Parliament resumes with Tory MP rebelling against muzzling by own government

OTTAWA – The winter sitting of Parliament got off to a subdued start Monday, with the fiercest attack on the government coming from one of its own Conservative backbenchers.

Saskatoon MP Maurice Vellacott gave notice of a motion aimed at preventing the government from muzzling backbenchers by blocking their private members’ bills and motions.

The motion would reform the current system, in which a handful of MPs on a Conservative-dominated sub-committee get to decide which private members’ business will be put to a vote in the House of Commons.

“That kind of muzzling is a blight on democracy,” Vellacott said in a written statement, calling the process “arbitrary,” “capricious” and open to political interference.

Vellacott’s surprise attack came shortly after a low-key question period, which elicited little new information and no real fireworks. The most notable development was Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s announcement that he’ll bring down the 2014 budget on Feb. 11 — smack in the middle of the Winter Olympics.

Vellacott was one of about 20 Conservative MPs who were infuriated last spring when a private member’s motion condemning sex-selective abortion was declared ineligible for a vote by the procedure and House affairs sub-committee.

That decision to block fellow Tory MP Mark Warawa’s motion triggered a mini-rebellion against stifling party discipline, which eventually led Edmonton MP Brent Rathgeber to quit the Tory caucus.

Fuelled by the revolt, Ontario backbencher Michael Chong last fall proposed a private member’s bill aimed at empowering MPs and diluting the power of party leaders. Among other things, his bill would give each party’s caucus the power to turf its leader.

Chong’s bill is not expected to make it into the legislative line-up until the spring, at the earliest.

Vellacott’s missile likely didn’t go down well with a government trying to keep the focus on the economy, using the budget as the cornerstone of the winter sitting.

The New Democrats and Liberals, meanwhile, are intent on keeping front and centre the Senate expenses scandal, which rocked the government all last year.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair pumped up his troops before question period with a speech in which he vowed to continue his prosecutorial grilling of Prime Minister Stephen Harper on the scandal — a tactic which won him plaudits in 2013.

“In the past year, New Democrats have shown that if you want to defeat Stephen Harper, you have to take on Stephen Harper,” Mulcair told the NDP caucus.

“Our work holding Stephen Harper to account continues today …. We’re going to keep demanding answers because Canadians deserve answers. And mark my words, we’re gonna get ’em.”

Mulcair later led off the first question period in six weeks with questions about the protests in Ukraine and the budget. He quickly followed up with numerous queries about the Senate scandal but, in the absence of any new revelations to work with, the attack lacked bite.

Among other things, Mulcair wanted to know: Why has the Privy Council Office refused to release documents related to the scandal? Why is Sen. Irving Gerstein, the Conservative party’s chief fundraiser, still a member of the Tory caucus? Has Harper talked to the RCMP?

Harper responded, as he’s done in the past, that independent PCO officials decide what documents to release under the Access to Information Act, that Gerstein is not under investigation by the RCMP, and that he knew nothing about former chief of staff Nigel Wright’s decision to personally give Sen. Mike Duffy $90,000 to reimburse the Senate for improper expense claims.

He did not directly answer whether he’s been interviewed by the RCMP, which is investigating Wright, Duffy and three other senators: Pamela Wallin, Mac Harb and Patrick Brazeau.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau ignored the Senate and zeroed in on the Canada Job Grants — a skills training program promised in last year’s budget, touted in $2.5 million worth of television ads, but which still does not actually exist.

Trudeau urged Harper to “listen to the provinces and scrap this program.”

Harper said the government remains “fully committed” to resolving the mismatch between Canadians’ skills and available jobs.