The Commons: Is this any way to run a democracy?

Sitting and standing for hours and hours

Shortly after Question Period concluded, the Speaker formally called for yelling. All those in favour of the motion were invited to yell yea. All those opposed were invited to yell nay.

Technically, one supposes, the members need not yell yea or nay. They could nearly say so aloud. But democracy is not for the quiet. And so on one side they yelled yea and on the other side they yelled nay, the NDP’s Peter Julian seeming to particularly enjoy this (holding his yell for an extra beat or two). The Speaker made a judgement as to who had yelled most and then, inevitably, at least five members of whichever side had lost stood to demonstrate their desire for a formal standing vote to be recorded for the sake of posterity.

With a few of these final formalities dispatched with, the Speaker called for the members—all those duly elected to be here given 30 minutes to report to the House to spend the next seven hours expressing their respective wills on Bill C-45, the second budget implementation act of 2012.

Out in the foyer, as the dull digital tone that now stands in for the ringing of actual bells chimed over and over, Bob Rae attempted to explain to a cluster of reporters what could be hoped to be accomplished by what was about to happen.

“Well, you know, we want to inflict, frankly, as much damage and make the government realize this is just a crazy way  to do public business,” he said. “We’re happy to discuss navigable waters. We’re happy to discuss the tax credit policy of the government. We’re happy to discuss what their approach is to small business. We just think these things have to be dealt with in a way that respects the House and respects the democratic process. And we just don’t see that in the approach that’s being taken by the government. They are pushing any approach that’s being taken by any other parliament in the world much, much, much further. In fact, if you go back to many of the principles of parliamentary democracy, they’re opposed to this joining together of several measures in one bill. In some states in the United States, to do that is actually unconstitutional.”

Were these vote marathons losing their effect?

“I don’t think so,” Mr. Rae said. “I mean I think the main thing we’re sending is a message to government members. Obviously, it’s an inconvenience to them as much as it is to us. And we’re simply trying to remind government members that it’s their own government’s incompetence which has led us to this point and their own government’s unwillingness to really deal with us directly and follow what I think need to be very clear rules. And, clearly, we are committed now and will continue to be committed now as a party to changing this entire process.”

(Each and every member of the current opposition should probably be required to make such a commitment.)

A short while later, the opposition and government whips made their customary walk down the centre aisle as MPs took their seats. The Speaker called the vote. The New Democrats applauded Thomas Mulcair as he led the yeas. The Conservatives applauded Stephen Harper as he led the nays. About eight minutes later, with 290 MPs having stood and had their surname called by a clerk and then returned to their seats, it was reported that the nays outnumbered the yeas, 156-134.

The rest was technically a formality, practically more and figuratively much more than any single thing or anyone—the motions of the Westminster system, the realities of public policy and the principles of representative democracy.

“In this fragile economy,” John Baird reported to the House an hour earlier during Question Period, reading from a blue piece of paper in his hand, “this House needs to have the NDP stop fighting the job-creating hiring credit for small business, stop fighting the new economically vital Windsor-Essex to Detroit crossing and get behind the budget bill of the Minister of Finance.”

Of 457-page bills, little is easily said. If the New Democrats have a complaint about the hiring credit, it would seem to be that the measure isn’t generous enough. Of a bridge between Windsor and Detroit, Peggy Nash pronounced her side in favour less than a week ago.

“However,” she explained, “these changes are all bound up with many other changes that we do not support.”

In this case, within C-45’s 457 pages, besides its amendments to a few dozen existing acts of Parliament, is the creation of a separate and new act of Parliament entitled the Bridge to Strengthen Trade Act, which would exist solely to provide for a bridge between Windsor and Detroit.

On this note, the Conservatives sent up Jeff Watson, the MP for Essex, to pronounce shame on the NDP for moving that this legislation be removed from the budget bill. “Shockingly,” Mr. Watson reported, “the NDP and the MP for Windsor West who should know better are putting politics before progress and have introduced a motion to delete this Bill C-45 and stop this bridge from moving forward.”

After the Transport Minister had urged the NDP to “put politics aside,” the NDP’s Megan Leslie stood with a question. “Mr. Speaker, speaking of the monster budget bill, one of the more troubling aspects of this bill are the changes to the Navigable Waters Protection Act,” she ventured. “With no rhyme nor reason, the Conservatives have stripped away protection from thousands of lakes and rivers across Canada. Nova Scotians were shocked to learn that along with many other rivers, the Shelburne Heritage River will no longer be protected under this act. How is it that millionaires in Muskoka get lake protection but Nova Scotia Scotian rivers do not? Are there no Nova Scotian Conservatives over there who will stand up to this cherry-picking and this favouritism?”

Here the Transport Minister, Denis Lebel, stood to declare this much ado about nothing more than responsible governance. “Mr. Speaker, my department has consulted with every province and territory on the list of waterways,” he declared. “None of them have any concerns with the list.”

Perhaps Mr. Lebel is quite right here. Perhaps his changes to the act are entirely defensible. And perhaps Ms. Leslie is worrying herself unnecessarily. But perhaps Mr. Lebel would have an easier time now if his government didn’t apparently believe that a reference to “productivity-enhancing and transformative measures” in the spring budget was meant to convey that a future budget implementation bill would overhaul the Navigable Waters Protection Act.

It was of the NWPA that Ms. Leslie stood in the House on Monday at noon and read aloud from a long list of waterways. (She might still be reading if the Speaker hadn’t decided, shortly after Orren Creek, that the House had the gist.) And it was when the House arrived Tuesday night at votes related to the NWPA that the New Democrats began to vote in slow motion. For two rounds they moved methodically, luxuriating in the act of standing and sitting, the slowest among them seeming to take great care to move each muscle and joint in a deliberate fashion.

The Conservatives were displeased with the tactic. “Canadians are watching!” one of them cried.

This was likely the hope on both sides.

Beyond the cameras, MPs fiddled with iPads and laptops, caught up on their reading or paperwork, signed Christmas cards and snacked on candy. Jokes were exchanged across the aisle. The air was noticeably humid. The voice votes continued, the members on each side of the House invited to yell yea or nay (the opposition side even managing to win a couple of these entirely symbolic shouting matches.) The stuffed dog that taken a seat on the government side during the 22 and a half hours of voting on C-38 in the spring did not reappear, but NDP MP Dan Harris found time again for Lego and Tony Clement tweeted a penis joke. The economy pitted against democracy amid the atmosphere of an undergraduate lounge.

As the final vote was recorded, just over six hours after the first vote had begun, the New Democrats stood and cheered and chanted “2015!” en francais. After a few moments of considering a response, the Conservatives by banging their desks and chanting, “car-bon tax!” In the end, not a single change to C-45 was made.

If the opposition parties believe—as Stephen Harper once did—that omnibus legislation of this sort is an affront to our democracy, then they would seem compelled to ensure this is what happens each and every time. And if the government believes that it is behaving reasonably and responsibly in presenting these bills in this way—and that the opposition is somehow tarnished in fighting like this—then one must assume there will be more of this from them too. Another bill this spring and then another next fall. And then two more in 2014. And then maybe one more in 2015 before that year’s election. Maybe five more nights like this of grown men and women in business attire standing and sitting and standing and sitting and standing and sitting for hours and hours and hours. The government claiming efficiency, while the opposition argues for a more perfect process. (Somewhere between them is probably something like a reasonable compromise. Or at least something less time-consuming than this. And more substantive than what the government made a show of offering this time.)

This is probably no way to run a democracy, even if it is precisely how our democracy is maintained.

So maybe, ultimately, something’s gotta give. Only with how we govern ourselves in the balance in the meantime.