The latest House of Commons standoff reveals the many shades of grey in parliamentary politics

ANALYSIS: The Conservatives kept members in the House for 20 straight hours to punish the Liberals — and that’s just fine, writes Kady O’Malley
By Kady O'Malley - Published on March 29, 2018
Andrew Scheer, federal Conservative leader
The Conservatives triggered a vote that lasted from last Thursday evening until mid-afternoon the following day. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

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​If you happened to find yourself tuning into the live feed from the House of Commons toward the end of last week — and, to be clear, there will be no quiet judging from this corner if you didn’t, as it can be a painful experience even for those of us required to do so — you might have caught a glimpse of what could be described as live-action parliamentary performance art.

The vote, triggered by the Conservatives (for reasons we’ll explore a bit later on), kept MPs in the chamber, standing up to be counted and then sitting back down, over and over and over again, for more than 20 straight hours — from Thursday evening until mid-afternoon the following day.

Why? Well, as is the case with most such demonstrations of cross-aisle discontent, it depends who you ask.

According to the Conservatives, it was meant to pressure Prime Minister Justin Trudeau into reconsidering his refusal to allow his national security adviser, Daniel Jean, to brief the Commons public safety committee on the Jaspal Atwal affair — he had, after all, reportedly provided off-the-record information to Canadian journalists during Trudeau’s gaffe-plagued trek through India.

(It’s worth noting that, while Jean’s involvement in that briefing has yet to be formally confirmed — officially, it’s still attributed to an unnamed senior official — but it also hasn’t been denied, which, in this case, seems like a tacit admission that it was him.)

For those who may have lost the thread of the plot: Jean allegedly blamed factions within the Indian government for scheming to sneak Atwal — Indo-Canadian businessman, one-time Sikh separatist sympathizer, and convicted attempted assassin — onto the invite list for a reception in Trudeau’s honour at the Canadian High Commission in Delhi.

Those aligned with Team Trudeau (in this case, not just the cabinet, but the Liberal caucus as well) probably dismiss the marathon session as simply a temper tantrum from Her Majesty’s Official Opposition, which has twice failed to garner the necessary support to have Jean testify — first at the public safety committee itself, where Liberal members used their collective majority to vote down a proposal to invite him to appear, and then in the House, where those same Liberals joined with the rest of the caucus to defeat an opposition motion that would have called on the prime minister to “instruct” him to do so.

In fact, it was that motion — and specifically, the move by the Liberals to defeat it — that prompted the prolonged voting session: the Conservatives had hoped it might spark discontent in the Liberal backbenches. (As far as anyone can tell, that has yet to emerge.)

Undaunted, the Conservatives vowed to continue their campaign to disrupt regular House programming when the Chamber re-opened for business on Monday — and while they should definitely get partial credit for effort, their delaying tactics seem to have had little impact on either the government’s short-term agenda or the resolve of the Liberal caucus to support the prime minister in rebuffing their demands.

At this point, a diligent reader might reasonably expect a weighing of the arguments — perhaps even the handing down of an official verdict as to who’s right and who’s wrong. Which is why I fully expect to annoy at least a few of you by openly admitting that I just can’t help sympathizing with both sides.

First off, yes, opposition parties (and MPs in general) have every right to propose that any public official — or, indeed, anyone at all — testify before committee (the sole exception being a fellow parliamentarian, as they’re the only ones who can’t be compelled to appear). That would absolutely include the prime minister’s national security adviser, although such a move could also be rationally opposed on the grounds that it’s ultimately up to the minister (or, in this case, the prime minister) to answer for his actions, as that is, after all, the foundation of responsible government.

Given that, it just makes sense to recognize that opposition parties have the right to protest the refusal of the government to accede to such a request — and to pull any and all available procedural levers to express their dismay by delaying or pre-empting House business.

And they shouldn’t be obliged to defend such tactics against the estimated cost of putting the Chamber in overtime; by its very nature, parliamentary democracy is rarely the most efficient way to run a country.

The Liberals have also been quick to point out — again and again, and at length — that they have offered to brief Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, who, as a Privy Council member, is authorized to receive confidential and classified information. Scheer and his party initially denied that such an overture had been made, but they have now publicly rejected it: he would almost certainly be barred from speaking publicly about what he was told.

At the same time, the Conservatives and their supporters are at risk of — sorry, but there’s just no more succinct way to put it — jumping the shark when they attempt to spin Trudeau’s unwillingness to comply with their demands as a potential breach of parliamentary privilege, which has been a running sub-theme in their campaign.

As it stands — and as the speaker had to point out in a ruling earlier this week — neither the  House nor the committee has actually invited or ordered Jean to appear. And there’s no evidence that the prime minister, or anyone else, is preventing him from volunteering to do so without a formal invitation.

If either the committee or the House had adopted a motion to bring Jean before committee, and the prime minister had refused to allow him to do so, Trudeau would indeed have been at risk of being found in contempt, but that didn’t happen, and for one very simple reason: in a majority parliament, unless the executive goes seriously off the rails, they can pretty much count on the MPs in their party’s caucus to back them up, which is exactly what has happened here.

So, how will it all end?

Barring a major twist in the storyline, it will slowly but surely drop from the headlines, leaving behind nothing but a tangle of unanswered questions and an undercurrent of lingering resentment.

It may be deeply frustrating for the opposition parties not to know what, if any, proof exists that Atwal’s presence on the invite list was the result of a plot by the Indian government to embarrass Trudeau and Canada over their alleged cosiness with the Sikh separatist movement.

But it isn’t a contempt of the House: it’s just life in a majority setting. Trying to conflate the two could further erode not just public understanding of the rationale for zealously preserving parliamentary privilege, but also respect for the institution itself.

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