Legislative backlog prompts move to midnight sittings of Commons
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OTTAWA — Members of Parliament will be burning the midnight oil next month as the Trudeau government rushes to pass a sheaf of bills before the summer break.
Government House leader Bardish Chagger served notice Thursday of a motion to extend daily sitting hours for the House of Commons until midnight, starting the week of May 29, when Parliament resumes after a one-week break, and continuing until June 23.
The move comes amid criticism that, as of Thursday, the Liberals have passed only 19 government bills since taking power in November 2015 — a skimpy legislative record compared to the 42 bills passed into law during the first 19 months of Stephen Harper's majority Conservative regime.
Of the 53 bills Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberals have introduced, 15 of them have languished for months — up to a year or more in a couple of cases — without proceeding beyond the formality of first reading.
That includes a vaunted bill to repeal controversial provisions of the Conservatives' Fair Elections Act and another bill to end the discriminatory impact of the Criminal Code on same-sex sexual activity, both of which were introduced six months ago but have gone nowhere since.
Liberals blame the glacial pace on a number of factors, including procedural machinations employed by the Conservatives to thwart the government's legislative agenda and a more independent, activist Senate that has amended five bills and returned them to the Commons for reconsideration.
By Liberal calculations, procedural tricks have eaten up 36 hours of precious Commons sitting time since January, which amounts to a full week out of the 11 weeks the chamber has sat so far this year.
Most of the current week has been lost to reconsideration of Senate-amended bills.
But Conservatives and New Democrats say the government has only itself to blame, having poisoned relations in the Commons by proposing in March to unilaterally change the way the House and its committees operate, without consensus among opposition parties.
Combined with Trudeau's "non-answers" in question period and what the Opposition sees as his lack of respect for Parliament, "all of that together creates a toxic atmosphere," Conservative House leader Candice Bergen said in an interview.
"It's very typical of the Liberals to blame others for their problems instead of taking responsibility," she added.
NDP House leader Murray Rankin agreed that the Liberals "just haven't figured out how to work with opposition parties."
"They've poisoned the well with this procedural so-called discussion paper a while back . . . Now when it comes to bringing in legislation, there's not a lot of goodwill left. That's the problem."
As for the Senate, Rankin noted that Trudeau was the one who reformed the appointment process to encourage a more independent upper house.
"It's not our fault the Senate is giving them heartburn."
For her part, Chagger said she has no problem with the Senate doing its job to provide sober second thought to government legislation and recommending improvements.
"To me, it's really quality (of legislation) over quantity," she said in an interview.
That said, the government is now determined to increase the quantity. And that will mean invoking time allocation a lot more often to limit debate and speed the passage of bills.
By Liberal calculations, the government has so far used time allocation just 14 times on nine bills (sometimes more than once on the same bill, at different stages in the legislative process) as it nears the mid-point of its mandate. By contrast, the Harper government used time allocation 91 times on 56 bills during its last four years in office.
Until now, Chagger said the Liberals have been willing to allot more time for "meaningful" debate, accepting that it would slow down the legislative agenda. But those days are over now that the other parties have refused to even consider proposals to find a better balance between the opposition's need to hold the government to account and the government's need to deliver on its agenda.
Chagger's discussion paper triggered an opposition filibuster for several weeks. But Liberals note that even after she agreed to drop the most contentious proposals, the Conservatives have continued to employ procedural tricks to block government business.
Until recently, Peter Harder, the government's representative in the Senate, said similar tactics were used by Conservative senators to hold up some legislation for months.
"I think there are times when you see some co-ordination between the two chambers," he said.
However, Harder said that seems to have changed over the last couple of weeks, with the Senate finally making "significant progress" in passing legislation.