From confidence votes to committees, how parties plan to navigate the new Parliament
New Members of Parliament attend a "Working in the Chamber" orientation session in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
OTTAWA -- The leader of the government in the House of Commons says it’s his intention to take a “traditional” approach to confidence votes in the new Parliament, where given the minority dynamics, “any day can be the last day.”
That means any votes on money matters such as the federal budget and various votes on the main and supplementary spending estimates are expected to be considered confidence votes, as will the vote in response to the speech from the throne.
“There’s the traditional confidence votes and we operate on that basis,” Pablo Rodriguez told CTVNews.ca in an interview in his new West Block office.
“Things that require funding… It's definitely a confidence vote,” he said, adding that he doesn’t “foresee” the Liberals taking the approach past governments have of declaring other key votes on non-financial matters as confidence votes. In the past governments have positioned themselves as ready to trigger elections based on an issue they thought was important enough, like extending the Afghan mission.
“It's not my personal way of operating. We'll have to see how things go. Hopefully that’s not necessary,” Rodriguez said.
While it's thought that the first confidence vote to come up in this new Parliament will be on the reply to the speech from the throne, the way the fiscal calendar falls means that the first confidence vote could be on the supplementary estimates—a spending bill allowing additional money to flow to get through to the fiscal year's end in this case—as that will have to happen on or before Dec. 10.
In any parliament, a government lives so long as it maintains the confidence of the House of Commons. This confidence is demonstrated each time a key vote passes.
With the Liberals 13 MPs short of a majority, they are therefore 13 votes shy of guaranteeing each vote goes their way. At any point that the opposition parties decide to come together to pass a motion of non-confidence in the government, they have the numbers to do so.
This makes it crucial that the governing party be open to compromise, or at least collaboration, and on the eve of the eve of the 43rd Parliament, the word collaboration seems to be on the tongues of both sides of the House of Commons.
Rodriguez met individually on Tuesday with his opposition counterparts: Conservative House Leader Candice Bergen, Bloc Quebecois House Leader Alain Therrien and NDP House Leader Peter Julian.
“They were great meetings and I think we're in the same spirit that we understand that we have to collaborate, not only us… because I think that Canadians sent a message to everybody: We're watching you guys and you better collaborate. So, that is true for us, that is true for everybody,” Rodriguez said.
“We're under observation, but so is the opposition.”
In interviews with CTVNews.ca, both the Conservative and NDP House leaders said they are open to working together and want to see what’s in Thursday’s throne speech before drawing their battle lines.
“When Canadians give a minority Parliament… what we've seen is a lot of good things happen,” said Julian. “So I'm optimistic that this Parliament can make a difference in people's lives. And that will take a lot of communication between the various parties and a lot of discussion between the various parties to resolve issues and find solutions that benefit Canadians.”
The Liberals will be looking for allies on an issue-by-issue basis. Finding and securing support will be done by outreach to the opposition House leaders, rather than looking to pick off various MPs for support, Rodriguez said.
Asked what his approach is going to be to managing the House in a minority, Rodrigues said it’s about making sure MPs are in their seats, but also staying calm.
“This is going to be a thrilling experience for all of us,” he said. “There's never a boring day in a minority Parliament – never, because any day can be the last day of the Parliament.”
Tax cut, NAFTA ratification bill coming soon
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said that a middle-class tax cut will be the first official piece of government legislation in the new session.
Though, Rodriguez was less committal, calling it “one of the first things” they’ll do.
“It’s the government’s intention to do that very quickly,” he said.
Asked if NAFTA ratification legislation could come first, given the recent positive movement in the U.S. ratification process, Rodriguez said it will be “treated as a priority.”
“We've negotiated a good deal and we want that to be implemented,” he said.
An implementation bill died on the order paper when the election was called and Parliament was dissolved. That means it needs to be re-introduced and go through the entire legislative process again.
In the last Parliament, the Liberals faced criticism that they were slow to advance their legislative agenda. Because minority governments typically last less than four years, there will likely be a desire to have as many bills as possible pass as quickly as possible.
The opposition parties’ approaches
The Conservatives are expecting to be the recipients of the first opposition day of this Parliament, which will have to happen on or before Dec. 10, in line with the supply day where the supplementary estimates get voted on. Expect it to touch on the party’s focus on “uniting the country,” Bergen said. Opposition days are when an opposition party gets to present a motion for the House to debate and eventually vote on, setting the agenda in the Commons for the day.
Known in part in the last Parliament for their procedural maneuvering, the Conservatives plan to keep on using the procedural mechanisms available.
“We are the strongest opposition and in in terms of our numbers, 121 members, and the government, you know, can't expect any kind of free ride… So we'll be we'll be using all the tools available to do that,” Bergen said.
After being catapulted from less than a dozen seats to third-party status in the House with 32 MPs, the Bloc Quebecois is finding itself in a much more powerful position in this Parliament.
During a week of brief sit-downs Trudeau had with the opposition leaders in mid-November, Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet said that the prime minister and himself discussed what shared issues they may be able to advance in the coming months, citing climate change and health care as examples.
The Bloc Quebecois leader—who is entering the House of Commons for the first time as an elected official—said at the time that he hopes that this Parliament will work “politely, peacefully, with the only consideration of getting some progress on the issues which have been made important by the people during the last election.”
And, while relegated to fourth-party status, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh’s 24-member caucus has already positioned itself to be the natural ally should the Liberals want to pursue nation-wide programs.
“The NDP traditionally has been the worker bees of Parliament; we will have to work even harder in a minority parliament to make sure that we're bringing the solutions that Canadians want to see,” Julian said.
Non-voting rule for parliamentary secretaries may be reneged
In a potential about-face on the role of parliamentary secretaries, Rodriguez said that the potential for them to become voting members on House committees is “being discussed.”
The Liberals may have tied their own hands by changing the House rules in the last Parliament to make it so that parliamentary secretaries are not allowed to be voting members on House committees, an effort said to be in the name of more committee independence.
Despite this, parliamentary secretaries often do sit in on meetings and report back to their minister on what’s being said. Changing the rules back could be met with considerable acrimony from the opposition parties.
“Those are things are being discussed by the different teams, we're looking at different options. The thing that we want is for committees to function well, to do the job they have to do, we want the House to function well, we want bills to pass in the House, in committees,” Rodriguez said.
This change could be coming given that in a minority the opposition parties combine to form the majority in committees and are in the driver’s seat in many respects.
Trudeau has yet to announce the roster of parliamentary secretaries, the second tier to ministers, though that list is expected to be announced as soon as Wednesday.
The prime minster did already state that Kevin Lamoureux will continue as parliamentary secretary to the government house leader.
The makeup of committees and proportional distribution of seats around those tables will be announced “soon,” Rodriguez said.
The opposition parties, for their part, are optimistic about the potential they’ll have to advance studies at committee that may not be on the government’s agenda.
“We expect committees to be much more than dynamic in terms of proposing the solutions that Canadians want to see,” Julian said.
New government rep in the Senate
Rodriguez confirmed that the Liberals will be naming a new government representative in the Senate to replace Sen. Peter Harder, who announced last week that he will be leaving his position at the end of the year.
Harder was the government’s point person on pushing the Liberals’ agenda through the increasingly independent Senate. The government’s liaison Sen. Grant Mitchell is also leaving his role but will stay on until a replacement is named for Harder.
“You have to, you need that absolutely,” said Rodriguez of the government representative role.
“This will be the first moment in the history of the country where this new type of Senate will work in parallel with a minority Parliament. So, that brings up a lot of challenges, but at the same time… I have reasons to be also optimistic,” said Rodriguez, adding that he thinks Harder did “the best he could.”
“Now we're going to need other people and I'm sure the Prime Minister is working on that,” he said.