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NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on May 9, 2012. (Chris Wattie/Reuters/Chris Wattie/Reuters)
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on May 9, 2012. (Chris Wattie/Reuters/Chris Wattie/Reuters)

John Ibbitson

Has NDP already lost the war over Harper's omnibus bill? Add to ...

So it’s war. But parliamentary war ain’t what it used to be. And the generals on one side are pretty green.

The New Democrats hoped to force the Harper government to carve up its omnibus bill – which implements the budget, changes environmental regulations and unemployment rules, and much else besides – so that it could be sent off to various committees for further study.

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No dice, Conservative House Leader Peter Van Loan declared Wednesday afternoon, leaving NDP House Leader Nathan Cullen to mourn: “This is not a good day for democracy.”

In response to the Tory intransigence, the NDP now plans to use every means at its disposal to delay passage of the bill – ideally until after the House rises in late June for summer recess.

What tools of obstruction does the opposition have at its disposal? “They’re much fewer than they were before,” says Don Boudria, who served as House Leader in the Chrétien government for seven years.

Over the years, each time an opposition party has employed some form of filibuster to delay a bill, the government of the day has subsequently changed the rules to prevent another such filibuster. The filibuster, in short, is extinct.

The Conservative majority in the House is not huge, so Gordon O’Connor, the Chief Government Whip, will need to be on his toes. The NDP called a sudden motion of adjournment Wednesday afternoon, which was defeated by the Conservative majority, but which forced Prime Minister Stephen Harper to return to the House.

The government can expect similar motions in the days to come – say, late on a Thursday afternoon, when many MPs are on their way to the airport to get back to their constituency.

Opposition MPs can delay committee proceedings by calling endless points of order. But that could only serve to keep witnesses from being heard, angering the witnesses along with anyone who wanted to hear what they had to say.

The Senate could delay the bill, but there are no NDP senators, and the Liberals and Conservatives have already struck a deal: the bill is being studied in advance of its arrival by several committees, which means by the time it reaches the Senate it will already have been fully considered, and can be swiftly passed.

Mr. Boudria believes the NDP, perhaps through inexperience, left its most potent arrow in its quiver. When the omnibus bill was first introduced, almost two weeks ago, the Official Opposition should have immediately raised a ruckus. Question Period, for example, should have been devoted to no other topic, day after day.

Such single-minded obsession over one issue is how the Liberal opposition forced the Mulroney government to compromise on several occasions in the 1980s. The Reform and Canadian Alliance parties employed similar tactics over the sponsorship scandal and the Human Resources “billion dollar boondoggle” when the Liberals were in government.

But the NDP came late to the crusade. Even Wednesday, they took a scatter-shot approach during Question Period, interspersing complaints about the Omnibus bill with attacks on the F-35 purchase, harangues over a report from the Environment Commissioner, accusations of questionable campaign contributions, and the like.

This is no way to raise a hue and cry.

The omnibus bill should be safely on the books by the end of June, partly because opposition parties lack the tools they once had to frustrate a government’s agenda, and partly because the NDP is new at being the official opposition, and Leader Thomas Mulcair and Mr. Cullen are still learning the ropes.

That doesn’t make it right for the Conservatives to ram this bill through. It just makes it possible.

Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

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