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March 3, 2001

Knocking away the props of democracy

National Post

The Liberal government has knocked away another buttress of Canadian democracy. To end opposition parties' ability to filibuster, or delay, legislation, the government rammed through new rules giving the Speaker of the House power to disallow "frivolous" or "vexatious" amendments. The Speaker is not part of the government, but he is invariably a member of the governing party.

Don Boudria, the government House leader, says it is an overdue "reform" of an archaic, time-wasting House procedure. "Attempting to obstruct the parliamentary process has nothing at all to do with democracy," he declares, citing the Reform Party's novel filibuster of the Nisga'a Final Act in 1999, which forced 42 hours of continuous voting on 476 amendments. The Bloc Québécois has twice attempted the same tactic since.

Mr. Boudria's arguments are shallow and dangerous. Reviewing and examining legislation is Parliament's raison d'être, and oppositions already have only limited power to challenge and change controversial laws. As John Fraser, speaker during the Mulroney era, said in 1987, "It is essential to our democratic system that controversial issues should be debated at reasonable length so that every reasonable opportunity shall be available to hear the arguments pro and con and that reasonable delaying tactics should be permissible to enable opponents of a measure to enlist public support for their point of view." The Liberals' latest parliamentary outrage was, as Tory leader Joe Clark said, "part of a pattern of driving democracy out of the House of Commons."

There is plenty of blame to go around. It was, after all, the Tories who, in 1991, abolished the opposition's right to debate and amend a government motion for time allocation; and it was their party, under Robert Borden, that first arrogated to itself the right of closure in 1913. But closure was used only 18 times prior to 1982, whereas the Liberals have invoked closure 70 times in eight years in office. Indeed, it is the arrogant and unprecedented use of closure and time allocation that has forced opposition parties to scour the House procedures for alternative forms of filibuster, such as proposing amendments by the hundred.

The value of filibusters has been demonstrated many times:

- In 1956, the governing Liberals imposed closure at every stage of a bill for the first time in Canadian history. Tory filibusters heaped such odium on them that the government lost the 1957 election.

- A 210-speech Tory filibuster delayed the adoption of the Maple Leaf flag from May to December, 1964.

- In 1982, the Tories prevented the Trudeau government from rushing through its 149-page omnibus energy bill. They did so after discovering that House rules allowed the opposition to delay passage of a bill simply by not turning up when summoned by the division bell. The bells rang continuously from March 2 to 17, and the Liberals eventually backed down and agreed to split the legislation into eight smaller bills.

- A Liberal filibuster in the Senate held up the Mulroney government's free trade bill in 1988 and provoked an election call. Thus, Canadian voters were given the chance to express their view on the issue and democracy was served.

This week has proved -- not that any more proof was needed -- that the current Liberal government is hostile to the messy but valuable traditions of Canadian parliamentary democracy. The government says, and may even believe, it is just tidying up, making the system more streamlined and efficient. But Churchill's dictum that democracy is the "least worst" system of government is instructive in this case. It implies, and every parliamentarian should remember, that democracy has inconveniences and untidy edges but is nevertheless the indispensible foundation of humane government. Democracy is made of the obstacles that lie between a political leader's desire and the statute book. Jean Chrétien's government bulldozed anther obstacle aside this week -- and democracy is diminished.

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