The Commons: What just happened here?

Eleven hours and 53 minutes after the last vote was counted, Megan Leslie stood and attempted a summation.

“Mr. Speaker, within 24 hours, the Conservatives voted to revoke the Environmental Assessment Act, to end the protection of fish habitats and sabotage the National Energy Board,” she reported this morning.

“Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!” protested various Conservatives.

“The NDP proudly opposed these measures,” Ms. Leslie declared. “Do the Conservatives realize that our laws and our economy will be weakened by Bill C-38?”

“Quite the contrary,” responded Jason Kenney. “The facts are clear. This government has the best record in terms of job creation in the G7. We have the best fiscal position in the G7. We have the best economic growth rates in the G7.”

The Conservatives present applauded the Immigration Minister’s boasts.

“The NDP policies are to increase taxes, the deficit spending and sending billions of taxpayer dollars to European banks,” Mr. Kenney continued, wagging his finger.

“This party is against the development of our natural resources,” the minister continued, jabbing the air in front of him. “This is why Canadians have confidence in the economic record of this government.”

Ms. Leslie was apparently read for this. “Mr. Speaker,” she shot back, “if the minister is so proud of these changes why did he not run on them?”

“Yesterday, the Minister of Finance admitted that he had not read the whole bill. He could not answer basic questions about how the bill had anything to do with the budget,” the New Democrat deputy now charged. “Then the minister acknowledged that the bill had mistakes and yet he still voted down any opposition attempt to fix those mistakes. It is a shameful lack of accountability. When will the Conservatives drop the stubbornness and agree to fix their flawed budget bill?”

“Why are you so angry?” cried a voice from the Conservative side.

Once more to Mr. Kenney to sing a song of Conservative glory and New Democrat intransigence. “Mr. Speaker, the only thing that is flawed is having an official opposition that has no focus on the creation of jobs, prosperity, or economic growth,” he lamented. “Our government has the best job creation record in the developed world since the global downturn and the soundest fiscal situation in the G7. We have the lowest federal taxes as a share of our economy since 1964 and the strongest growth today, all of that reinforced by Moody’s giving us the highest credit rating in the developed world.”

Of course, none of that has anything to do with the bill that remains, despite 159 votes, unamended—not yet passed by the House, still to be passed by the Senate, it remains nothing more than a stack of paper with only implications for the future. A large stack of paper, but a stack of paper nonetheless. Whatever has occurred the last few years, the implications for C-38 are mostly implicit. Trust us, Mr. Kenney says, we know what we’re doing and therefore you needn’t worry about this latest budget bill.

But the past is not necessarily of any bearing on the present. Take, for instance, this bill. Here it must be noted that Shelly Glover has a point. At least so far as the Conservative approach to the legislative process is concerned, C-38 is nothing extraordinary. One of last year’s budget implementation acts measured more than 600 pages. C-9 in 2010 was 900 pages long. C-10 in 2009 was more than 500 pages long. C-38 is but the fourth largest budget bill tabled since the Conservatives formed government in 2006 and the eighth to number more than 150 pages.

So why such a fuss this time?

Maybe this bill was somehow more egregious in its changes. Maybe it offended more passionate constituencies. Maybe the prospect of precipitating an election made it more difficult to fully oppose such bills in the minority years. Maybe the game of chicken that Parliament was reduced to produced paralysis, or at least distraction. Maybe, this time, the opposition parties and the press gallery had the time and space to focus. (It surely helps that in the far corner of the room now sits an obsessive and independent MP, whose interest in parliamentary democracy is likely only surpassed by her desire to make herself relevant.)

But that doesn’t entirely account for the last 41 years. “However, where do we stop? Where is the point of no return?” Speaker Lucien Lamoureux asked on the afternoon of January 26, 1971. “The honourable member for Winnipeg North Centre, and I believe the honourable member for Edmonton West, said that we might reach the point where we would have only one bill, a bill at the start of the session for the improvement of the quality of life in Canada which would include every single proposed piece of legislation for the session. That would be an omnibus bill with a capital ‘O’ and a capital ‘B.’ But would it be acceptable legislation? There must be a point where we go beyond what is acceptable from a strictly parliamentary standpoint.”

Twenty three years after that, a young Reform MP stood and invoked these words to protest a bill of a mere 24 pages. And 18 years after that intervention, a young Speaker stood to rule on a 452-page bill tabled by the government of that young Reform MP. “It may well be time for Members to consider our practices for dealing with omnibus bills,” Speaker Scheer said this week. “In the absence of rules or guidelines regarding omnibus legislation, the Chair cannot justify setting aside Bill C-38 and, accordingly, must rule that Bill C-38 in its current form is in order.”

So the opposition parties (and perhaps some daring government backbenchers) might’ve done something between 2006 and 2011 to change the rules. But then perhaps any of the hundreds of MPs who’ve served between 1971 and now might have done something more.

If the price of democracy is eternal vigilance, the price of failing to be vigilant is even greater and more profound challenges. And so the House of Commons finds itself faced with C-38. But maybe something has now changed. It will be noted that last year a government was found guilty of contempt and a leader of the opposition called on the public to “rise up” and that the former was rewarded with even more seats, while the latter is now out of politics. But then it should also be noted that the third party, which had spent the previous eight years using Parliament as a primary outlet for its ideas and which promised last year to “fix Ottawa,” made the greatest gains in last year’s election. The new Parliament that resulted from that vote—the 41st Parliament of Canada—spent nearly 24 hours on Thursday, a day that will not actually exist so far as Parliament is concerned, participating in parliamentary democracy. An act of Parliament taken to fight an Act of Parliament. A procedural battle over public policy. A tradition-bound ritual of standing and shouting with very real, very tangible, implications.

So what just happened here? What will happen in the fall if the government moves another massive bill? What did those principles and symbols, pillows and candy, snoozing ministers, points of order and standing ovations amount to? The first year of this new parliament has now been bookended by round-the-clock confrontations. And when this one was concluded, the New Democrats pounded their desks in unison and chanted ferociously. “Deux-mille, quinze! Deux-mille, quinze!”

Inevitably, in 2015, there will be some kind of public reckoning (and maybe we are now set for three more years of this). But even then, whatever the result, whatever might be done by the next parliament—and for however many years and however many budget implementation acts we have to come—the price of democracy will remain the same.