OTTAWA — A Liberal backbencher who hoped to change the rules of the House of Commons to give MPs more freedom failed to show up to debate his own bill this week, ensuring it won’t be voted on before politicians head off on the election trail.
Montreal Grit Frank Baylis told HuffPost Canada he made a mistake in his schedule and thought he had to be in the House for 5 p.m. Monday. Private members’ business is discussed Monday mornings at 11 a.m.. Baylis said his phone wasn’t working properly so he did not receive text messages alerting him that he was needed in the Commons.
“Needless to say that I am very upset with myself,” he told HuffPost. “I am beside myself right now.”
Baylis had worked for months with MPs across all parties to draft a comprehensive set of reforms. His bill sought to rejig hours of the Commons, to ban overnight voting, and to expand the time spent debating private members’ legislation so that every MP would be given a chance to introduce bills.
Bill seeks to give MPs more power
Baylis hoped to allow MPs to vote on committee chairs, taking power away from the prime minister and other party leaders, and to give the House Speaker the sole discretion to select who speaks during debates and in question period. He also proposed giving citizens the ability to request a debate in the House through a petition, if it garnered more than 70,000 names.
Speaking earlier this month to HuffPost Canada’s political podcast, “Follow-Up,” Baylis said he decided to propose changes to the way the Commons functions after arriving to Ottawa after the 2015 election, only to discover “how bad the behaviour is” and “how unproductive debates are.”
“I used to go around talking to people and if I talked to someone that was new, they were as shocked as I was,” he told “Follow-Up.” “The people that had been here the longest said, ‘Frank, it’s OK. It’s not that bad. It’s the way it is.’”
Baylis said he promised himself he would never accept nor acclimatize to the behaviour he saw. He recounted going around to his colleagues, begging for more civility but found he was “getting nowhere.”
Listen to “Follow-Up” on Baylis’ bill, Green fortunes
“There was no incentive for collaboration. There was more incentive for confrontation,” he said. “That’s when I realized fundamental change had to happen, if we were to get better debates, more civil debates, and become a more productive House of Commons.”
Baylis found support for some of his suggestions with other MPs.
Backbench MPs often feel frustrated under Canada’s system, said Ontario Conservative MP Scott Reid. Members often arrive from jobs were they held meaningful roles “and they’re a little surprised to discover how little autonomy they have when they get here,” he said.
Reid and his staff spent time researching some parts of Baylis’ bill that would have allowed more debate time in Parliament and a greater ability to pass legislation emanating directly from MPs.
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said she felt it would greatly benefit Parliament to do away with party-made lists for who is approved to speak.
Watch: Elizabeth May’s war on heckling
“Why should we be the only parliamentary democracy under the Westminster parliamentary system anywhere in the world where the Speaker has surrendered his or her ability to choose who speaks? … That’s a violation of our principles,” she said. “Better decorum in Parliament is something Canadians want.”
Quebec Liberal MP Greg Fergus said he felt Baylis’ bill strengthened parliamentary democracy and would “make it more attractive to bring in people from all diverse backgrounds.” He highlighted measures in the bill that made sitting hours “more reasonable” and changes that allowed MPs to “develop an expertise on committees.”
“I think what’s happening is that the public now are understanding that their Parliament isn’t working as well as it should,” said Hamilton NDP MP David Christopherson.
Christopherson doesn’t agree with everything in the bill but after 34 years in elected office in Canada, he thinks Parliament needs to give back some of the authority that was originally given to backbenchers and let them exercise that authority.
NDP MP hands Baylis a lifeline
While Baylis’ absenteeism means his bill won’t pass before the next election, Christopherson has handed him a lifeline. On Thursday, the Procedure and House Affairs committee will begin a study of his proposed changes to the standing orders, the rules of the House. He will have an hour and a half to talk about his suggestions.
The committee, however, won’t be able to recommend anything to the House unless there is unanimity among all party members — a measure proposed by Alberta Conservative MP Stephanie Kusie that makes it not impossible but unlikely any changes will be made.
Kusie told HuffPost she doesn’t believe the provision for unanimous consent was a way to ensure that there are no recommendations coming out of committee.
“I will say sincerely I’m not certain that the amount of time remaining allows for the critical and complete evaluations of the ideas recommended in the motion and I would say that regardless of my opinion being for or against the entire motion,” she said.
The House of Commons is scheduled to rise on June 21.
With files from Zi-Ann Lum