Ask Kady Anything: Filibusters, seating arrangements, and Senate shenanigans
Welcome, wanna-be wonks, to another edition of #AskKady!
First up, a question on the low-profile but high-stakes procedural skirmish currently in progress just outside the main political spotlight, starting with Liz the Wiz, who asks:
— Liz the Wiz (@lizwizCYLS) April 18, 2017
Oh, Liz, you have no idea how long I’ve been waiting for someone to ask me about PROC! (Okay, since the filibuster in question has been raging since March 21, approximately that long, I guess.)
For those of you not fluent in parliamentary shorthand, PROC (rhymes with “smock”) refers to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, which is responsible for, among other things, reviewing the rules and practices that govern the House of Commons and its creature committees.
As committee mandates go, that may sound (and, to be fair, often is) almost stultifyingly staid and civilized.
For the last month, however, PROC has been at the centre of a cross-aisle skirmish over a controversial government-backed proposal to radically rewrite the House rulebook, ostensibly in order to make it more “efficient,” which the Liberals seem poised to force through over the objections of the opposition parties, who see it as a not-so-subtle attempt to rig the system to make it easier to fast-track their legislative agenda through the parliamentary pipeline.
I won’t go into eye-glazing detail about the changes being put forward – although if you’re curious, I did write up a bluffer’s guide last month – but they involve, among other things, tweaking the House calendar to either eliminate or extend the half-day Friday sitting, imposing new time limits on debate both in the Commons and at committee, and preventing the opposition from using procedural manoeuvres to interrupt or delay House proceedings.
Not surprisingly, this has gone over with the other parties like a house (or House) on fire, to shamelessly borrow from Terry Pratchett, “screams, flames, people running for safety.”
It also triggered the opposition-powered filibuster that has managed to eat up just over 24 hours of committee time since it got underway last month.
For those unfamiliar with the quirks of the Canadian system, it might lack the high drama of a DC-by-way-of-Hollywood filibuster, where a lone holdout has to keep talking for hours – even days – at a time, hoping that their increasingly hoarsely-delivered arguments will prevail before their body gives out on the floor of the chamber.
For one thing, there’s a rotation of speakers — Conservatives and New Democrats, for the most part, with the occasional rebuttal from one of the four Liberal MPs obliged to fill out the government side of the table – which means no single MP has to hold the floor for more than a few hours at most.
There are also regular breaks for the daily instalment of question period, as well as votes, and at the discretion of the chair, who has also been gavelling the proceedings to a close at midnight.
As for sustenance, the House food services keeps the buffet table at the back of the room fully stocked with both hot meals and more traditional committee fare: teeny-tiny sandwiches and a full selection of snackables both healthy (fruits and veggies) and less so (cookies, date squares and Nanaimo bars, among other delicacies). There are also occasional deliveries from the outside world ferried in by non-member MPs and staffers: Timbits, McFood, Swiss Chalet and burritos. At one point, there was even a cake to celebrate a milestone in clock-killing.
(Side note: While covering a marathon meeting of this same committee in the previous parliament, there was one evening sitting with three separate birthday cakes making the rounds, including the remains of the slab presented to then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper at caucus earlier in the day.)
Unlike classic freestyle filibusters, there are also some limits on what MPs are allowed to say – no reading the phone book, for instance, or any other unrelated document. And while there’s no cut-off time, if the chair finds that a speaker has veered out of relevance to the topic at hand, or is repeating arguments already put forward during the debate, he or she can shut down an intervention, although such a move is exceptionally rare.
In any case, as Liz notes above, the PROC filibuster — or, as I’ve been calling it, the PROCathon — really can be strangely addictive to watch.
And while it may seem like a wild and woolly debate over procedural hypotheticals, it could also fundamentally alter the most primal dynamics within our parliamentary system, so it’s worth paying attention even if you aren’t riveted by what’s being put on the official record.
The House is currently on a two-week hiatus, but the filibuster is currently slated to resume at 9 am EDT on May 9. Feel free to tune in!
On a semi-related note, Fabian Contreras wonders:
— Fabian Contreras (@fabs_contreras) April 18, 2017
I’m suspicious of the subtext here, I admit: it sounds awfully like you might be meandering towards an argument against the need for an unelected Upper House in this day and age, which, as a passionate defender of its right to exist, I simply cannot countenance.
But I’m also a big fan of committees – House and Senate – and I would support pretty much any move to give them more power and autonomy, whether by increasing the available resources to fund more dedicated researchers and support staff to tweaking the rules to give members, particularly, a little more leeway to act without fear of repercussions from their party.
As it stands, caucus whips are in charge of assigning committee slots, which means an MP can be yanked from the roster if he or she strays too far from the party line, which does tend to have an inhibiting effect. I’m not sure how best to address that while still maintaining some sort of direct-line accountability – maybe having the House itself vote on a slate of potential committee candidates? – but it’s definitely worth exploring the possibilities.
Speaking of the Senate, Rae Gun requests a status update on a particular piece of legislation:
— ⚛ Rae Gun 🔫 (@realyst2k) April 18, 2017
That would be C-16, the latest iteration of a bid to add gender identity and expression to the Canadian Human Rights Act, an earlier version of which made it through the House to the floor of the the Senate during the previous Parliament, only to fall short of the finish line due to a concerted effort by a handful of Conservative senators to stall its progress.
This time around, it’s a government-backed initiative, not a private member’s bill, which significantly increases the likelihood that it will ultimately become the law of the land, but just like its predecessor, C-16 has been subject to strategic delaying tactics, which is why it took four months for it to make it from the starting line in the Senate to the legal and constitutional affairs committee, where it has been waiting in the queue since early March.
According to committee staff, that review will start shortly after the Senate re-opens from its current hiatus in early May, with Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould tentatively scheduled to appear on May 4.
The big question now, however, is how long it will spend under the Senate committee microscope – and what, if any, changes those senators might vote to make to the text, which could postpone its final passage still further.
If it’s still in the hopper when the Senate rises in June, it could die on the Order Paper if the prime minister decides to prorogue Parliament in order to start the second half of his term with a fresh Speech from the Throne.
It can be resurrected without much trouble, of course – with the consent of the House, the government can reinstate bills from the previous session, which are automatically restored to whatever stage had been reached at the time of prorogation – but it would still put off final passage until the end of the year at the earliest.
Then again, the Senate committee could decide to whip through its study at lightning speed – not an entirely unreasonable move, considering how much time was spent studying the previous version – and have it back in the chamber for a final vote by mid-May.
Like everything else involving the Senate these days, anyone who claims they can predict what will happen on any given bill at any particular time is either lying or selling something.
Now, a pair of questions on an initiative with a far less optimistic prognosis.
— Story Girl (@juniper_nettles) April 18, 2017
— David Blain (@beachmagoo) April 18, 2017
Not to sound heartless, but – yes, and no, in that order.
Yes, as far as this particular Parliament is concerned, I think it’s fair to say that when Canadians go to the polls in 2019 (or earlier), they’ll be choosing MPs using the very same first-past-the-post voting system that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau famously pledged to scrap.
There may be some Liberal MPs willing to buck the trend and vote with the zealously pro-reform opposition parties if the question comes back before the Commons, but not more than a handful at most.
The majority seem to be hoping that any lingering anger dies down long before they next hit the hustings.
That doesn’t mean it won’t re-emerge on the political agenda in future – the tireless campaigners at Fair Vote Canada and likeminded groups will make every effort to ensure that it does.
But as far as the now disbanded special committee and its findings, not to mention the results of then-minister Maryam Monsef’s cross-country consultations and much-mocked online survey, it’s over.
A quickie from D. Fowler:
— D. Fowler (@Rythmol81) April 18, 2017
Officially, it’s all under the aegis of the speaker, but done on the advice of the whips, who work out those arrangements for their respective caucuses, which are allotted blocks of seats to assign as they see fit.
There are some longstanding conventions – the prime minister and his cabinet ministers tend to fill the first row on the government side, although some may be bumped to the second row, and opposition party leaders are usually front and centre in their designated area.
But beyond that, it’s up to the whips, and if you check the lists for the back rows, it looks like most parties simply go by alphabetical order using the last name of MPs, albeit with tweaks when necessary to accommodate particular needs.
An MP who uses a wheelchair, for instance, would probably require front-bench access, and presumably, if a pair of randomly assigned seatmates discovered that they were wildly incompatible, the whip could split them up.
Deputy and assistant deputy speakers sit along the wall by the chair.
MPs who sit outside of a recognized caucus – which includes those in parties that don’t hit the 12 seat threshold necessary for official recognition – are under the jurisdiction of the speaker, who, according to the Commons handbook, “allocates the seats for these Members pursuant to their seniority as elected Members, while at the same time retaining a degree of latitude in determining these arrangements.”
And finally, from Brian Nemett:
— Brian Nemett (@BrianNemett) April 18, 2017
Librarian by day, private investigator by night. Or sometimes, for variety, after-hours librarian and daylight-seeking spy, just to keep it interesting.