Electronic voting, no Friday sittings among proposed changes to Commons rules

Government proposes modernization of House

OTTAWA — The Trudeau government is suggesting a number of reforms to parliamentary rules which it says would make the operation of the House of Commons more accountable, predictable, efficient and transparent.

But opposition parties are already warning the proposed modernization will make it harder for them to hold the government to account.

Allowing MPs to vote electronically and doing away with Friday sittings are among the ideas floated in a discussion paper tabled by government House leader Bardish Chagger.

The paper also suggests setting aside special question periods in which MPs could direct all their queries to the prime minister, as is done in the U.K., and as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised during the 2015 election campaign.

The paper revives a number of other campaign promises, including proposals to limit the abuse of omnibus bills and prorogation of Parliament.

It also suggests a greater role for independent MPs on Commons committees and adoption of alternative approaches to managing the amount of time allowed for debate on bills without the government having to impose time allocation or closure.

Chagger is asking the procedure and House affairs committee to consider the ideas contained in the discussion paper. She is putting no time limit on the committee’s deliberations.

However, a Liberal member of the committee, Scott Simms, has given notice of a motion to have the committee report back on the paper by June 2.

The committee has already considered a number of the ideas in the past, but declined to act on them.

In a report just last June, it reported that it could find no consensus on eliminating Friday sittings, with some MPs in favour and others concerned that it would reduce the ability of opposition MPs to hold the government to account. It thus made no recommendation on the matter.

Similarly, it considered but made no recommendation on the idea of electronic voting.

Chagger did not directly respond when asked why she believes the committee will come to different conclusions this time.

“I know that there’s a better way and a more productive way that we could function in this place,” she said in an interview.

“As members of Parliament, we have a responsibility to work together to make this place more modern … I believe this conversation is long overdue.”

The discussion paper suggests that plans to move the Commons into Parliament Hill’s West Block next year while the Centre Block is under renovation creates “an excellent opportunity” to implement a pilot project using electronic voting.

It suggests that the time currently allotted for Friday sittings could be reapportioned to other days, including lost time for question period. Consideration could also be given to expanding the number of days the Commons sits each year, starting earlier in January, sitting later in June and starting earlier in September.

The paper does not propose to prohibit prorogation of Parliament as a way to avoid “politically difficult situations” — such as former prime minister Stephen Harper’s 2008 decision to prorogue to avoid a confidence vote. It suggests rather that the government could be required, upon Parliament’s return, to issue a report explaining its reasons for proroguing, with that report then subject to committee study and Commons debate.

Similarly, it does not suggest outright outlawing the use of omnibus bills, where dozens of unrelated legislative changes are crammed into one massive bill. Rather, it proposes giving the Commons Speaker the authority to allow separate votes on different sections of omnibus bills, which could also be sent for study to separate committees.

Likely the most contentious idea for opposition parties is a proposal to adopt a debate management practice similar to that used in the U.K., wherein a “programming motion” is introduced for each piece of legislation, allotting a specific number of days for committee study and debate at report stage and third reading.

At least one Conservative, leadership hopeful Pierre Lemieux, is already raising red flag about the discussion paper.

“We should always be cautious when the government says it will make the democratic process ‘more efficient,'” he said in an email message Friday to party members.

“These proposals have the potential to hurt the quality and amount of debate that takes place in Parliament.”

NDP House leader Murray Rankin called the proposals “a setback for Canadian democracy.”

“The Liberals are trying to make the business of governing more convenient for themselves at the expense of the opposition’s duty to hold them to account,” he said in a statement.

Joan Bryden , The Canadian Press

Canadian Press

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