OTTAWA — Conservative MPs railed against the Liberal government's decision to cut off debate on its election bill this week — mirroring the same criticisms the Grits levied against the Tories when they used the same procedural tactic four years ago.
"Whatever the Liberals said about the Conservative government trampling democracy would be true in the same measure of the Liberals now in power," Conservative MP Scott Reid told the Commons Tuesday.
In 2014, when Parliament was grappling with the Tories' Fair Elections Act, it was the Liberals who were enraged by the government's daring to invoke time allocation on a bill dealing with the exercise of Canadian democracy.
Winnipeg North MP Kevin Lamoureux declared he was offended by the "majority Conservative government" staving off debate on legislation that was going to profoundly affect federal elections.
"They brought in time allocation to prevent members from being able to speak on that piece of legislation," he declared in February, 2014. "It is being forced through after only a couple of days of debate, which is somewhat shameful in itself."
This week, it was the Tories' turn to show their indignation with heavy-handed Liberal tactics.
Conservative democratic institutions critic Blake Richards noted that the Liberals had given notice of plans to shut off debate after only an hour of debate. (Truth is, it was closer to 90 minutes, occuring on the second day reserved for discussions, but his point remains).
After less than four hours of debate, the Liberals moved to shut down the list of speakers and vote to sent the bill to committee. In 2014, the Tories had allowed closer to nine hours of discussion before speeches were ended.
"I do not know if there is any legislation that could be more significant," Richards declared Thursday. "If the Liberals actually respected Canadians, they would let this legislation receive proper debate."
On Wednesday, Richards noted how, in 2014, when the Liberals were frustrated with the Tories' use of time allocation on the Fair Elections Act, the Grits had tried to introduce a motion saying the tactic should never be used on bills involving the Canada Elections Act.
"I hope every member of this House will agree with us that closure and, specifically, time allocation would be set aside because of something of this importance," Richards said in the Commons, quoting the words Liberal MP Scott Simms had used at the time.
If the Liberals actually respected Canadians, they would let this legislation receive proper debate.Blake Richards
Now, Richards suggested, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is showing his "hypocrisy."
"Broken Liberal promises," he said. "Canadians clearly cannot trust the prime minister."
Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould, who returned Tuesday from a three-month maternity leave, came out swinging, saying she and the government would "take no lessons" from the Conservatives on democracy.
"That is ... the party that had to pay $250,000 in fines for breaking electoral laws," she said. "[It was also the party who] used robocalls to send people to the wrong polls, and the parliamentary secretary to the prime minister went to jail."
When Tory MP John Brassard suggested Gould was "another ventriloquist act" for Trudeau's chief adviser, Gerry Butts, "to perform with," she lashed back: "As a woman in politics, I take umbrage with the fact that he is saying I am not speaking on behalf of myself and behalf of the government. That is unbelievable."
The Conservatives are keen to keep discussion going on Bill C-76, the Elections Modernization Act. They feel the bill gives the Liberals an unfair financial advantage by preventing political parties from spending more than $1.5 million on partisan ads in the lead-up to an election campaign, while cabinet ministers remain free to criss-cross the country making federal spending announcements without any restrictions.
The NDP, which supported fast-tracking the bill to committee, wants assurances that the Liberals won't push forward with the bill without multiparty support — something the previous Conservative bill lacked.
"The way Canadians vote is sacred and a foundation of our democracy," NDP democratic reform critic Nathan Cullen said Thursday in question period. "It is not a right or a left issue. It is right and wrong, and it was wrong when Stephen Harper forced the "unfair elections act" through Parliament, and it is wrong when the Liberals do the exact same thing."
But Gould was noncommittal. She did not extend an olive branch to opposition MPs by asking for their support or their amendments. Rather, she said she was "looking forward to members opposite asking questions of witnesses" during its committee study.
The Tories and the NDP have both raised concerns the Liberals will rush through their Election Act changes — a 352-page bill — in order to ensure that they come into effect for the 2019 campaign. The acting chief electoral officer warned MPs earlier this year that he would have liked to have the whole bill passed before the start of this month, although Stéphane Perrault has since suggested Elections Canada will implement the bill whenever it comes.
Mark Kennedy, Liberal House Leader Bardish Chagger's director of communications, told HuffPost Canada Thursday that time allocation was used only because no agreement could be reached with the opposition parties on the number of days they wanted to debate.
"We tried. But without that co-operation, we had a responsibility to move the bill forward to committee – where it can be studied further," he said. "We had no choice but to use the limited tools at our disposal to do this."
Chagger has suggested that in-depth study of the legislation isn't necessary, since 85 per cent of the bill is based on recommendations from previous chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand that MPs have already spent dozens of hours studying and debating.
She told the Canadian Press Wednesday that she'd like "ideally" to have the whole bill passed into law before MPs go home for the summer break at the end of June.
The government will have a chance to explain its reasoning when Gould appears before the the Procedure and House Affairs Committee on Monday. Her department officials and Perrault are also expected to testify.