Stand up, sit down, repeat: What to expect from budget all-nighter

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Treasury Board President Tony Clement stand to vote in the House of Commons on June 12, 2012. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

It’s not going to be exciting – not by a long shot.

Even the MPs who will be spending Wednesday night and much of Thursday in the House of Commons to vote on proposed opposition amendments to the government’s omnibus budget bill admit that to be the case. They are bringing in books and computer tablets the get through what promises to be a very long, dull affair.

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But, if your idea of fun is watching 300 or so people stand and sit down, in succession, over and over and over again, this is the show for you. Here is a primer on what to expect.

How rare is this?

Very rare. Yes there are all-night debates in the House of Commons. There was the 58-hour marathon filibuster by the New Democrats last year to obstruct a bill ordering locked-out Canada Post workers back to their jobs.

But that was not a series of votes that required a full complement of MPs to be in their seats. The politicians were able to spell each other off and take extended breaks.

This time they won’t be so lucky. Most MPs, even the veterans, have never had to sit through this sort of endurance test.  Those that have are thinking back to 1999 when the Commons spent more than a day and two nights of voting on 471 amendments to a bill approving a land-claim treaty with the Nisga’a.

There were also a number of recorded divisions on the Clarity Act that began on March 13, 2000 had members voting until 6:07 a.m. on March 15.

When will voting begin?

Wednesday evening and probably not before 8 p.m. ET. But the time won’t really be known until it starts. The Commons Speaker will first have to read out all 871 proposed amendments, which could take some time.

How long will the voting take?

That too is unknown. Best estimates say the Commons can get through between four and seven votes an hour – though they may move a bit faster once voting gets into full swing. Because of the way Speaker Andrew Scheer had grouped the amendment, there will be as many as 159 votes. That suggests the voting will take between 20 and 40 hours. Most regular Commons watchers say it will be on the lower end of the scale.

Will the MPs have to stay there all night?

No. Normally the doors to the Commons are locked at the beginning of every voting session and unlocked when it is over. In this case, there will be more flexibility. The doors to the Commons will be locked at the start of each vote but the MPs will be able to slip out after each vote is over.

If they do that, however, they will not be able to take part in the next vote. And they certainly will not be able to leave without the permission of their party whip.

How will the breaks work?

Some, like Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, say they are intent in staying from start to finish. Others will likely be permitted to take brief naps in the caucus lobby just outside the Commons.

In most votes, there are agreements between the opposition and the government that each side will allow a designated number of their MPs to be absent, with their non-votes cancelling each other out. It’s called pairing. But there will be no pairing in this case – except between a Conservative and a New Democrat who will be sitting at various points of the night in the Speaker’s chair – because the opposition wants to inflict as much discomfort on the Conservatives as possible.

The opposition members will have a little more flexibility to get up and walk around than government MPs who will have to make sure thet none of the amendments is passed.

Are these confidence votes?

The New Democrats say they are but almost everyone else agrees they are not. It is the government that decides what is and is not a confidence motion that could trigger another election.

And even if the Conservatives slipped up and accidentally did not have enough of their MPs in their seats to defeat an amendment, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is unlikely to declare the amendment a matter of confidence. But it could prompt a significant debate.

What to watch for?

As late as Wednesday afternoon, Ms. May was holding out hope that some Conservative MPs would break ranks and vote with the opposition on some of the amendments. That seems unlikely given the discipline in the Conservative caucus.

But British Columbia Tory MP David Wilks has admitted in a videotaped meeting with constituents that he has problems with the way the bill is structured. And opposition MPs say other Conservatives have expressed similar apprehensions.

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