OTTAWA — The Justin Trudeau era begins in earnest Friday with all the pomp of a traditional speech from the throne.
But thereafter, the new Liberal government is aiming to break from tradition, promising to transform the way Parliament operates to empower backbenchers, diminish partisanship, restore civility, make government more accountable, be more family friendly and create a more independent Senate.
In short, the prime minister is hoping to bring his “sunny ways” to an institution known more recently for its toxic hyper-partisanship.
The shift will start with the text of the throne speech itself — expected to be a short, factual recitation of the government’s priorities, recapping the highlights of the Liberal election platform with minimal rhetorical flourishes.
The House of Commons will sit for a week before taking an extended Christmas break, just long enough to pass a motion putting into effect two of the central platform planks: a tax cut for middle-income earners and tax hike for the wealthiest one per cent.
The sweeping democratic reforms promised by Trudeau will take longer to implement but government House leader Dominic LeBlanc intends to set the wheels in motion immediately so that changes can go into effect soon after the Commons returns in late January.
He’ll move to reconstitute the procedure and House affairs committee, with a request that it “quickly” make recommendations on the best way to deliver on Trudeau’s vow to set aside one question period each week for MPs to grill the prime minister, as is done in the United Kingdom.
Given the whole point is to make the prime minister more accountable, LeBlanc said he doesn’t want to impose question period changes on opposition parties.
“I really want to be governed by what they think will work and we don’t have a rigid idea, other than what we think to be the U.K. precedent,” he said in an interview. “But if we wanted to adapt it to the Canadian Parliament, we’d be open to looking at that.”
The committee will also be asked to consider ways to make the Commons more “family friendly,” including changing the sitting hours, holding votes earlier in the day and doing away with Friday sittings.
The only other committee that will be struck immediately is the finance committee, so that it can begin pre-budget consultations. Other committees won’t be struck until the Commons returns in January.
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As per Trudeau’s promise, members of each committee will elect their own chairs and vice-chairs, rather than have them appointed by the prime minister. LeBlanc also wants to boost the resources — both money and staff — for committees and their chairs so that they can fulfil more effectively their function of scrutinizing legislation.
LeBlanc has already had preliminary discussions with opposition House leaders about the anticipated reforms and is encouraged by the response thus far.
“Everybody seems to want to begin this new Parliament in a more collegial, respectful, constructive tone than perhaps the last one ended on,” he said. “My hope is it can last a good chunk of time.”
A more immediate source of conflict could be the Senate, where the Conservatives hold a majority and may not be eager to let Liberal legislation pass unchallenged. Trudeau could remedy that by filling 22 vacancies in the upper house but he won’t do that until he’s set up his promised advisory body to recommend non-partisan Senate nominees.
That reform, which falls under the bailiwick of Democratic Reform Minister Maryam Monsef, will take some time to implement. In the meantime, it’s up to LeBlanc to figure out how to get bills through the Senate, in particular how to introduce legislation when there is no longer a government Senate leader.
Trudeau kicked all Liberal senators out of his party’s caucus two years ago as part of his bid to return the upper house to its intended role as an independent chamber of sober second thought. But all the procedural rules of the Senate are geared to the existence of a government caucus and an opposition caucus, with funding assigned to each caucus leader’s office.
While the government can’t impose a solution on the chamber, LeBlanc said he’s hoping to persuade senators to change their own rules to reflect a chamber that is “structured less along partisan lines.”
He’s already met with Conservative Senate leader Claude Carignan and with James Cowan, leader of the independent Liberals, and had informal conversations with a number of others.
“I’m really encouraged by what I think is, again, a constructive and positive desire on the part of many of them … to fashion a relationship with the House of Commons and the government that is less partisan and more independent,” LeBlanc said.
In return, LeBlanc has conveyed to senators that the new government respects their role in scrutinizing legislation and does not expect them to simply rubber stamp bills.
“We absolutely value their constitutional role to examine legislation,” he said. “We would not consider the Senate amending the bill to improve it as a negative thing … We would actually find that a positive.”