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federal election 2015

Peter Milliken, 34th Speaker of the House of Commons, takes part in the unveiling of his official portrait on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, May 9, 2012.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

A long-forgotten backbench campaign to restore the power of MPs over public spending could play a role in the timing of Parliament's return.

As the 78-day election campaign heads into its final few days, attention is turning to when the House of Commons will come back to life. That is prompting debate over the significance of Jan. 8, 2016, when the cabinet's power to approve billions in spending through special warrants expires.

With polls showing the likelihood of a minority government, it could take time for the first-place party to decide on a parliamentary plan.

There are no hard and fast rules on how soon Parliament must be convened after an election, but the party that forms government after Monday's election will need to consider a legal change passed quietly nearly two decades ago.

Long before he became the longest-serving speaker in the history of the House of Commons, Peter Milliken was a Kingston-area Liberal MP with a beef.

He argued that Members of Parliament should have the final say in votes on government spending. He did not like how Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney managed this issue in the months after the election of Nov. 21, 1988.

Parliament was reconvened on Dec. 12 of that year, but rather than voting to approve routine spending for the government – known as supply – the Tories only put forward a debate and vote on the government's free-trade deal with the United States. The two-week session ended, and Parliament was later prorogued, or suspended. It was not recalled until April 3, 1989.

Having bypassed the practice of seeking House of Commons approval for spending, the government kept the lights on by approving money through a process called the governor-general's special warrants. The warrants are limited to spending for urgent issues when Parliament is dissolved.

In 1989, Mr. Milliken introduced a private members bill to prevent the prolonged use of warrants from happening again. The bill sought to amend the Financial Administration Act to limit the use of special warrants to the period during election campaigns and for 60 days after the return of the writ. After years of campaigning by Mr. Milliken, the bill became law in 1997.

What that change means now is a matter of considerable debate. The timeline means the government could issue special warrants until Jan. 8. At a recent panel on minority government hosted by University of Ottawa academics, the date was presented as a form of deadline for Parliament's return.

Law professor Errol Mendes argued that is the outer limit that Conservative Leader Stephen Harper – should he win a minority – could wait to convene Parliament if there are questions about whether he could win a confidence vote.

"When Jan. 9 happens, I think that's when the Governor-General may have to intervene," he said.

However, parliamentary officials argue there is some wiggle room. Before rising in June, Parliament approved two supply bills that would provide federal departments with most of the money they would need to function until the end of the fiscal year on March 31, 2016.

Usually, MPs vote on two more supply bills during the year, known as supplementary estimates B and C. It is not known how much spending government departments had planned to submit through those votes.

The government could issue a special warrant before Jan. 8 to fill that gap, which parliamentary sources say should be enough to get departments through to the end of the fiscal year. The House of Commons also usually votes before March 26 on what is called interim supply to finance the first part of the next fiscal year.

Having Parliament in place early enough to pass an interim supply bill before March 26 would be an important consideration.

A leaked e-mail this week that forced the resignation of Liberal campaign co-chair Daniel Gagnier provides some insight into his thinking on these issues. In a three-page note to TransCanada Corp. officials, he speculated that Parliament's return could be "sooner than expected" and no later than the end of January.

When a new Parliament begins, the first job is for MPs to elect a speaker. Then the next issue is a Speech from the Throne. The first confidence vote is usually on the throne speech. It is possible a vote on a supply or money bill could come first.

In an interview, Mr. Milliken said his goal with the bill was to ensure that Parliament does not lose its authority over government spending.

"The supplementary [estimate] is often quite big because they make announcements, particularly during elections, of things they want to spend money on that they don't have the authority to do," he said. "If they're going to do it right away, they've got to get that authority. Parliament should be meeting and deciding it rather than the government just saying we'll give ourselves these special warrants. ... It's not reasonable that the government be the one deciding how much they can spend and when. Parliament's supposed to make that choice."

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