered as serious points in Parliamentary debate:

    – My office has been flooded with complaints about the long form census

    – Unreported crime is increasing to the point where we must impose draconian new sentencing regulations

    – Canada’s F-35 fleet will cost $75 million per aircraft

    I dunno – as long as howlers like this go without being slammed in editorials and roundly mocked in op-eds, it’s easy to see why debate seems pointless. How do you debate somebody who’s willing to claim black is white, all while wearing a big, shit-eating grin?

    • I think using  a laugh track might be good.

  7. I am not worried about Cons limiting debate yet because the bills now have been discussed ad nauseum but if Cons are still restricting debate in new year with proposed new laws that we have not heard before than I will another thing that really irks me.

    I understand your existential despair, Wherry, since you have to watch these clowns during QP every day and I, personally, would have gone postal long ago if I was doing your job. However, I do think you are over-stating the affects of caucus solidarity within Westminster system. There is no tradition of MPs being mavericks who vote as they wish and I think having MPs acting like buffoons during QP somehow makes public think matters of state are being taken care of. 

    I follow UK politics because it is much more interesting than ours – just recently something like 80 Con MPs voted against their leader in Europe debate. Brit MPs seem to understand there is safety in numbers and they don’t have peculiar Canadian mores where we have to pretend that we all get along. 

    • In the British parliament, the party leader is chosen by the caucus.

      In the Canadian parliament, all candidate nominations must be approved by the party leader.

      The British PM is beholden to his or her caucus.  The Canadian MP is beholden to his or her party leader.

      The cause of the difference in behaviour is obvious.

    • Prepare to be irked.

  8. Oh puleeeeez – Chretien spending $100M for two untendered, unecessary Challenger jets from his buddies at Bombardier – no debate, slipped in at the last minute before Easter break, while Sea Kings were falling out of the sky – THAT is crapping all over the House procedures!

    • File this under “But moooooom, the Liberals did it first!”

      It was a sin then, but once it is your guy in charge, the sins of the past make the virtues of today.

  9. Aaron, as a reward for the service I provided in inspiring an entire blog post, all I ask is that in the future you refrain from joining in the common error of misusing the term “begging the question” to mean “begging for the question”.  (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Begging_the_question for the proper usage.)

    • Nit successfully picked.

  10. AW,
    Your work at raising these issues is very much appreciated.
    Ignore the fatuous cynics.
    A grateful reader.
    Sam Gunsch

  11. If I could pick one reform to the Parliamentary system in Canada, it would be to require that the PM be elected by caucus (perhaps also require that national parties cannot appoint candidates for MP).

    • Meh.  Party candidate requirements could easily handle this.
      “By agreeing to become a candidate, if elected, you also agree to support the party nominated candidate for PM”

      Nothing’s going to change the relationship between them unless you can somehow break the party organizations control over advertising/funding candidates.

      Or if you give the riding the power to exercise control over the MP somehow at times other than elections. Such as by recall votes.

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