Is the government silencing debate?

Ted Hsu
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Today is a very confusing day in the House. There are a lot of procedural shenanigans taking place, and I think it’s important to explain them because they show the way the House works (or, sometimes, doesn’t work!).

ted in house

Committees in the House

First, you need to understand the important role of committees. Committees have a very important role in the parliamentary process: after a bill is read, it’s studied by committee. Committees hold hearings on proposed legislation and can ask government officials and experts to answer questions about the proposed bill. The committee is also where bills can be amended or changed, based on the expert testimony and the close study of the bill. Bills then get reported back to the House, where all members are able to vote on the amended legislation.

Mr. Mayrand appears at Committee

Today the Chief Electoral Officer, Marc Mayrand, was scheduled to appear before the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs to discuss the controversial “Fair” Elections Act. Mr. Mayrand has been vocal in his opposition of the “Fair” Elections Act, which he says would disenfranchise voters, particularly Aboriginal peoples, youth, and seniors. I was looking forward to hearing from Mr. Mayrand, and I know many of my colleagues were as well, especially because he had not been consulted on the bill.

Mr. Maynard was slated to speak to the Procedure and House Affairs Committee for an hour and a half. But, this morning the Conservative government moved for time allocation twice.

Time allocation

Time allocation is a procedural rule that means that debate on legislation is cut short. Each bill put before parliament is debated in the House of Commons at second reading, report stage, and third reading. However, members can vote to use time allocation to curtail the debate. Steven Harper’s Conservative government has used time allocation over 50 times, more than any previous government, to limit debate on bills like C-45, the omnibus budget implementation bill; C-45, the not criminally responsible bill; and the Fair Elections Act.

The issue today was that when you call for time allocation, it is put to a vote. Everything stops in the House of Commons for a vote. Bells ring thirty minutes prior to the vote, and all parliamentary business stops so that all members can get to the House to vote, including committee business. Today, the government called for two votes for exactly when Mr. Mayrand was scheduled to be in front of the procedures committee. This would mean that almost his entire 90 minutes would be lost – the thirty minute bells would require the chair to suspend committee, unless there was unanimous consent to continue, and the votes take about 15 minutes, and then another bell would start signifying the next vote.

Fair Elections Act and the curtailment of democracy

Both opposition MPs and the media quickly realized what was going on. Parliamentary reporter Kady O’Malley sarcastically tweeted


She went on to explain


My Liberal colleague Kevin Lamoureux shared this opinion in the House, saying

Mr. Speaker, I say to the minister that this debate we are having right now is not about his bill. The debate is about the process and manner in which the government has once again decided to bring in a time-allocated bill and its motivation in doing so at this time.

At 11:00 this morning, we are supposed to have the Chief Electoral Officer make a presentation to the committee on an important piece of legislation. The minister made reference to the fair elections act, but it is more of the Conservative elections act. However, we are potentially putting at risk the comments from the Chief Electoral Officer in committee by a tactical move made today in regard to bringing in time allocation, which is important for us to recognize.

It is important for us to realize that ever since we have had this Conservative majority government, the Conservatives have a different attitude in terms of the way in which the House of Commons is run, and it is not very democratic. It is disgraceful.

My question to the minister and government House leader is: why do we see this change in attitude from a majority Conservative government that prevents members of Parliament from contributing in a healthy way, in a constructive way, to debate inside the House, which is what this motion is doing?

The motion is putting a finite number, which means that, one, a very limited number of MPs will be able to contribute to the debate; and two, the Conservatives are potentially putting at risk the Chief Electoral Officer’s ability to speak at committee, which is supposed to be starting within 45 minutes.

My question is: why?

“Why?” is also my question:

Why are we not allowed to have an open discussion about this important legislation?

Why are we not allowed to hear from the experts?

Why are we limiting debate on so many bills?

Why is shutting down parliamentary proceedings considered to be a normal part of the parliamentary process?

Bowing to intense scrutiny, the government allowed the procedure committee to extend its hours, so Mr. Mayrand could testify. You can read his testimony here. I would like to thank Mr. Mayrand for being so flexible and agreeing to stay much longer than originally scheduled. I know that his work is very important, and that he is very busy, and I appreciate him taking the time to speak to this important issue.

What do you think? Is the government trying to silence debate? Let me know on my facebook!