06/11/2012 06:09 EDT | Updated 08/11/2012 05:12 EDT

Omnibus Budget Bill: C-38 Amendment Votes Pose Practical Problems For MPs


OTTAWA - No diaper jokes, please, we're parliamentarians.

MPs from all parties are steeling themselves for potential back-to-back all-nighters this week in the House of Commons as the Conservative government forces through its massive budget bill against the determined efforts of the minority opposition.

With up to 159 separate votes scheduled on unfriendly amendments to the budget implementation act, elected representatives will be rising and sitting for a least 24 consecutive hours, and quite possibly longer.

"It'll be two overnights, two sleepovers in a row ... which will be fun to observe," Bob Rae, the 63-year-old Liberal interim leader, said Monday.

"We've absolutely packed our jammies and pillows," said NDP House leader Nathan Cullen.

Veterans of such affairs said watching your water intake is critical, as bathroom breaks can be highly problematic. Just don't suggest anyone strap on some support in case nature gets overly demanding.

"I am not making a statement on that!" said veteran Nova Scotia Tory Gerald Keddy, laughing.

There's a certain mystique around politicians being forced to sit through the night in the exercise of democracy.

Think of the 1939 classic "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," in which a young congressman played by Jimmy Stewart takes over Congress to fight political corruption. Stewart pulls a thermos and two apples from his jacket pocket while panicked reporters race to send the news —"Filibuster!" — and applauding galleries of spectators settle in to follow Stewart's every utterance.

Alas, reality includes no such drama.

The Commons was mostly empty Monday when Speaker Andrew Scheer delivered his ruling on 871 opposition amendments, packaging and paring the list down to no less than 67 votes and no more than 159.

The fewer than three dozen MPs in attendance (out of 308 seats) showed no immediate reaction at all to the precedent-setting ruling, and just four reporters were in the gallery.

Veterans of parliamentary filibusters and extended all-night votes offered some practical tips, none hinting at glamour.

"You've just got to be able to freshen up a little: toothbrush, toothpaste," said Keddy.

"Undo the top button and just hunker down! That's all you can do."

Jason Kenney, the immigration minister first elected to the Commons in 1997, gave three quick pointers: "Don't drink too much before hand. Maybe slightly looser clothing. And bring a lot of work."

Keeping hydrated is a key to wakefulness, "but you can't get up for the washroom," Kenney lamented.

He also recalled a learning experience from 1999, when votes on the Nisga'a treaty consumed three straight days of parliamentary time.

"I actually got one of those airplane neck pillows out so I recline during the all-night votes, and that ended up on the front pages of newspapers," said Kenney. "So I'll be sure not to do that again."

Andrew Cash, a rookie New Democrat MP, said he got a dry run of this week's voting marathon last June during an extended filibuster on back-to-work legislation for Canada Post.

"I'm sure Charlie (Angus) and I are going to break out the guitars at some point," Cash, a career musician, said of his fellow musician caucus-mate.

As for staying nourished, "some of that is a bit of a mystery to us right now," Cash admitted.

Treasury Board President Tony Clement said he prepared by getting a couple of hours of extra sleep Sunday night, "but I think I can do my job responsibly without falling flat on my face on my desk."

Clement, a big music fan, doesn't have any troubadours in caucus and says it would be bad form to take his iPod into the House.

"I'll just have to hum the songs instead," he joked.

Observers should note that the votes on amendments to a budget implementation bill are not confidence matters, according to expert Ned Franks of Queen's University.

That means the Conservative government won't fall should it mess up and lose a vote, although it would lose face.

That's what the exercise is all about: a parliamentary sparring match the opposition is destined to lose but which shows they take their roles and responsibilities seriously.

"Part of the idea here is to make these guys wish they had different jobs," said Cash. "We want to make this difficult, because this is not how Canadians expect Parliament to operate.

"They're expecting us to blink on this and we're not going to."

The sound-and-light show scheduled for Monday through Wednesday on Parliament Hill was cancelled so as not to disturb late-night sessions of the Commons.

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