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Trudeau skips budget debate to campaign as opposition decries ‘arrogant’ rule changes

Finance Minister Bill Morneau and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau leave the Prime Minister's office holding copies of the federal budget in Ottawa, Wednesday, March 22, 2017.


Justin Trudeau hit the campaign trail Thursday instead of defending his day-old budget in the House, fuelling concerns the Prime Minister wants to change parliamentary rules to limit his appearances in Question Period.

The opposition parties have become increasingly angry over Liberal proposals that may reduce the number of days the Prime Minister faces questions in the House and may hinder the opposition's ability to conduct filibusters.

The proposals were released this month by Liberal House Leader Bardish Chagger, who tried to cool things down on Thursday by calling for a civilized debate.

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"This place needs to be modernized. The more hours I sit in the House, the more I believe that we do need to do things better," she told reporters.

But the opposition parties are outraged at the prospect of the Liberals using their majority in the House to impose changes that would give additional powers to the government. To this point, Ms. Chagger has refused to say whether the new rules would only be adopted with the approval of the opposition.

"Sunny ways are indeed gone," NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said during Question Period. "They have been replaced by an attempt to unilaterally and quietly ram through changes to the rules that govern our democracy. This is nothing less than a massive government power grab, which is only meant to help the Prime Minister avoid accountability."

One day after his second budget was tabled, Mr. Trudeau attended a photo opportunity and news conference in Toronto before going to the riding of Markham-Thornhill to campaign with Liberal candidate Mary Ng ahead of the April 3 by-election. One of the events attended by the Prime Minister was organized by the Canadian Chinese Table Tennis Association.

Conservative House Leader Candice Bergen said in an interview that the Prime Minister should have been in Ottawa, talking about his budget, instead of going to partisan events.

"He doesn't seem to know where to draw the line," she said. "It's arrogance. The Prime Minister doesn't want to answer questions in the House."

Regarding the changes to the rules of the House, she told reporters that the opposition parties will do everything in their power to stop the Liberals from pushing through their proposals.

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"It's not a discussion paper, it's an edict from the Prime Minister's Office," Ms. Bergen said. "This is not the Liberals' House of Commons, this is the members' House of Commons."

On Wednesday, Mr. Trudeau said his government was simply consulting with the opposition on plans to make the House a more family-friendly place of work for MPs. Faced with angry heckling from the opposition benches, Mr. Trudeau said the current atmosphere was becoming an embarrassment.

"I wonder about the schoolchildren in the gallery who are wondering how effective this Parliament actually is right now. We are proposing a way to discuss how to improve the quality of debate and allow the government to be held to account in a thoughtful, responsible way – and this kind of shouting is what they get. That is not worthy of this Parliament. It is not worthy of the people they serve," Mr. Trudeau said.

Ms. Chagger unveiled the proposed changes in early March, arguing it was time to recalibrate the balance of power between the government's duty to pass legislation and the opposition's right to be heard.

The proposals include changes to the daily Question Period, such as setting aside one day a week for the Prime Minister to answer questions, as is the case in Britain, and ending Friday sittings. Ms. Chagger added that the Prime Minister could also attend other Question Periods during the week.

She suggested that, in lieu of Friday sittings, the House of Commons could add more sitting days in January, June and September or start its workday at 9 a.m. instead of 10.

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Concern from the opposition focused on changes that would limit the ability of opposition MPs to delay legislation in the House or in committee with long speeches known as filibusters. One Liberal proposal would limit speeches in committee to 10 minutes.

Rona Ambrose, Tom Mulcair slam federal budget (The Canadian Press)
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