Parliamentary protest of Tory budget goes on
House of Commons speaker Andrew Scheer delivers his ruling on amendments to the budget bill in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Monday, June 11, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
OTTAWA - The parliamentary show of protest over the Conservative government's controversial budget bill will go on, the Speaker of the House of Commons declared Monday — a decision opposition critics hailed as the opening act of a great democratic drama.
The Tories, however, denounced the spectacle as a political farce.
Speaker Andrew Scheer agreed to allow voting on most of more than 800 proposed amendments to Bill C-38, the government's so-called omnibus bill, setting the stage for a marathon voting session of 24 hours or more that could begin as early as Tuesday.
What's more likely, however, is that the government will move to curtail the debate on the bill — a debate that's currently underway in the Commons — in order to set the stage for voting on the amendments to start Wednesday.
By grouping the motions together, Scheer did save MPs some measure of time by restricting the number of votes on the amendments to the bill, which weighs in at more than 400 pages and changes some 70 laws, including environmental regulation, social programs and tax laws.
"I have made every effort to respect both the wishes of the House and my responsibility to organize the consideration of report stage motions in a fair and balanced manner, " Scheer told the House as he spelled out his ruling.
The opposition initially proposed more than 1,000 amendments, and a vote on all of them would have paralyzed the House for weeks. Scheer's ruling established that the motions would require no fewer than 67 votes and no more than 159 — at a rate of roughly four or five votes an hour, a far less onerous workload.
"The Speaker was put into what I would consider an almost impossible situation," said NDP House leader Nathan Cullen.
"His ruling will confirm, though, that the opposition still does have some tools to hold government to account, that the government's not going to get away with this one easily, that they are going to have to pack their jammies as well."
The Conservatives had been hopeful that Scheer would throw out the amendments on the grounds they were intended purely to hold up parliamentary proceedings.
But they too were prepared for the fight.
"It's the opposition parties that are playing political games, playing games with process and making things look a little bit silly up here for our purposes as a government," said Tory House leader Peter Van Loan.
"We're providing a hard working, productive and orderly approach to getting our legislation through."
The use of a budget implementation bill to make such widespread legislative changes was the focus of a separate motion by Green party Leader Elizabeth May, who had asked the Speaker to rule the entire bill out of order.
But the structure of Bill C-38 itself falls within the bounds of correct parliamentary procedure, Scheer said.
May called that pronouncement an "unfortunate decision" that does nothing to prevent future omnibus bills from abusing parliamentary procedure.
It is a problem the House is going to need to tackle down the road, said interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae.
"It's something that clearly means we're going to have to change the way Parliament does business," Rae said.
"If we can't succeed in doing that under this government, we'll have to succeed in doing it under a government in the future."
But Rae said the Liberals are ready to deal with the consequences of this bill.
"We're going to be there and we're going to be there in large numbers to protest what's going on," he said.
"We'll stay with it as long as its required."
Given the Conservative majority, there is no doubt the budget bill will eventually pass.
The New Democrats have styled the fight as one that could end in the government being brought down in a vote of no-confidence, arguing that the votes are on a budget bill and therefore a confidence motion.
Parliamentary expert Ned Franks doused those hopes.
"Budget implementation bills are not, by their nature, automatically matters of confidence," he said.
House leaders were set to meet Tuesday to sort out the week ahead; the Liberals have already floated the possibility of a last-minute compromise to stave off the all-nighters.
In exchange for dropping some of their amendments, the Liberals are asking the government to pull items relating to fisheries, environmental assessment, EI and old age security and introduce them as separate bills.
But the Conservatives have signalled no willingness to make the change.
The Tories did move Monday to extend daily sessions of the Commons until midnight until the House rises on June 22, in order to get other pieces of legislation moving forward before the summer break.
Those bills include changes to copyright laws and free trade agreements with Panama and Jordan, but the Opposition expressed worry that there could be some other unknown bills coming down the pipeline.
Given that votes on the budget may only take up 24 consecutive hours, the other pieces of pending legislation shouldn't eat up all the other time, suggested Cullen. "They are going to ram through we don't know how many bills before this session rises."
Van Loan, however, said the government was booking the extra time merely as a precaution.
"If you make progress — and I anticipate progress — on those, you can rise a little bit earlier," he said. "The real objective is to get stuff passed."