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Opposition tries in vain to curtail Harper's 'gross overuse' of debate limits

Sean Kilpatrick/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

A motion by the federal New Democrats to prevent the Conservative government from limiting debate on the legislation it puts before Parliament has zero chance of being passed in the Commons.

But it does give the opposition the opportunity to rail against what it perceives to be the government's subversion of democracy.

Joe Comartin, the veteran New Democrat now serving as his party's House Leader, asked the Commons Friday to find that "the thorough examination and debate of proposed legislation on behalf of Canadians is an essential duty of Members of Parliament, and that the curtailment of such debate limits the ability of Members to carry out this duty and constitutes an affront to Canadian democracy."

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Mr. Comartin's motion asks Speaker Andrew Scheer to recommend that closure and time allocation on debate when a minister can justify that sort of curtailment and the Speaker is satisfied that the justification outweighs the duty to thoroughly discuss proposed legislation. The motion also says criteria should be established to determine what are reasonable grounds to limit debate.

New Democrats say the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper is on track to match the record of former Liberal government of Jean Chrétien, which limited the parliamentary discussion on six bills, with nine separate time allocations, between Jan. 29, 2001 and October 1, 2002, Mr. Comartin said.

The Liberals imposed those limits over the course of 212 sitting days in the House of Commons. The Conservatives, by comparison, have limited the debate on at least six bills since winning a majority in May. And they invoked closure on a bill to end a strike a Canada Post.

The bills on which debate has been cut off have included the dismantling of the gun registry, the bill to end of the wheat board's monopoly, the omnibus crime bill, two budget bills, and the bill to redistribute the seats in the House of Commons.

And the discussion of bills has also been curtailed at Commons committees.

Mr. Comartin told the House that he is being forced to act because of the government's "gross overuse" of its ability to shut down debate.

"What it will do is take away from the government of the day the unilateral ability to shut down debate in this House and allow the Speaker as an independent officer of Parliament, to make decisions as to when it is appropriate to curtail debate and when, in fact, it's an abuse of the process," he said.

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Other parliaments around the world, including those in Australia and Britain, allow the speakers to regulate the instances in which debate can be cut off, Mr. Comartin said.

"It's going to mean more work for you and subsequent speakers," he told Mr. Scheer, "but we have to find a much more proper balance in terms of our ability as non-government members, opposition members, to do our jobs. Our responsibility here is to determine whether the legislation coming from the government is appropriate. We are not being able to do that."

But Gary Breitkreuz, a Conservative MP from Saskatchewan, responded to Mr. Comartin by asking just how many government bills have been debate and then passed into law in this session.

"None," Mr. Breitkreuz said, answering his own question. "We were elected to some get things done. The opposition has been doing its level best to prevent the government from passing legislation this entire fall session. We are almost to the end of this session. I think it's unconscionable that this Parliament has not been able to do the work."

In fact, since the election last May, three bills have received Royal Assent including a budget bill, two money allocation bills, a crime bill, and the bill to end the labour dispute at Canada Post.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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