A few observations on the procedural wrangling

The kinds of procedural wrangling to try and slow up or affect the omnibus budget implementation bill has started to split along party lines in the opposition, which lends itself to a few different observations, if I may. The NDP has decided that their tactic will be to try to move twenty different motions in twenty different committees to try and get those committees to study the portions of the bill relevant to their area of study, seeing as attempts to break up the bill have failed. After all, the government did agree to break-up pre-study of the bill over in the Senate to the various relevant committees, so why not in the Commons? The complicating factor there, of course, is that it has become standard operating procedure for the government to move any opposition motion in a committee to an in camera discussion, which shuts out the public, and then the government will use their majority to defeat it out of the public eye. The likely effect is to show that the government is being unreasonable, but that doesn’t touch the substance of the bill itself.

The Liberals have decided that since there are some 750 clauses in the bill, that they will move amendments to delete those clauses in report stage, after the bill has come back from the committee. That’s a whole lot of votes. Likewise, Green Party leader Elizabeth May has also decided that there are some 700 amendments that she can move at report stage, owing to her particular status, and she intends to fully exercise that right. Again, that could be some 700 votes in the Chamber. And both of these tactics address the substance of the bill.

Which brings me to my next point. Listening to the debate, the NDP seems entirely preoccupied with telling Canadians that the government is “hiding” things in the bill, and they continually refer to it as a “Trojan Horse.” Only it’s not a Trojan Horse, because nothing is actually hidden inside the bill. It’s there for all of us to see. Yes, it’s a bill that they’re stuffing everything into in order to skirt adequate debate and oversight, and it’s pretty undemocratic to make it a bill about everything under the sun so that MPs are forced to vote all or nothing. But that’s not a Trojan Horse.

Instead of whining about how things are “hidden” in the bill – which are all there for us to see – it surprises me that the NDP, in their role as official opposition, haven’t really been addressing the substantive parts of the bill aside from a few select policy areas. Yes, environment is a big one, and the changes to OAS are significant, but otherwise they bring up cuts to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the Canada Border Services Agency, but little else. It’s not like they haven’t had ample opportunity over the past two weeks to systematically dismantle the bill. Yes, it’s 420-some pages, but they also have 102 MPs in their caucus. If they wanted, they could assign each of them four pages to study, and put together a comprehensive denunciation of the actual substance of the bill outside of committee study or even the Commons itself. But they haven’t.

Guess who has actually done that? Elizabeth May. She’s held press conferences and put out releases that point out the various problems with the substance of the bill. And she’s a caucus of one – with a coterie of interns, yes – but then again the much, much larger NDP caucus also has staffers and a research bureau. With this in mind, it mystifies me why there’s been so little put out by the NDP on the actual substance.

Add to that, there was a piece in the Globe and Mail yesterday in which John Ibbitson spoke to former Liberal House Leader Don Boudria about the doomed attempts to delay the bill, and while most of the piece wasn’t terribly edifying, Boudria did make one very good point – if the NDP really thought that the omnibus bill was such a problem, they would have been hammering away at it constantly during QP every day, with every question they had. But they absolutely haven’t been. On most days their performance is scattershot, with questions alternating between English and French critics and deputy critics – more intent on news clips rather than addressing issues in a substantive manner. Despite the offensive bill being before them under the descending weight of time allocation, they’ve instead spent the greater bulk of their questions about the menace of Conrad Black and the ethical lapses of cabinet ministers, with some pro forma questions on the F-35s thrown in for good measure, rather than asking some detailed questions on the budget bill. In other words, for a caucus that keeps talking about decorum and wanting to make QP more meaningful, they remain preoccupied with the theatre of it rather than hammering away at a substantive issue that happens to also be a gross affront to Parliamentary democracy in this country.

And so we are left with the procedural wrangling, looking to delay and maybe embarrass. The Liberals have characterised the moves as “too cute by half,” and ultimately ineffective because they haven’t changed the date of the vote – given the constraints of time allocation – but have only managed to tie up actual debate, much like they decided to do with the budget itself when they decided that Peter Julian filibustering was a better use of time than hearing from other MPs who had concerns of their own.

There does still seem to be this incredulity on the part of the NDP – and Nathan Cullen in particular – that the Conservatives wouldn’t agree to their formal request to split it, or any other such requests, as though he’s shocked that politics isn’t a cooperative board game where everyone wins, and that the government and opposition parties in fact have different roles to play. But so long as the tactics remain more focused on perceived unfairness than they do on substance, I have a hard time taking it too seriously.