This year’s election produced nearly the same Parliament, with the same parties holding roughly the same number of seats. But it is also forcing the Liberal government into compromises with Parliament.
Last spring, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government was stalling for time as it fended off opposition demands for the release of secret documents relating to the firing of scientists at a high-security microbiology lab.
They insisted that hundreds of pages had to be withheld for national security reasons, while opposition MPs demanded the Commons law clerk be the judge of that. In the end, the government stalled long enough – until Parliament was dissolved.
But now that the Liberals are back with pretty much the same minority government, they face the revival of those demands. This time, they are offering to compromise.
On Friday, Liberal House Leader Mark Holland proposed the creation of an all-party committee of MPs, all sworn to secrecy, which would pore through the documents and decide what can be released, with a group of three former judges tasked to adjudicate any disputes.
The Conservatives, Bloc Québécois and NDP haven’t yet said if they will accept the plan. But the government proposal itself marks a change.
Where once the government fenced with the opposition majority in Parliament, rebuffing requests, stalling for time and sometimes threatening an election, they are now forced to offer compromise.
The inconclusive 2021 election has done one thing: It has taken away some of the Liberals’ tools for stymieing Parliament.
The Liberals can’t wield the ultimate weapon that minority government has when opposition parties band together to make uncomfortable demands – that is, threatening an election that one or more of those parties wants to avoid.
This year’s election sent one main message: that the Liberal government should never have called it. They can’t pull the plug on this Parliament for a few years, at least. That makes stalling for time pretty tough, too.
For now, there is no sign that weaker hand is hindering the Liberals’ policy agenda. They can stickhandle legislation through the House of Commons, looking for support from one party or another – usually the NDP.
But the Liberals are now in a weaker position in managing Parliament, and that can give MPs more power to scrutinize the government’s actions. And they won’t be reassured that the Speaker of the House of Commons, Liberal MP Anthony Rota, has ruled against them on some key decisions.
New Democrat MP Heather McPherson complained last week that Mr. Trudeau’s Liberal government often treats the House as an inconvenience – and that’s not wrong.
Minority Parliaments, at least Canadian ones in the 21st century, are not places for co-operation. Minority governments have filibustered committees and rejected or ignored orders from the House. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives repeatedly rejected to summon ministers’ political aides to testify before parliamentary committees – just as Mr. Trudeau’s government has.
Now the demand for records that could shed light on why Ottawa expelled and then fired Xiangguo Qiu and her husband, Keding Cheng, from Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, could see the House reassert its theoretical supremacy.
What is not yet clear is whether it will seek to do so through compromise or confrontation.
The proposal offered by Mr. Holland last week is similar to the one struck by Mr. Harper’s Conservatives after his government was taken to task by then-Speaker of the Commons Peter Milliken for refusing to release documents about the Canadian military’s treatment of Afghan detainees.
Mr. Milliken had ruled that Parliament’s privilege was supreme, and its demand for the records could not be refused – but he also encouraged a compromise to accommodate the government’s legitimate responsibility to protect national security.
It is not clear yet if opposition parties will be willing to make a similar compromise this time. Some MPs don’t like the idea that, under Mr. Holland’s proposal, it would be judges, not parliamentarians, who would decide what information can be released to the public – but the government will want some kind of guarantee that MPs cannot act irresponsibly.
Either way, Mr. Trudeau’s government has already come out of the 2021 election with less power to stymie Parliament, and it has to give some ground.
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