OTTAWA - Opposition parties accuse the Harper government of stooping to a petty, new low in the muzzling of dissent.
They say the government is using its power to minimize the impact of opposition days — the rare occasions when Liberals and New Democrats get to set the parliamentary agenda, debating motions on any subject of their choosing.
They maintain the government is punishing parties that offend the ruling Conservatives by scheduling opposition days for times when they're least likely to be noticed.
A case in point: the Liberals' next opposition day has been scheduled for May 18 — a Friday before a long weekend and a break-week for Parliament, when there will be only two hours for debate and few MPs in the House of Commons.
Liberals say government House leader Peter Van Loan told his Liberal counterpart, Marc Garneau, that the less-than-optimal timing was deliberate, payback for the Liberals using their last opposition day to hammer the government over the impact of budget cuts on food safety.
What apparently sparked Van Loan's ire was that Liberals had compared the cuts to those made by the former Conservative government of Mike Harris in Ontario, which they linked to the deadly E. coli outbreak in Walkerton. Liberals helpfully pointed out that a number of senior ministers in the Harper government were also members of the Harris cabinet, including Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.
"That 'went too far' and so wings had to be clipped," interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae wrote Friday in a blog post, recounting Van Loan's explanation for the timing of the Liberals' next opposition day.
Rae cited the incident as one of many examples that Canadians are "now living in a democracy with dictatorial tendencies."
Garneau wouldn't discuss what Van Loan said to him, citing the confidentiality of House leaders' meetings. But he did say he believes the choice of May 18 for the party's next opposition day was deliberate.
"I think there's a message being sent," Garneau said.
And the message is: "Behave yourself. (If not,) they have some ways of making things difficult."
As the NDP discovered this week when it was apparently penalized for tying the Commons in procedural knots in a bid to compel the government to split up its massive, omnibus budget implementation bill into manageable chunks.
The NDP had been scheduled to have an opposition day on Thursday but that was abruptly cancelled and shifted to next Wednesday. Wednesdays, like Fridays, are short parliamentary days that allow for only two hours of debate.
"Did they give us a short day as a punishment? Whatever. You now, they're in the bubble," shrugged NDP House leader Nathan Cullen.
"They can punish away. OK. What were we trying to do? We were trying to be accountable to Canadians. So, who had a good week, who had a bad week is always the question at the end of these kinds of things."
In Cullen's opinion, "punishing us doesn't make them look strong; it makes them look weak," as though the government is afraid of open debate on its own policies.
Scheduling of opposition days has always been open to manipulation, particularly in minority situations when the government wants to avoid potential confidence motions that could force an election.
But being punitive about the timing is a spiteful new low, in opposition parties' view.
"If this is what the government is doing it's completely childish," said Cullen.
Garneau said the Harper government seems to be operating as though it was still a minority, "where it feels it has to carry out guerrilla-style combat against everything they encounter that they don't like."
Van Loan did not directly respond to the opposition allegations that he's using the timing of opposition days to punish the NDP and Liberals. But he made no apologies for the scheduling.
"Our top priority remains implementing our budget and passing the Jobs and Growth and Long-term Prosperity Act," Van Loan said in an email.
"Our government schedules items for debate to allow us to achieve our clear objectives. The rules for allotting opposition days are outlined in the standing orders."