The good ole parliamentary game

The sketch: David Christopherson’s filibuster comes to an end

At some point yesterday, the NDP gave David Christopherson a hashtag: #StandWithDavid. Mind you, Mr. Christopherson himself was not standing, but rather sitting, in one of the ergonomic green chairs provided to members of the standing committee.

Across the way in the late afternoon sat a half dozen Conservatives, their line-up changing every so often as colleagues were substituted in and spelled off, variously slumped, hunched and reclined, heads mostly down toward iPads, Blackberrys or paperwork. At a table at the back of the room rested the remains of lunch, now long past—scattered sandwiches and veggies. Every so often, one of Mr. Christopherson’s NDP allies at the table would interject with a point of order, thus providing him a few seconds to go without talking. From above, the fathers of confederation surveyed the scene.

Mr. Christopherson’s filibuster had begun three weeks earlier, when he successfully talked out the second hour of a scheduled meeting of the Procedure and House Affairs committee. Two weeks later, on February 25, he talked through all two hours of the next meeting. With yesterday’s meeting though, the Conservatives moved to set aside the usual two-hour allotment and so the meeting was essentially made infinite, lasting at least as long as Mr. Christopherson could last (presuming he could not talk all the way until the next prorogation or dissolution).

He refused the offer of a bathroom break around 5:30pm and proceeded to talk his way through dinner. At some point a delivery of St. Hubert’s chicken arrived, but Mr. Christopherson did not partake. “As soon as I stop talking, I lose, so I gotta keep talking,” he said at one point.

He could not simply talk for the sake of talking. Though his time was only bound by the limits of his mouth, his words were bound by relevance and repetition. Mr. Christopherson could not simply read aloud from the collected works of Lucy Maud Montgomery or explain at length the finer points of his grocery list. He had basically to discuss the motion he had moved to gain the floor in the first place and was to stay on point and avoid repeating himself—every so often Tom Lukiwski, the senior Conservative in the room, would interject with a point of order to complain that Mr. Christopherson had strayed too far from the motion at hand or said something he had already said. A team of researchers was assigned the task of keeping him supplied with new material. At one point Mr. Christopherson offered an explanation of procedure in Zimbabwe.

We have built a system of arcane formality that allows for such absurdity.

The past month has been something of a refresher course in parliamentary gamesmanship. When the government moved four weeks ago to impose a time limit on debate at second reading of the Fair Elections Act, as is its right, the official opposition made use of its various opportunities to make a scene. When Conservatives declined to go along with the NDP’s demand that the bill be subject to hearings across the country, the New Democrats moved to block travel for all committees and Mr. Christopherson launched his filibuster, the Conservatives countering the latter with that move to extend the hours of yesterday’s meeting. (Meanwhile there was the matter of Brad Butt, subject of a question of privilege, which compelled a Speaker’s ruling, which compelled a debate, which the Conservatives frustrated with motions of concurrence and closure.)

While the filibuster remains the most athletically impressive and easily romanticized of this game’s plays, actual opportunities to filibuster have been gradually reduced over the decades. With a few exceptions, speeches in the House are subject to strict time limits. Time allocation and closure allow for the governing party to move things along. Last fall, there was a move to head-off the sort of vote marathons (mass filibusters, in a way) that the omnibus budget bills were subject to in 2011. But whatever the government’s advantage and however inevitable the government’s victory—barring a sudden second-thought or a break in party ranks or the sort of mass, public outrage that can motivate a government to reverse itself, victory is basically assured—the opposition still possesses a few tricks. And an ability to make use of the rules to complicate matters is basically a wonderful allowance. “Parliament, between elections, has not simply the right … to ‘scrutinize’ and ‘criticize’ administration and legislation, it has the duty to fight to the limit of the possible and the proper, any legislation which, in its judgement, calls for such action. This duty, of course, falls chiefly to the opposition, and it can involve, on rare and extraordinary occasions, obstruction, filibustering,” Eugene Forsey, the senator and scholar, wrote in a letter to the editor in 1982. “Obstruction, like marriage in the Anglican Prayer Book, is ‘not by any to be enterprised nor taken in hand, lightly, unadvisedly or wantonly, but reverently, advisedly, discreetly, soberly and in the fear of God.’ ”

So perhaps we might view obstruction, when judged to be justified, to be a testament to love and commitment, with judgement to be rendered by the God Electorate whose attention and favour the obstruction is perhaps ultimately meant to win.

Mr. Christopherson eventually gave up around 9:30pm. He had by then successfully talked the committee across the street to a new room on Sparks Street (the House of Commons staff needing to clear the committee room on Parliament Hill to setup for a caucus meeting the next morning). In lieu of official hearings outside Ottawa, Mr. Christopherson vowed the NDP would conduct its own forums.

Mr. Lukiwski, an experienced filibusterer himself, was gracious in Mr. Christopherson’s basic defeat, acknowledging the rhetorical challenge of the feat. “Quite frankly, just from one colleague to another, I congratulate you,” he said. “I think you did an excellent job and that you represented your party very well.”

A while later, after Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux had been given a half hour to make his party’s case, committee chair Joe Preston, his good nature somehow still in tact, cheerfully called an end to the day’s meeting, 11 hours or so after it had began.

“Mr. Christopherson, good job,” Mr. Preston concluded, “and I hope I never have to listen that much of you again.”

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