Hour after hour, politicians battled exhaustion, boredom and the discomfort of confinement to stand in the House of Commons and vote on changes proposed by the opposition to a massive government budget bill.
The more than 800 amendments had been grouped into 157 votes to speed the process, but the session, which started after midnight Wednesday, still ended up going round the clock twice. It was a marathon instigated by the opposition to draw attention to the 425-page bill, which they say has received little scrutiny despite changing nearly 70 Canadian laws.
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty emerged bleary-eyed from the House a little past the halfway point on Thursday afternoon to lament what he said was “gamesmanship” on the part of the opposition. “We will persist, of course, we are advancing our strong economic agenda for Canada,” Mr. Flaherty told reporters.
How did they hold up?
The aim of the hundreds of amendments was to create discomfort for the Conservatives who hold just a slim majority in the House and could not, at any point, afford to leave a large number of their seats empty. The Tories were permitted just 30 minutes for their breaks, while the Liberal and the New Democrat MPs got away for several hours at a stretch.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper tried to bolster his caucus’s morale by repeatedly giving them two thumbs-up – though several had their heads on their desks between votes.
The members of the opposition parties, meanwhile, claimed to be in good spirits.
“We are also very conscious that, as we go through all these votes, these are not just symbols,” said NDP House Leader Nathan Cullen. “These are real things that are happening to the laws that guide Canada, be it protection for our environment that is being reduced, be it employment insurance that is being lost, or pensions that are taken away.”
The Conservative MPs did not break ranks
As late as Wednesday afternoon, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said she was hoping that Conservative politicians would join the opposition in voting for the amendments to Bill C-38. But there were no cracks in the Tory caucus.
Bob Rae, the interim Liberal Leader, said the Conservatives were well organized and the MPs on the government side of the House are under the firm grip of Mr. Harper.
“Privately, a number of Conservatives have told me directly that they don’t like the dictatorial approach. They don’t like the overuse of closure. They don’t like not being able to consider separate pieces of legislation,” Mr. Rae said. “But they have to go along,”
What they hope to accomplish
Even if they couldn’t win a single amendment, opposition MPs said the hours without sleep were well spent. “We’re reduced to this because we’ve got no other way really of showing the strength of our opposition to what’s taking place, so we just have to keep going,” Mr. Rae said.
Mr. Cullen said the opposition members were doing their job. “If we had simply allowed this government to pass this bill without any inconvenience at all,” he said, “the lesson they would have taken away, and that Canadians would have taken away, is that Parliament is less important than it really is.”
Words from the Commons floor
Mr. Cullen said the feedback he and his caucus members received on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook kept them motivated. But the MPs also got their messages out in the same fashion. Here are a few tweets:
New Democrat MP Peter Julian: After 16 hours #ndp caucus has energy! Defending Canada & Canadians from harm from Harper Agenda. We’ll keep fighting.
Treasury Board President Tony Clement: After 33 hrs of no sleep, I feel fantastic! But it could be the Snickers bar talking…Liberal MP Wayne Easter: C38 to review: targets charities to cut funding & eliminates groups that the Harper regime disagrees with. What country is this?