The House: On time allocation

We return to our periodic series to consider recent efforts to limit the House’s ability to do one of the things for which it fundamentally exists.

In the thread under this post about the government’s recent penchant for limiting the time allowed for debate in the House of Commons, an astute commenter posited the following.

This is step one.  Step two is to skip the debate entirely, and just call the MPs together to vote on the foregone conclusion.  Step three will be to have the MPs stay home and vote electronically.  step four will be to have the PMO’s office submit all the CPC votes directly.

However sarcastic (or at least wry) this comment was meant to be, it begs the question: How far-fetched a scenario is this? Or put another way: How different would this be from the present situation?

For the sake of argument, let’s say debate serves, at least in theory, two purposes. First, it can be used to persuade: to change the minds of those you are debating or influence wider public opinion. Second, it can be used to delay: to allow time for the consideration and investigation of legislation.

On the former, what does debate in the House of Commons do to change minds? More specifically, what can it do?

Though the Conservatives committed in 2006 that all votes except those on the budget and main estimates would be considered “free votes,” the Harper government refuses now to comment on “voting strategies.” Generally speaking—for all parties—he only measures on which MPs are seemingly free to vote as they wish are private members’ bills and so-called votes of “conscience” (eg. euthanasia, abortion). I’m told that the vote last week on a non-binding, opposition motion about asbestos exports was whipped by the Conservatives. The NDP, to use another example, whipped its recent vote on the government’s gun registry legislation and subsequently punished two MPs who defied the edict. (Note: A similar attempt to eliminate the registry last year was officially a private members’ bill and was thus a free vote for NDP MPs.)

So never mind debate as a tool to influence other members. How about debate as a way to influence to public opinion? Well, for that to be the case, what is said in the House each day would have to be heard by or relayed to broad swaths of the public. As it is, almost all of each day’s discussion in the House pass without wide notice. (Committee testimony is only barely more covered. Question Period is covered with some regularity, although it is lamented as much as it is actually considered.) For the most part, the primary “debate” in this country now occurs on the evening chat shows, during which representatives from each party are lined up and asked to repeat their respective party’s script in 30 second bursts for the sake of the television cameras.

So what about debate’s second purpose? As a way of delaying the passage of legislation to allow for proper consideration and investigation, there is something to be said for what goes on in the House each day. Changes and points of contention that might otherwise escape attention are still discovered in the time allowed. Consider, for example, the “drafting error” that was spotted in the government’s omnibus crime bill.

Keeping that much in mind, imagine a scenario like what that astute commentator put forward:

Legislation is tabled publicly via news release and posted on the House website. No debate occurs in the House, but a 10-day waiting period is applied before a single and final vote on the bill’s passage is scheduled. If, during that waiting period, any “drafting errors” are spotted, the government or MP who authored the legislation is free to amend their bill. Otherwise, after the waiting period is over, the party leaders are required to call the Speaker and inform him or her of how the party’s MPs will be voting. After hearing from all the leaders, the Speaker sounds out a press release with the result of the vote.

Would such a process offend our notion of parliamentary democracy? Probably. Is it diametrically opposed to what we have now? Probably not as much as it should be.

That the Harper government insists on regularly limiting debate in the House of Commons is almost certainly a serious issue that needs to be confronted and considered. But it matters only so much as debate matters. It matters only so much as the House of Commons matters. So the basic questions remain: Does the House of Commons matter? And, if so, how?