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Government House Leader Peter Van Loan responds during Question Period in the Commons on Oct. 21, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Government House Leader Peter Van Loan responds during Question Period in the Commons on Oct. 21, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Procedural Tools

Is Tory penchant for capping Commons debate efficient - or arrogant? Add to ...

For the fifth time since they took office as a majority government in May, the Conservatives have limited debate on a key piece of legislation.

This week it was the dismantling of the gun registry. Before that it was the bill to end of the wheat board’s monopoly, the omnibus crime bill and two budget bills.

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper is determined to push these items – some of which have been on his agenda for a very long time – through Parliament with as little opposition input as possible.

But the tactic has New Democrats crying foul.

“This will be the fifth time in 38 days of sitting that time allocation has been imposed,” Opposition House Leader Joe Comartin said Thursday when it became apparent that debate on the gun registry legislation would also be cut short.

That leaves the Conservatives within a hair’s breadth of matching the record of former Liberal government of Jean Chrétien, which limited the parliamentary discussion on six bills, with nine separate time allocations, between Jan. 29, 2001 and October 1, 2002, Mr. Comartin said.

The Liberals imposed those limits over the course of 212 sitting days in the House of Commons. The Conservatives, by comparison, have limited the debate on five bills in just 35 sitting days. And they invoked closure on a bill to end a strike a Canada Post.

“They are well ahead of the record that was set by the Liberals back in 2002,” Mr. Comartin said. And “they will match it over the next few weeks at the rate they are going.”

In October of 2002, Mr. Harper took exception to the number of times debate was limited. “The government has used closure and time allocation more frequently than any previous government,” he complained to the House.

Now Mr. Comartin is lodging the same charge against Mr. Harper. He asked that Conservative House Leader Peter Van Loan explain the formula the government is using to determine how much debate is enough.

“Our critic for justice and public safety was not even allowed to get on his feet before the government had moved time allocation” on the gun-registry bill, Mr. Comartin noted.

“That is the kind of abuse that we are seeing. It is not like we have had a lot of debate on that particular bill,” he said. “That bill has some very new particulars about destroying the records. We had two hours of debate on a different bill in the last Parliament, because those provisions were not in that bill.”

Mr. Van Loan said the issues on the legislative agenda this fall have been discussed in detail over the past five or six years since Mr. Harper’s Conservatives first took office, albeit as a minority government.

“These are issues that have been debated at length in elections, and issues on which we made commitments to Canadians in the last election,” he said. “They responded to those commitments by giving us a majority and asking us to deliver on those commitments.”

Mr. Van Loan said his approach has been to move quickly with time allocation so that it is clear to everyone how much time will be available for debate, allowing parties and MPs to plan their discussion.

“Most people in their workplace do not debate an issue for four days before they decide what to do,” he said. “They debate it and they make a decision. It is enough time in this case to make a very clear decision on an important question.”

But Michael Behiels, a political historian at the University of Ottawa, argues that imposing time allocations on a regular basis is an abuse of power.

The Conservatives managed their legislative agenda quite badly during the years they were in a minority and, as a consequence, did not pass as many of their bills and they could have, Prof. Behiels told The Globe. Now they are saying the easiest way to get their agenda into law is to put closure on everything, he said.

They are “using a blunt instrument which is supposed to be used very rarely,” Prof. Behiels added. Time allocations, he said, are supposed to be reserved for instances when the opposition is filibustering and has no intention of being anything other than obstreperous.

“If [the Conservatives]really knew how to manage Parliament,” he said, “they would get their bills through in sequence. They would understand that some of this would take a little bit of time. But they have the majority and they will win. Why do you have to invoke the big stick on every occasion?”

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