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The Maple Leaf flies near the Peace tower on as part of Flag Day in Ottawa on Feb.15, 2012. (Adrian Wyld/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
The Maple Leaf flies near the Peace tower on as part of Flag Day in Ottawa on Feb.15, 2012. (Adrian Wyld/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

MPs sound alarm on Tory affinity for debate limits, secret meetings Add to ...

Opposition members say the rules governing Parliament must be changed to prevent the Conservative government from shutting down debate in the Commons and from taking the business of committees behind closed doors.

Most Canadians care little about the rules of parliamentary procedure, Chris Charlton, the NDP Whip told the House on Friday. But the games played by the Conservative government have drawn media interest and members of the public are starting to pay attention.

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“In particular, they have focused on the rules that currently allow the government to cut off debate on subjects of its choosing and rules that allow the government to escape accountability by avoiding transparency and holding critical debates in closed-door meetings,” Ms. Charlton said.

The NDP Whip said that when committees have complained to speakers of the House of Commons about the government forcing committee debate to be conducted in private, they have pointed out that committees are the masters of their own destinies.

“While technically correct,” she said, “we must give the Speaker the tools to uphold the independence of committees while insisting that they cannot subvert the democratic principles of transparency and accountability that underpin the Westminster model of Parliament.”

In the same way, Ms. Charlton said, the Speaker must be able to play a more active role in maintaining the balance between the right of the government to pass its legislative agenda and the right of the opposition to examine and debate proposals in the House of Commons.

The existing rules allow the government to regularly curtail debate on bills and to force debates in the House, she said. “Over-reliance on time allocation is the sign of an incompetent government but such incompetence is no excuse for running roughshod over the institution of Parliament.”

Even though the “standing orders” come up for review at the beginning of each new Parliament, MPs have determined that changes are warranted just twice in the past 30 years.

The deteriorating state of decorum, and moves by the government that the opposition parties have deemed undemocratic, prompted the current debate, which will move to the procedures and House affairs committee of the Commons for further study.

The Conservatives have indicated an interest in eliminating some of the more archaic rules such, especially those that are no longer enforced. And all parties have lamented the tone of the debate in recent years. But it remains to be seen how far the government is willing to go to relinquish the control it exerts over debate in the House and at Commons committees.

Marc Garneau, the Liberal Whip, said it is ironic opposition members are being forced to advocate for greater democracy.

When the Conservatives were in opposition, the Montreal MP said, they cried foul every time debate on a bill was subjected to time allocation. But now that they have a majority, he said, they are setting new records and they “steamroll their legislative agenda through the House.”

In the eight months that the Conservatives have been in a majority, they have called for time allocation 16 times on 20 bills, he said. That compares to the four years of a Liberal majority, between 2000 and 2004, when time allocation was called 10 calls on more than 150 bills.

As for committees, Mr. Garneau said his party has proposed a specific list of exceptional instances in which business could be conducted in camera, including wages and salaries, labour negotiations, information supplied in confidence, draft reports, and matters of national security.

Mr. Garneau also said Question Period should also be reassessed to institute better decorum, curtail personal attacks, and to ensure that the ministers who are asked questions are the ones who answer them.

That prompted an indignant response from Conservative MP Tom Lukiwski, the parliamentary secretary to the Government House Leader, who said “everyone in this place knows, if there is one party who is most responsible for disruption in this House, for heckling in this House, and for disruptive behaviour in this House, it is the Liberal Party itself. This is the height of hypocrisy.”

As for the government’s moves to impose time allocation on debates, Mr. Lukiwski said, the opposition has repeatedly demonstrated that it has no interest in debating a bill. “It simply wants to delay the passage of the bill, and if it had the opportunity it would, with apologies to Quentin Tarantino, kill the bill. That is not democratic,” he said. “That is simply an opposition trying to run roughshod over Parliament.”

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