Van Loan Warrior: How to lose parliamentary agendas and fail to influence opposition parties

If, during this afternoon’s episode of Question Period, the cloud hanging over the head of Peter Van Loan seems even darker than usual, it’s with good reason. This morning, he once again lost control of the House of Commons, which was hijacked by a concurrence motion debate — on the tobacco industry, this time, not that it really matters. As a result, he won’t be able to move his legislative chess pieces forward until this afternoon, at the very earliest.

But as frustrating as it must be for Van Loan to watch those precious end-of-sessions minutes dwindle away, however, it pales in comparison to the defeat that he suffered last night, when he became the first government house leader in Canadian parliamentary history to be lose a vote on whether to extend the sitting hours. In fact, he’s the first house leader in Canadian parliamentary history (which, in this case, admittedly only goes back to 1982, since that’s when the Standing Orders changed) who has been forced to hold a vote on whether to extend the sitting hours.

Under majority and minority governments alike, the request – which can only be made once, on the tenth day before the session is scheduled to adjourn – usually passed on unanimous consent. This time, though, the opposition parties forced the government to defend its desire to hold night sittings, and challenged Van Loan to provide a list of priority legislation that must make it through before the summer break. It was all priority legislation, Van Loan insisted – an argument that, on balance, the opposition parties clearly found uncompelling. They defeated the motion, 139-114.

Predictably, Van Loan came out swinging with a press release that excoriated the united opposition parties for wanting to “work less”:

Today, in an unprecedented move, the federal opposition parties blocked the standard evening sittings of the House of Commons, which its rules contemplate. This routine motion, set out in House standing orders, has never been blocked since it was first introduced in 1982.

“Very few Canadians have the privilege of representing their fellow citizens in Parliament,” said Peter Van Loan, Government House Leader. “If Members of Parliament aren’t willing to do their work before a three month summer break, they should step aside and let someone else do it.”

Since the House calendar was fixed in 1982, the standard motion to extend the daily sitting hours of the House of Commons has always been approved.

“The Government understands Canadians expect Members of Parliament to work hard to get things done before the summer break,” continued Minister Van Loan. “The Government has a long list of bills it wants to pass before the end of the spring sitting and this is just another attempt by the Opposition to obstruct and delay that legislative agenda.”

A combative tone, to be sure – but far milder response than anyone who saw the look on his face during yesterday’s debate, as he was forced to listen to opposition members list their various grievances against his style of House management, from sabotaging committees to ignoring the will of the House.

The NDP’s Nathan Cullen deemed Van Loan’s request for extra innings to be a “strange and perverse” flavour of irony, given his party’s behaviour during the sitting:

I went through the pain and suffering of six weeks of his government filibustering the environment committee, six weeks of talking out the clock day in and day out. The Conservatives lack of planning and integrity create a crisis for the rest of Parliament. In mistaking the idea that we come here to work for some sort of political gamesmanship day in and day out at justice, procedure and House affairs and the environment committee, they spent six weeks filibustering, delaying, holding the bill hostage on one clause. Ironically, it was a clause on transparency and accountability.

It seems odd now that the government would come back to the Parliament and say that the clock is running out on the spring session, that it needs more time to debate these important issues. When the Conservatives had the time to move legislation forward, they chose not to. […]Now they suggest, within days of that happening, that this crisis has been created by others, not their own doing, and they need extra time to get through their legislative calendar.

Speaking on behalf of the Bloc Quebecois, Pierre Paquette, saw it as a natural consequence of the “haighty attitude” that both Van Loan, and his party, have demonstrated:

As the saying goes, he who sows the wind, reaps the whirlwind. That is exactly what has happened to the Conservatives after many weeks of acting in bad faith and failing to cooperate with the opposition parties.

The Leader of the Government in the House of Commons—and earlier I mentioned his arrogance, which, to me, has reached its peak today with the way the motion was moved—gave us no indication as to his government’s priorities from now until the end of the session, despite the fact that he was pointedly questioned about that matter. What we did receive was a grocery list with no order, no priorities. As the leader of the official opposition said earlier, when everything is a priority, it means that nothing is.

That is the current situation: they gave us a list of bills which, in fact, included almost all of the bills on the order paper. Not only were things not prioritized, but in addition, as I mentioned before, it showed a disregard for the opposition parties. There is a price to pay for that today—we do not see why the government needs to extend the sitting hours.

Finally, just to drive the point home, Liberal House Leader Ralph Goodale began with a vintage quote from Stephen Harper himself, who, during his pre-prime ministerial days as leader of the opposition, had demanded that the then-Liberal minority “take into account the policies and priorities expressed by the three opposition parties in the House” – a sharp contrast, he suggested, to his behaviour after the positions were reversed:

Unfortunately, the minority government has demonstrated no commitment to those principles that were described by the Prime Minister when he was leader of the opposition. The minority government has no idea what it means to consult the opposition parties, not to mention no idea what it means to take into account their priorities. The modus operandi of the government is one of bitter partisanship all the time, running roughshod over everything and everybody in its path, no matter what.

But rather than attempt to reach a truce, however temporary, in order to secure the votes necessary to pass his motion, Van Loan instead went on the attack. He accused the NDP of being the “masters of exploiting the processes of the House” and deploying “every possible device to delay the government doing its business,” and blamed the Liberals for hamstringing the Justice committee with a motion to hold “another one of their side show legislative committee inquiry Star Chambers.” Conservative MP Ken Epp, who had the unenviable job of responding to the Bloc Quebecois, instead delivered a rambling monologue on separatism and Senate reform.

And so, when it came time to vote on a motion that has sailed through the House on every previous occasion, the opposition parties imposed what Van Loan calls the tyranny of the minority, but what others refer to as democracy, to vote it down.

It’s not outside the realm of possibility that somewhere in this story, there is a lesson for someone. We leave it to readers to decide.


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