OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is acting like a Chinese dictator, the Conservatives suggested Tuesday as the opposition continued to fight back against Liberal attempts to curb debate and filibusters in the House.
The prime minister is trying to change the rules of the Commons to fit his schedule and strip the opposition of its power to hold him accountable, interim leader Rona Ambrose charged.
Justin Trudeau answers a question during Question Period on March 21. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
“If he gets away with this, he will only have to show up to work once a week,” she said. “We know that the prime minister says China is a dictatorship that he admires, and he certainly had a bizarre infatuation with [late Cuban president] Fidel Castro. Can the prime minister at at least agree that he, the Prime Minister of Canada, should be accountable to the House of Commons and to Canadians more than once a week?”
Trudeau shot back that he is willing to be in the House “as often as is necessary to answer questions from members of the opposition.
“Unlike the previous governments, we have an excellent front bench of ministers who are also able to answer questions about their own actions and their own responsibilities” he said.
Rona Ambrose speaks to reporters in the foyer of the House of Commons on March 21. (Photo:Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
The government is open to “all sorts of suggestions” to improve the functioning of Parliament because “we know that Canadians expect a modern workplace out of this place so we can better serve them,” Trudeau added.
“Modern, Mr. Speaker?,” Ambrose retorted. “Efficient? Efficient like the Chinese dictatorship that he thinks is so efficient?,” Ambrose responded, to boos from the Liberal benches. “Mr. Speaker, we don’t live in China — those are his words, those are his words, Mr. Speaker. We do not live in China or Cuba. We live in Canada, and we have a parliamentary democracy here. We think the prime minister should show up every day.
“Here is a thought: We could have question period with the prime minister every day, he could answer all of our questions every single day,” she said, to Tory cheers.
"We live in Canada, and we have a parliamentary democracy here. We think the prime minister should show up every day."
NDP democratic reform critic Nathan Cullen accused Trudeau of behaving in a manner that even Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper wouldn’t have dared.
“It was Stephen Harper who broke the record for shutting down debate in Parliament; yet in his darkest dreams, he never tried to stifle the voices of the opposition the way the Liberals are trying to do right now,” Cullen said.
“Newsflash: This House does not belong to the Liberal Party. It belongs to all Canadians.”
Eleven days ago, the Liberals released a discussion paper that they said was aimed at stimulating conversation at the Commons’ procedure and house affairs committee. That committee is currently studying ways the rules could be changed based on suggestions from MPs of all parties raised last fall.
Nathan Cullen speaks during Question Period on Feb.23. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
Few of the changes the Liberal government want were brought up by the MPs themselves.
On Tuesday, at the procedure committee, Liberal MP Scott Simms tried to introduce a motion to ensure that the reforms the government wants adopted are studied and reported back to the House by June 2, where the majority Grit MPs could accept them.
Among the changes, the Liberals want are to:
- eliminate Friday sittings — or to make them a full day rather than the current half day; set only one day aside each week for the prime minister to answer questions during question period;
- lengthen the time the government can take to answer MPs’ written questions to 65 days from 45 days;
- prevent opposition members from filibustering by bringing forward debatable motions;
- prevent filibusters and possibly shorten debate time on government bills by having pre-set times to discuss and pass legislation through in the House;
- allow omnibus bills to be debated and studied (despite a Liberal promise to the contrary) but hold separate votes on the unrelated subjects included in the bills;
- allow parliamentary secretaries to take on a greater role at committee;
- prevent filibusters at committee through a 10-minute speech limit;
- introduce electronic voting in the Commons;
- allow more time to debate private members’ business.
But the opposition refused to hand over their rights without a fight. In committee, Conservative MP Scott Reid led a filibuster that lasted at least six hours and seemed to be heading into the night as the Liberals, who hold a majority on the committee, refused to give consent to adjourn the meeting without holding a vote on the motion.
Reid said the Liberals were going to ram through “whatever the fuck they want,” then quickly apologized for his language.
The heated debate at committee and on the floor the Commons illustrates the stakes on both sides.
The Trudeau government is having difficulty pushing its agenda through the Commons without invoking time allocation measures that are unpopular with the opposition and scorned by the media. A Huffington Post Canada analysis found last September that the government was one of the least productive in decades, based on bills passed in Parliament.
Justin Trudeau speaks during Question Period on March 21. (Photo: Chris Wattie/Reuters)
Last spring, when the Liberals first tried to curb the opposition’s ability to filibuster, the Conservatives, NDP, Green and Bloc Québécois banded together to denounce the changes. The government backed down.
This time, the Liberals seem less willing to throw in the towel.
Bardish Chagger, the leader of the government in the House of Commons, tried to deflect the heat away from the prime minister saying it was she who had released the discussion paper, while standing firm on its proposals.
“This government recognizes that members of Parliament do work in this place as well as in their ridings,” she said in defense of scrapping Friday sittings.
"Now, once again, he does not want to be here answering questions, so the Liberals are trying to force these changes on this House."
“I know it is very difficult for the member opposite to understand, but our objective has always been to ensure that Parliament is relevant to Canadians and that the House becomes accountable, predictable, efficient, and transparent. I know we can work better in this place.”
The Tories’ house leader, Candice Bergen, was having none of it. “We all saw the prime minister try to elbow his way in this House last year, trying to get his way. That was not a pretty sight. Now, once again, he does not want to be here answering questions, so the Liberals are trying to force these changes on this House,” she said.
Conservative MP Mark Strahl tried to appeal to backbench Liberal MPs.
Members of Parliament are just temporary occupants of these seats in the House of Commons, he said. “They do not belong to us. They belong to Canadians. They do not belong to political parties or the prime minister.
“When will backbench Liberal MPs stand up to the Prime Minister and defend the right of all members of Parliament to hold the government accountable?,” he asked.