Parliament 101: When MPs are speaking, their opponents aren't speaking

Conservative MPs Ryan Leef and Kerry-Lynne Findlay don't have much time for S-7 opponents

Parliamentarians love attention, generally speaking. Everything that happens in their world flows from that basic truth. They might be noble people. They might even, on occasion, deserve our admiration. But you need to like attention to like that gig.

A few days ago, NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice filibustered the House finance committee’s consideration of Bill C-377 (see the video evidence just to the right). That’s the private member’s bill, sponsored by Conservative MP Russ Hiebert, that would force unions to publicly disclose financial documents. The committee was scheduled to discuss amendments to the bill, but Boulerice spoke for the duration of the meeting—that’s two hours—and forced the bill back to the House unamended. That’s a perfectly reasonable tactic. It may have bored the hell out of everyone else on that committee, but there was no arguing against its validity. Filibusters, just like marathon voting sessions in the chamber, are simply part of parliamentary life.

A couple of days ago, another MP at a different committee took the floor for a sustained period of time. It was much less dramatic, nowhere near as long (only seven minutes), and every bit as legitimate as Boulerice’s intervention. And so uncomfortable to watch.

The MP was Ryan Leef, a Conservative representing the Yukon. His stage was the committee on public safety and national security. The committee’s currently taking a look at S-7, the Combating Terrorism Act, a bill designed to help the government track down and punish terrorists before they strike. The government side supports the legislation. One of yesterday’s witnesses, criminal defence lawyer Paul Calarco, had the gall to oppose the bill. Big mistake. Leef gave him an earful.

Let’s look at what the bill proposes, and what Calarco thinks of it all. Then we’ll get to Leef’s remarks.

S-7 introduces new offences to the Criminal Code that prohibit individuals from leaving Canada for the purpose of committing terrorist acts. It enacts tougher penalties for individuals who harbour terrorists. And it reinstates recognizance with conditions—measures that allow a judge to restrict the activity of suspected terrorists.

Calarco didn’t support the legislation on the table. “There is no question that the prevention of terrorist action is vital to preserving our society. This requires effective legislation, but also legislation that respects the traditions of our democracy,” he said. “Unfortunately, this bill fails to achieve either goal.”

Calarco said S-7 wouldn’t provide law enforcement agencies with any additional tools to fight terrorism. He said investigative hearings, which have only been used once since their inception, weren’t “effective in detecting, preventing or assisting in the prosecution of terrorism.” Additionally, he said, S-7 introduces new offences to prosecute terrorism that duplicate existing sections of the Criminal Code. Finally, he said the bill’s effort to bolster recognizance with conditions would do nothing to deter terrorists (more on that in a minute).

The bill’s provisions might lead to a sense of “false complacency,” said Calarco, since it gives the impression that more is being done to combat terrorism than what the bill actually accomplishes.

Leef, a former RCMP officer from the Yukon, admonished Calarco in spectacular fashion. He packed a 1,042-word speech into the seven minutes allotted to him for questioning of witnesses. His opening salvo, in response to Calarco’s criticism that the legislation offers no new tools to combat terrorism, questioned Calarco’s testimony.

“Certainly that’s not what we’ve heard from any single law enforcement agency or intelligence-gathering groups that have been here,” he said. “It’s always interesting to me, as a new member of Parliament, to hear one whole group of witnesses involved in that business articulate how valuable something would be for them and another group not directly involved in the enforcement application or information-gathering application of this legislation completely suggest that it wouldn’t be good for them.”

It went on like that.

Kerry-Lynne Findlay, the Conservative MP for Delta-Richmond East, went almost as far as her colleague from the Yukon. She recited only 820 words, which left enough time for Calarco to answer a single question.

So, in the end, how did Calarco respond to the Conservatives’ conduct, when I asked him about it yesterday? “It would have been much more productive to engage in a meaningful question-and-answer session,” he said. “I would have been happy to have sat there for a number of hours.”

Well, not this time. Maybe next time.

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