View From the Hill by Keith Beardsley – Contrasting Stephen Harper to John Diefenbaker – February 10, 2012

CFN – Like many Conservatives, I am an admirer of John Diefenbaker, our thirteenth Prime Minister. Dief was a great politician and an impressive orator. Watching the present Conservative government’s use of time allocation to stifle debate in the House of Commons I was reminded of one of Diefenbaker’s quotes.

“Parliament is more than procedure – it is the custodian of the nation’s freedom.”
– September 22, 1949, House of Commons.

I have to wonder how Diefenbaker would have reacted if the Liberal government of his day used time allocation as often as the present government which is well on its way to setting a new record. For that matter, would Reform MPs from the class of 1993 or 1997 have sat back and watched the Liberals act this way?

Parliamentary debate is essential in a democracy and yes at times it is inconvenient for the party in power as it delays the passage of legislation. But that is what opposition parties do. Canadians send MPs (including opposition ones) to Ottawa to represent them and their views. With a strong majority government, what is wrong with allowing opposition MPs the opportunity to debate a bill? The bill will eventually pass and perhaps the opposition might have something constructive to add.

While the present day Conservative government views any stalling by opposition MPs as intolerable, the Conservatives themselves have a great tradition of stalling legislation in the House of Commons. Both of the parties that make up the present Conservative Party of Canada have used stalling tactics in the House to delay passage of legislation that they did not agree with. For example, the Progressive Conservative Party led the delaying tactics in the great pipeline debate from May 8 to June 6, 1956. Debate was eventually ended when the Liberals introduced closure, but by doing so the Liberals also contributed to their own defeat in the next election.

The Progressive Conservatives also led the opposition stalling tactics in the Maple Leaf Flag debate which lasted from June 15th to December 15, 1964.

In 1999, the Reform Party stalled the Nisga’a treaty for 42 hours and in 2002, then Canadian Alliance member Bob Mills stalled the Kyoto Protocol for 12 hours. The present day tactics of the Liberals and NDP aren’t even in the same league as those past Conservative efforts.

And let us not forget that during their recent minority government years, the Conservatives also used procedural tactics and filibusters in committees.

Stalling debate and using procedural moves to delay the passage of government legislation is a time honoured tradition in Canada; it is part of our democratic process. This is a government that is focused on reinforcing our traditions and values including a revival of our connection to the monarchy and support for military traditions such as adding “Royal” to our air force and navy. We also have democratic traditions that need reinforcing and allowing opposition members an opportunity to represent the views of their constituents is one of them. We have to keep in mind that those precedents and procedures that are set in the House today will be used by future non-Conservative governments to justify their actions in the House. We need to be careful what we wish for.

Keith Beardsley is a senior strategist for True North Public Affairs in Ottawa, as well as a blogger and political analyst. He can often be found running or cycling on his favorite bike trails.

Best Western Cornwall

1 Comment

  1. I’m old enough to remember Diefenbaker and Pearson and the months-long flag debate. At that time, limiting debate on a bill was almost unheard of. These days, it seems like standard practice. Might as well shut down Parliament for the next few years if debate is going to be stifled. Steve has complete control, so why should we pretend to have any say?

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