A House of Commons sitting like no other ends, election speculation dials up
OTTAWA -- The House of Commons rose for a two-month summer hiatus Wednesday, after passing the Liberal minority government’s key bills amid inflamed partisan tensions and speculation that MPs won’t sit again in Ottawa before a federal election call.
Seeing Bill C-30, the 2021 budget implementation bill pass was the final of four priority pieces of legislation that the federal government pushed through in the dying days of the spring sitting.
Now, all eyes will turn to the Senate to see whether the Upper Chamber will pass all or some of the bills before also taking a summer parliamentary pause.
While the calendar has senators rising or logging off from their hybrid sitting as of Friday, Senate party leaders have agreed, in principle, to extend their sitting into next week.
There are currently five government bills for senators to consider, including the time-sensitive Bill C-30 and the pandemic aid extensions contained within it; Bill C-12, putting into law Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions targets; Bill C-6 to crack down on LGBTQ2S+ conversion therapy; and Bill C-10’s Broadcasting Act changes.
In the case of the budget and climate bills, senators have been conducting weeks of “pre-study,” where they are able to assess the legislative proposals in general, before the document is actually before them, raising the likelihood that these bills will pass without being viewed as senators offering a “rubber stamp” of approval.
“Your bad planning is not my emergency,” said Sen. Scott Tannas, leader of the Canadian Senators Group on Wednesday. “In the coming days, we will carefully and thoughtfully be applying that principle.”
The same cannot be said for the contentious broadcasting bill aimed at web giants and regulating Canadian content, which Conservative senators have signalled they want the time to dive deeply into, amid ongoing concerns of the implications for users’ content after a series of opaque amendments were made last-minute.
While this Parliament has seen 18 government bills become law so far, most of which were pandemic-aid or spending measures, the Liberals let go hopes that several other bills would advance.
As a result, Bill C-19’s pandemic election changes, Bill C-11’s digital charter proposal, and Bill C-21’s firearms protections have been left to languish alongside a series of eleventh-hour pieces of legislation put up by cabinet ministers in the final days of the sitting.
These last bills to be tabled were presented with no expectation they’d advance, prompting opposition to question the intention behind putting them in the window at all. Among the ideas the Liberals will now have the summer to talk about and potentially pitch as promises they could fulfill if reelected: enhanced French language protections, a new disability benefit, and stricter laws around hate speech.
Ultimately, the time crunch being felt by parliamentarians stems from the reality that if business wraps for the summer without all legislation passing, should Prime Minister Justin Trudeau decide that it’s time to go to the polls, anything left on the agenda in either the House or Senate would die with an election call.
Nearing two years in length, the Liberal minority government has withstood a series of confidence challenges, and managed to stay afloat amid the unprecedented uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, with Canadians rapidly progressing towards widespread full vaccination status, all sides are bracing for the reality that the 43rd Parliament could come to an end if a general election is kicked off sometime this summer or fall.
Trudeau continues to downplay that he’s eyeing a visit to Rideau Hall to ask that a writ be drawn up, though the Liberals and other parties are pushing ahead with rapidly nominating candidates.
Further, the House has said its farewells to MPs not running again, with the thought that they won’t be back on the Hill before the start of the fall session, currently scheduled for Sept. 20.
O'TOOLE'S 'COALITION' TALK
With tensions between the governing Liberals and official Opposition Conservatives reaching new heights in recent days, the government has relied on the backing of the Bloc Quebecois and New Democrats to see their key agenda items advance.
This has prompted continuous suggestions from the Liberals that the Conservatives have made the Hill dysfunctional and “toxic” by using what procedural tools they have at their disposal to engage in as much “purely partisan” obstruction as possible.
In response, the Conservatives pointed to the August 2020 prorogation that halted all parliamentary work, suggested the government mismanaged its legislative agenda once back up and running, and pointed to the hundreds of hours they’ve spent filibustering at a handful House of Commons committees.
Leaning on the Liberals relying on the other “progressive” parties, Conservative Erin O’Toole tested out what may become an oft-repeated talking point on the campaign trail: Canadians have two choices, a left-leaning coalition, or the Conservatives.
“There isn’t a choice between the Liberals, the NDP, the Green, and the Bloc Quebecois. They’re all the same and they’re all part of the problem,” O’Toole told his caucus during a televised address Wednesday morning.
“On issue after issue, there are not five choices for Canadians, there are two: Canada’s Conservatives on one side, and the Liberal, NDP, Green, Bloc Quebecois coalition on the other.”
O’Toole said that the other parties are “four shades of red” which was likely either a reference to the Liberal party’s branded colour, or to the economic propositions of each.
SINGH'S ELECTION CONCERNS
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh also got in on the pre-election positioning in his own post-caucus media availability.
While stating that despite many viewing it as a “foregone conclusion,” he doesn’t think it has to be the case that Wednesday is the last day of House sitting for this Parliament. He said the suggestion that the legislative logjam would be reason to go to the polls was a “fake narrative,” given all four key priority bills managed to pass.
“If the Liberals were doing more than just a symbolic gesture or just doing it for show, if they actually wanted to help people, then let's do it. But, if the Liberals call an election… I want this to be also clear: They're calling an election because they want all the power, not because it benefits people, not because it actually helps get things done,” Singh said.
“There is no reason to believe that there has to be an election…we've got two more years,” he said, referencing the next fixed election date in 2023.
Singh also dismissed O’Toole’s framing of the NDP as being in a coalition with the Liberals, stating that his MPs propped up the government in order to avoid throwing the country into an election while COVID-19 was raging.
MILITARY, BORDER HOT TOPICS IN FINAL QP
Trudeau, who is still in isolation after returning from a series of international meetings, took all the questions during what could be the final question period of the Parliament, and as prime minister if the still highly speculated election doesn’t go his way.
The top issues that opposition MPs seized on mirrored what have been the major stories over the last few months: military misconduct and the alleged mishandling of investigations into certain top officers; concerns over allocating government funds to Liberal friends and allies; the numerous outstanding promises to improve life for Indigenous people; and the ongoing confusion around the vaccine rollout, economic reopening, and lifting of border restrictions.
In questioning Trudeau, Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet asked in French for the prime minister to take the summer to “take a step back and reflect,” about increasing health transfers to provinces.
In response, Trudeau focused on the collective federal effort to send billions to provinces and territories over the pandemic.
“We had a very simple and straightforward focus for Canadians from the beginning of this pandemic: that we would have their backs. And that's exactly what we've done, with billions upon billions of dollars of supports for workers, for families, for seniors, for young people, to help Canadians get through this pandemic,” the prime minister said during a separate exchange with Singh, stating his oft-shared sentiment about the Liberals’ pandemic approach that is also sure to remain high in Trudeau’s rolodex of responses.
Following the final question period of the spring session, House of Commons Speaker Anthony Rota informed MPs that a handful of outstanding rulings from his office on complaints of breaches of parliamentary privilege would have to be carried over to the next time the House meets as they require extensive contemplation.
This prompted concerns from the opposition as among the outstanding rulings relates to the rare admonishment of the Public Health Agency of Canada’s president on June 21 and the battle over turning over documents, which the federal government is now looking to challenge the House in court over.
END OF HYBRID HOUSE FORMAT?
In marking the end of the sitting—a celebratory moment reached after a handful of very late sittings—the usual thank-you’s were offered to the House of Commons administration, staff, interpreters, and parliamentary pages who stickhandled a Parliament unlike any other.
“I think members will agree that this has been a most unusual time for us all. For more than a year, we and our fellow Canadians have faced a number of challenges, and I know there will be more to come. But as we prepare to focus on our families and our constituents, I want to take a moment to thank all those who have made it possible for us to continue our work during this pandemic,” said Rota, who over the months sought to help MPs from all sides through the technical difficulties that arose.
After months of ad-hoc emergency meetings in the early months of the pandemic to pass pressing COVID-19 aid and nothing else, all sides eventually agreed on a hybrid sitting format that allowed MPs to virtually participate from their homes or offices and still appear, via screens, inside the chamber where a small number of usually nearby MPs participated in-person.
A new voting app was rolled out as well, speeding up the amount of time it took to do roll-call votes virtually, but also prompting some questionable uses of being able to click “yea” or “nay” from anywhere.
Both of these measures were introduced as temporary solutions, and based on the agreements that brought them into force, expired with Wednesday’s adjournment. There was an unsuccessful attempt to set up an extension to the hybrid provisions for committees, which would have allowed them to keep meeting remotely over the summer.
This means that once the summer is through, either this cadre of MPs or the next batch to be elected, will have to iron out whether any COVID-19 accommodations will be required when the House resumes, or if it’s time to return to the traditional in-person proceedings.