Peter Van Loan makes no excuses for his Conservative government’s unprecedented efforts to fast track legislation — and its steadfast refusal to accept any opposition amendments.
In a year-end interview with The Huffington Post, the man who is charged with pushing the Tories’ legislation through Parliament untouched, defended the government’s actions on the grounds that they are in Canada’s best interest.
During the last election campaign, the Tories sought a “clear mandate to do certain things,” Van Loan, the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons, said.
What they’ve pushed so far: 30 new MPs at an annual cost of $19.3 million to give “fairer” representation to faster growing provinces, an end to the Canadian Wheat Board’s monopoly and a budget implementation bill — which ends per-vote public subsidies to political parties.
While opposition parties have labelled the Tories “undemocratic” for trying to curb debate by restricting how much time is spent discussing a bill, Van Loan said the opposition should get a say but at some point the government needs to force a vote.
“We use time allocations as a way that we ensure there is adequate debate but at the same time that there is a decision point, that we actually take votes,” he said. “We had 117 speeches on (the Budget Implementation Act). I think by the time you are into speech number 65 or so, maybe not a lot new is being said.”
Not only have many Conservative Government’s bills received heavy criticism, many of their decisions — a willingness to legislate striking employees back to work, Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto climate agreement and the announcement of a controversial and un-negotiated health care funding formula just before Christmas — have also been contentious.
NDP MP Olivia Chow believes the Tories jam-packed the fall agenda, pushing bills through the Commons at unprecedented speeds so voters wouldn’t remember them when the next election comes around in 2015.
“The Conservative Government is hoping that they’ll do it fast enough that Canadians won’t remember and they know, they are afraid, that if there are real debates on the issues, that Canadians will rise up and speak out against it dramatically,” she told HuffPost.
Van Loan, however, dismissed that notion, saying he hopes Canadians “will remember” that the Conservatives gave Western farmers “freedom” and note the Government’s efforts to eliminate the long gun registry.
‘When I am in my riding, I don’t have anybody telling me that we are working too quickly or that we are working too hard, or delivering too much legislation too fast,” he said.
Opposition parties have also complained the Tories are mechanically voting down every one of their amendments without paying attention to the substance.
In a much discussed incident this fall, the Tories refused to accept amendments to their crime bill from Liberal MP and legal scholar Irwin Cotler, only to later try — unsuccessfully — to re-introduce nearly identical amendments themselves. Cotler had sought to make it easier for victims of terrorism and their families to successfully sue the perpetrators.
Van Loan refused to say during the interview whether he thinks it is possible for an opposition party to have a good idea. He acknowledged, however, that the government had not accepted one amendment from the opposition.
That’s because, he said, some of the government’s legislation had been discussed in preceding Parliaments and the bills currently before this Parliament had been changed to reflect debate that occurred in “previous years.”
The crime bill, for example, Van Loan said, is an amalgamation of ten bills, some of which were debated in the House of Commons by the MPs who were there five years ago.
“You are measuring from this Parliament with bills that extend back five years or more. So, in fact, if you compare those bills, as they were introduced five years ago in many cases, you’ll see that the bills, as they are reflected right now, do have a lot of changes and that does reflect suggestions, including suggestions from the opposition,” he told HuffPost.
Still, Van Loan said, the government will “continue to seek suggestions.”
“That’s why we do have debate, that’s why we do have adequate committee hearings to allow that to happen,” he added.
Some of the opposition amendments, he pointed out, have not been attempts to better legislation but rather nullify bills entirely.
“(There are) amendments that involve repealing the entire bill or gutting entire sections of it, effectively rendering it useless … I don’t think any of those are constructive amendments and I don’t think we should be accepting those kinds of amendments,” Van Loan said.
Van Loan conceded the government hit an unpopular note with legislation that added 30 new MPs to the Commons at the next election in 2015.
“That is a legitimate concern, but I think when you talk about the issue with people they also recognize that there are certain things that we can do legislatively, and then there are constitutional guarantees for the smaller provinces, so there is a recognition that the only way to achieve fairness in the system, to move closer to representation by population for every province, is to proceed the way that we are proceeding,” Van Loan said.
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VAN LOAN TALKS ABOUT SEAT REDISTRIBUTION BILL
He dismissed the Liberals’ suggestion — capping the number of seats at 308 and redistributing them from smaller provinces to faster growing provinces — saying it would create tensions with the provinces that would lose seats, such as Quebec, Manitoba and Nova Scotia.
Van Loan also defended the Conservative Party’s misleading tactics in a voter identification strategy in Cotler’s riding.
A research firm hired by the Conservatives called voters and told them Cotler was about to retire and that a by-election would soon take place. No by-election is scheduled. Van Loan has defended the tactics on the grounds that they are a freedom of speech issue.
Speaker Andrew Scheer’s ruling on the callsfailed to punish the Conservative Party saying that was beyond the scope of his mandate.
Van Loan said that was the precise point he was trying to make. It “would be an overreach of (the Speaker) to get into the business of regulating political discussion, by parties or anybody,” he said.
After a poisonous fall sitting, the “strong, stable, national, majority Conservative government” seems to have created more tensions in the Commons than it has helped to quash.
Despite Prime Minister Stephen Harper's assertion on election night that his government is “intensely aware” that it was, and has to be, “the government of all Canadians, including those who did not vote for us,” those who didn’t check Conservative on the ballot box have been given few signs Harper is following through on his pledge.
Pointing to polls, Van Loan suggested the government is on the right track and is reaching out to non-Tory voters “every single day” by making decisions that are in the best interest of Canada.
“Our decisions are based … not on what is based on the interest of a particular company or a particular narrow union interest, it is based on what is best for Canada’s interest and Canada’s economy,” he said.