Every Trick in the Book: Anatomy of a Procedural Victory in the House of Commons
On Friday, September 19, 2014, veteran NDP MP Yvon Godin rose in the House during Routine Proceedings to introduce his private Members’ bill amending the Navigable Waters Protection Act.
At first, nothing appeared out of the ordinary. Godin made a few brief comments explaining how his bill would undo changes that the Conservatives had made to the environmental assessment process, and then stated, almost as an afterthought: “Mr. Speaker, since I am already standing, I move that the House proceed to First Reading of Senate Public Bills.”
This was a surprise. Routine Proceedings, as the name suggests, generally proceeds in a routine fashion. The Speaker moves through a pre-established list of categories, or “rubrics”, calling out each in turn. MPs rise if they have anything eligible under that rubric that they’d like to propose. Under the rubric “Introduction of Private Members’ Bills”, normally, an MP introduces a new bill, sits down, and the Speaker informs the House that the motion for first reading of the bill is deemed adopted. This pro forma statement may seem archaic, but it is actually the mechanism that allows a bill to be brought back for debate at second reading later. By moving his motion to proceed to “First Reading of Senate Public Bills” (the next rubric in the pre-established list) rather than continue with “Introduction of Private Members’ Bills”, Godin had prevented the Speaker from making the pro forma statement, and his bill was left in a kind of procedural limbo.
What was Godin hoping to achieve by skipping ahead to the next rubric? The procedural intelligentsia covering House proceedings was initially stumped. Was he trying to sabotage his own bill for some reason? Was an opponent about to introduce a private Members’ bill Godin was trying to block? Or was he just trying to aggravate the government by disrupting the daily schedule? Perhaps Godin, a Maritimer, was simply excited to give someone a chance to introduce the lone Senate public bill on the Order Paper awaiting first reading, a bill establishing National Fiddling Day.
Fridays are quiet on the Hill, and votes are almost unheard of. Many MPs use the day to travel back to their ridings for the weekend to attend constituency events to maintain their local profiles. When Godin moved his unusual motion, the Conservatives and Liberals voted with the NDP in favour, and it passed easily. But as the vote was counted, it became clear that opposition MPs outnumbered government MPs by around two-to-one.
This, it turns out, had been Godin’s real intention: to test, with an innocuous motion, just how many Conservative MPs were on the Hill that day. After the vote, the Speaker called for first reading of Senate public bills, as Godin’s motion required. To the dismay of Ashley MacIsaac enthusiasts, no MP rose to introduce the fiddling bill that had been passed by the Senate, and the Speaker moved on to the next rubric, “Motions”. The NDP now had a rare chance to move a motion knowing that, if the opposition parties banded together, the government couldn’t outvote them.
There are only a few, specific types of motions allowed during Routine Proceedings. Some of the most common motions are motions to debate the recommendations contained in committee reports. According to House rules, such motions are supposed to receive three hours of debate. However, in recent years, when presented by opposition MPs, debate on these motions has typically been cut off by government MPs presenting what are called “superseding motions”, motions which essentially replace the motion being debated with something else. The last time the NDP had moved a motion to debate a committee report (a report of the ethics committee reviewing the conflict of interest guidelines), debate had been shut down with a superseding motion after 30 minutes.
Superseding motions do not kill the debate permanently, but once adopted, they allow the government to re-schedule the remainder of the three hours of debate to the end of the day on a subsequent sitting, typically after seven p.m. when there are far fewer journalists around to cover it. Furthermore, the vote on the superseding motion, which typically takes about 45 minutes, is counted against the three hours.
Since the Conservatives didn’t have the numbers to pass a superseding motion, the NDP knew that it essentially had control of the House of Commons. What did it do with this control?
NDP MP Romeo Saganash moved that the House debate a committee report on missing and murdered indigenous women. Promises to hold a public inquiry within the first 100 days of forming government have been a centerpiece of NDP pre-election strategy. The report, written by a Conservative-dominated committee, did not recommend such an inquiry, but debating the report would allow the NDP to highlight its opposition to the Conservatives’ approach.
Debate on Saganash’s motion continued for about 50 minutes, until the time allotted for Routine Proceedings expired. The remainder of the three hours was re-scheduled until the evening of the following Tuesday.
What did the gambit achieve? The NDP got some media coverage for their surprising maneuver, and Saganash gave a powerful speech on a topic central to the party platform. As a bonus, the NDP was able to highlight how few Conservatives had been in the House, and ensured that, in future, Conservative MPs would be forced to stick around the House on Fridays rather than spend time in their ridings, which might make a difference in a few close races in the next election.
As far as the debate itself was concerned, the motion got about 20 more minutes of debate during prime time in the House of Commons when more journalists are present, and about 45 more minutes overall than what these sorts of motions typically receive. The flaw in the NDP strategy was that the Conservatives could still have attempted to move a superseding motion, knowing it would fail, simply to eat up as much of the three hours as possible. Whether the Conservatives wished to avoid the indignity of a majority government losing a vote in the House, feared accusations of deliberately wasting the House’s time with a vote they knew they’d lose, or simply had no intention of blocking this particular debate, no such attempt was made.
In an ancient institution steeped in tradition, in which every arcane rule has been exhaustively examined, and every loophole exploited and closed, it is impressive whenever MPs concoct maneuvers that catch opponents off-guard. NDP Leader Tom Mulcair was reportedly “beaming with pride.” His delight was understandable. After all, the opposition rarely scores victories in majority Parliaments and his team just won a small one.
Post-script: The following week, the House endorsed the committee report on missing and murdered indigenous women, with the NDP and Liberals opposed on the basis that the report did not recommend a public inquiry. The bill establishing National Fiddling Day was introduced by Conservative MP Tilly O’Neill Gordon on Wednesday, September 24, 2014, and is currently awaiting second reading.
Graeme Truelove is an Ottawa-based writer and author of the critically-acclaimed biography “Svend Robinson: A Life in Politics” (available at bookstores and at www.newstarbooks.com).