HomePoliticsThe Liberals and Conservatives are sparring over Parliament's most precious resource: time

The Liberals and Conservatives are sparring over Parliament’s most precious resource: time

Political parties in Parliament often end up fighting about time – how it gets used, how much is needed and who has control over it.

Maybe there would be fewer fights if there was more time to go around.

The newest squabble concerns a government motion that would, among other things, allow the House of Commons to sit until midnight on some days (the House normally adjourns each day at 6:30 pm).

“We often see the reaction from the Conservatives when we try to say this legislation needs to pass — they will debate and debate and then argue for more debate time,” Kevin Lamoureux, parliamentary secretary to the government House leader, said Thursday.

“That is what this [motion] is doing, providing additional time so that members opposite will be able to debate.”

An extension of sitting hours is not uncommon. But it’s something that usually happens closer to the end of a spring sitting, when the government wants to complete some business before the House adjourns for the summer.

This motion also wouldn’t automatically extend sitting hours for the rest of the term. Instead, the government would be empowered to extend the hours on any given day, so long as it has the agreement of at least one other party.

It’s that element of ambiguity that Conservative House leader John Brassard objected to when it was his turn to speak on Thursday.

Conservative MP John Brassard questions the prime minister in the House of Commons on Wednesday, May 10, 2017. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

“Here is the scenario,” Brassard hypothesized. “The House is set to adjourn at 6:30 p.m. At 6:29 p.m., [the Liberals and New Democrats] are in cahoots, and they say that they want to extend the sitting until midnight.”

Brassard said he’s concerned about what this uncertainty would mean for the personal lives of MPs and administrative staff who would have to get used to the constant threat of suddenly having to work late.

Asked about this concern on Friday, a spokesperson for government House leader Mark Holland said “the government has no intention of using this motion at a moment’s notice to extend the sitting hours … We intend to announce in advance which days in a given week would have extended hours.”

There may be some parliamentary gamesmanship at play here. 

Legislation slows to a crawl

While the House moved quickly last fall to pass several measures, the Liberals now point to Bill C-8 — which implements measures contained in last fall’s economic update — as an example of Conservative intransigence. 

The bill, tabled just before the House adjourned in December, is still crawling toward a final vote in the House. At its current stage, it has been brought forward for debate seven times already but Conservative MPs keep rising to speak to it.

Technically, each MP is entitled to deliver a speech at each stage of debate. If an opposition party is intent on delaying a bill’s passage, it can keep sending its members up to deliver speeches. In the event that no member rises to speak, debate collapses and the bill being debated proceeds to a vote.

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland tables the federal budget in the House of Commons as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks on. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Even if the scenario Brassard imagines never came to pass, the government would still be in a position to create more time for an obstructionist opposition party to fill. That would not only put pressure on the opposition side — it could also bolster the government’s case for forcing an end to debate if the opposition persists.

In the House on Thursday, Brassard countered that if the government wants to advance C-8 it should use a procedure known as “time allocation” to impose a limit on debate. He alleged that the NDP is reluctant to support time allocation in this case.

During the four years when it had a majority, the previous Conservative government made frequent use of such tools to ensure debate came to an end at a prescribed time. The New Democrats, as the Official Opposition at the time, loudly objected

Into the fray drops another omnibus bill

The scarcity of parliamentary time might also help explain one of the other controversies that emerged during the Conservative government’s time in office — over the increasing size and complexity of omnibus budget bills. 

The tabling of another budget bill was the other significant development in the House this week.

The Liberals changed the rules of the House to require that budget bills only include items referenced in the budget document the finance minister tables each year. That should mean no surprises when the bill is tabled.

But the new rule doesn’t prevent the government from using budget bills as a convenient way to get some housecleaning done. The budget bill tabled on Thursday, for instance, includes legal changes to allow Canadian astronauts to participate in the Lunar Gateway space mission, among other things.

In a previous era, the House might have agreed to quickly pass such items as individual pieces of legislation. As noted in this space two weeks ago, the House used to pass a lot more bills than it does now.

But maybe there’d be fewer reasons to stuff things into budget bills — and less to fight about regarding sitting hours — if MPs simply spent more time in the House of Commons.

Would more sitting days help?

In 2018 — the last non-election and non-pandemic year — the House of Commons sat for 122 days. That’s in line with the average number of sitting days for the House in non-election years during the 2000s and 2010s.

But previous generations of MPs spent a lot more time in Ottawa.

Over the course of the 20th century, the number of sitting days per year gradually increased — from 87.9 days in the 1910s to 130.3 in the 1950s. During the 1960s, the House sat for an average of 176.7 days in non-election years. The 1970s were the second-most active decade, at 173.9 days per year.

The House slipped to 157.8 days per year in the 1980s — but then fell all the way to 127 days in the 1990s. (I am indebted to Ned Franks, the esteemed scholar of Canada’s Parliament, who drew attention to this trend a decade ago.)

MPs aren’t on vacation when they’re not in Ottawa — they also have constituency work to do. And they might fairly calculate that constituency work has more bearing on whether they get re-elected.

But if all parties broadly agree on the importance of having debates and getting things done, perhaps MPs should give themselves more time to do so.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

New updates