What did the House of Commons do to itself last night?

The House of Commons barely pauses before acceding to a government demand
Armed RCMP officers race across a street on Parliament Hilll following a shooting incident in Ottawa October 22, 2014. A Canadian soldier was shot at the Canadian War Memorial and a shooter was seen running towards the nearby parliament buildings, where more shots were fired, according to media and eyewitness reports. Chris Wattie/Reuters
Adrian Wyld/CP
Adrian Wyld/CP

“I’m somewhat preoccupied that the motion before us today, Motion 14, could be interpreted different ways,” Liberal MP Mauril Belanger explained.

This does seem like the sort of thing with which the House of Commons should preoccupy itself—clarifying precisely what it is doing before it does it. And, for a brief moment in the waning minutes of a fleeting debate that invoked the very sanctity of this place, it seemed like blessed compromise and co-operation across the aisle might actually result in such clarity. As if the House of Commons might actually conduct itself in the sort of bipartisan manner that is some kind of ideal.

And then the moment passed. And, in short order, the House of Commons passed the government’s motion unamended, inviting the RCMP to take the lead on securing Parliament Hill—whatever the implications of that invitation and however poorly the passing of that motion reflects on this Parliament.

Belanger had explained to the House that he had written to the government to explain his concerns about this motion. The government’s motion, which instructs the Speaker to invite the RCMP to lead an integrated security force for the parliamentary precinct, raises serious questions about the independence of Parliament and the bedrock principle of parliamentary privilege. (Security of the Hill is currently divided between House, Senate and RCMP officers.) The RCMP ultimately reports to the government. But Parliament must be independent of the government. So, if the RCMP is to be charged with protecting Parliament, how can Parliament be sure that it, and not the government, will be directing the RCMP?

This is no small matter, at least insofar as the authority of Parliament is the basis for our entire system of governance—the sort of thing for which it is entirely reasonable to reference the beheading of King Charles. As such, it must be zealously guarded.

The government’s motion stipulated that the RCMP lead an integrated security force “while respecting the privileges, immunities and powers of the respective Houses” of Parliament, but Belanger wanted to be “clear and precise,” so he asked that the motion include reference to a “contractual agreement with the House of Commons and the Senate” and specify that the security team “would report to the Speakers of the two Houses so as to respect the division of powers” and “parliamentary supremacy.”

With that much so moved, the government’s unimposing whip stood and told the House that he agreed with the letter Belanger had sent to the government. “The member’s letter was a good letter,” John Duncan said. “And my comment to my own people was, ‘Excuse me, but this is absolutely consistent with the motion.’ ”

In fact, it was precisely what Belanger wanted to specify that Duncan saw as sure to happen. “Our motion empowers the Speakers to coordinate the development of an agreement, such as the examples that have just been given by the member,” Duncan said. “This is exactly what is contemplated. This is exactly what will flow from the motion.”

So this sounded like a perfectly good reason to adopt Belanger’s amendment. But, apparently, since the government whip believed the government’s motion to mean what Belanger wanted the government motion to say, Duncan deemed the amendment to be “superfluous.”

Here, Belanger stood and stated the obvious. “If it were in the motion, I wouldn’t be doing what I’ve done, Mr. Speaker.”

And so the last real opportunity for reasonableness was frittered away in the most mind-numbing of ways. Two hours after Belanger’s appeal, his sub-amendment was formally defeated (the Liberals, NDP and Independents voting in favour, the Conservatives voting against). Then, NDP whip Nycole Turmel’s amendment was defeated (the NDP and Belanger voting in favour, the Conservatives and every other Liberal voting against). And then the government’s motion was passed (the NDP voting against, the Conservatives voting in favour, the Liberal caucus missing its cue and thus failing to vote, though it would’ve voted in favour if it had been paying more attention).

It is possible, of course, that the Speakers of the House and Senate will now proceed to formalize an arrangement with the RCMP that is perfectly reasonable and well-aligned with the principles upon which our democracy is based. But even a perfect result might not justify the way in which the government and House of Commons have, respectively, conducted themselves here.

The motion did not result from a multi-partisan study of the situation—in the wake of the shooting on Oct. 22, the Speaker established a working group to review the security of the parliamentary precinct, but this motion came from the government. And though the events of Oct. 22 were explicitly set up as the very pretext for the overhaul of Hill security—written into the motion itself—the House debated the motion without the benefit of even a single published review of what happened that day.

Of course, to say the House “debated” the motion is perhaps to flatter the House. The government first brought the motion to the floor of the House on a Friday morning—Fridays being an abbreviated day for the House. The government then moved closure—the most dramatic and contested of curtailment measures—to ensure debate on the motion concluded yesterday. In all, the motion was debated for a total of five hours and 20 minutes. In the time it takes to drive from Toronto to Montreal, the House decided to sign off on a vague plan to change its own security. As Belanger pointed out, the timing of the motion’s presentation and passage did not even allow MPs to discuss the matter at their weekly Wednesday caucus meetings. As Green Party Leader Elizabeth May has protested, the motion was passed without study or testimony.

That there should be some unification of security forces around Parliament Hill was apparently not in dispute. But even with that much of a basis for agreement, the government chose to rush a motion through the House, resorting to closure to do so.

“We are talking about the security of Parliament, not the security that the government is responsible for,” the NDP’s David Christopherson lamented yesterday, fuming in his demonstrative way with fingers and arms jabbing and flailing. “The fact that it would attempt to ram this through without agreement is unacceptable.”

Ultimately, on a question of Parliament, the House acceded to the government’s demand. The votes of the Conservatives and NDP were apparently whipped, and only Belanger broke with his party (to support Turmel’s amendment), although Conservative MP Michael Chong did stand in the final hour to say he would be supporting the motion with “trepidation.”

“My comments reflect the views of many members of Parliament on both sides of the aisle who have not had a chance to speak to the motion because of closure,” he said. “Mr. Speaker, I hope that you and the other Speakers of the House, along with the clerks, will take into account my remarks when translating the motion into agreements or into contracts.

“I support the unification of the security services on Parliament Hill, but it is important that we maintain the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches of government. In other words, it is important that the RCMP on the Hill report exclusively to Speakers of the Commons and Speakers of the Senate and not to the Solicitor General of Canada. In other words, the final decision-making authority should rest exclusively with the Speakers of both respected chambers, and not with the executive branch of government, the cabinet, or any minister, such as the Solicitor General.”

And hey, maybe that will even happen. But maybe there were the makings of a rewritten motion that some majority of the House could have supported without trepidation, and without the use of closure. Instead, the House arrived at a decision in the least reassuring way possible.

It is periodically difficult to say whether the House of Commons is basically succeeding at its task or failing miserably in its responsibility. In this case, the government’s motion was at least challenged, questions raised and suggestions made. This system sort of worked. But this looks and feels like a failure.