This week is the final constituency week where MPs are back in their home ridings before returning to Ottawa on Monday, May 28th for what will be the longest uninterrupted sitting for this year as debate will likely be extended well into the late evening hours with possibly more sitting days to be added. The reason for extended debate and possibly more sitting days is to get bills through the House and into the Senate prior to the summer recess. After that all eyes will be on the Senate for more reasons than usual.
If you have been following our Canadian Senate you may know that a recent effort has been underway by the Liberal Government to appoint Senators who are considered “Independent” as they are not political members of the Government's Liberal caucus. More recently Senators have also been appointed by the Prime Minister with the benefit of being selected by a panel of appointees who in theory are selecting citizens without political considerations being part of the criteria. These recent Senate reform efforts have also resulted in a number of Senators who were formerly affiliated with party caucuses to resign and also sit as Independent members of the Senate. The end result is that there are now more independent senators and a different structure in place from a political perspective than had existed previously.
Why is this relevant? To give an example one of the most controversial bills in recent Parliamentary history is Bill C-14 “Medical Assistance in dying”. This is the bill that the Government has been using parliamentary tools such as time allocation in order to limit debate and fast track through the House of Commons. It should be noted that Supreme Court imposed an early June deadline for the passage of this Bill and at the same time many Parliamentarians, including many who support the bill, feel that the language of the bill is fundamentally flawed and should not be rushed as a result. Currently it does not appear that the Liberal Government will significantly extend debate nor accept amendments from the opposition benches. Thus in the very near future Bill C-14 will likely receive third reading in the House of Commons and end up in the Canadian Senate.
The Senate, as many will know, is often referred to as the chamber of “sober second thought”. As many believe that the Senate should be abolished, this is one of those occasions where Senate supporters can legitimately argue that the existence of the Senate is precisely for situations such as these where a bill with potentially flawed language that has been rushed through the House of Commons can be addressed prior to receiving Royal Assent and becoming law. The question to be asked by Canadians is what will happen to Bill C-14 once it hits the Senate?
By all accounts the efforts of Senate reform to move towards a more independent of Government institution will be fully tested with this bill. If the Government is able to have Bill C-14 move swiftly through the Senate unchanged many will likely suggest the reform efforts have failed. However if a more independent Senate defies the Government and significantly delays or amends Bill C-14, this could have significant effects on governance given that Members of Parliament are elected and Senators remain appointed and un-elected with the power to potentially delay or amend a bill passed by a democratically elected House. In the event this occurred the bill would then be sent back to the House of Commons to either find consent or continued disagreement.
For as much attention as the recent elbowing incident from the Prime Minister received in reality how the Senate responds to Bill C-14 is a far more important subject that Canadians should be paying attention to. This is a topic I will be providing an update on and I welcome your comments and questions at Dan.Albas@parl.gc.ca or call toll free 1-800-665-8711.
Seldom will a week go by while the House of Commons is in session without hearing the all too familiar suggestion that "democracy is under attack". As I pointed out in last week's MP report whenever time allocation or another legitimate parliamentary procedural tool is used by Government this is a re-occurring accusation used by many different interests in response. In my view that challenge that occurs with the frequent use of the "democracy is under attack" theme is that eventually it is tuned out and ignored as the usual noise that comes from Ottawa. Democracy is a way of life that we as Canadians value dearly and have protected this principle for almost 150 years and at times with great sacrifice. Thus allegations of democracy being under attack must always be taken seriously.
The reason I raise this is that the Liberal Government recently announced the creation of a parliamentary committee for democratic reform. What is democratic reform in this context? During the last election one of the promises made by Justin Trudeau and the Liberals was to change Canada's current first-past-the-post process to elect Members of Parliament and in turn Government to instead use a different electoral system. The type of electoral system to be used was not specified by the Liberals hence the creation of a parliamentary committee to make a recommendation to the Liberal Government for a new means of electing MPs.
The concern expressed by many is the Liberals in turn announced a 12 person democratic reform committee that has a composition of 6 Liberals, 3 Conservative, 1 NDP, 1 Member from the Bloc Quebecois and Elizabeth May, the sole MP from the Green Party. Not only does this committee have a larger Liberal majority then what the Liberals were actually elected under, they have denied Elizabeth May and the Bloc Quebecois the right to a vote- in other words it will actually be the Liberals who will decide the next voting system for Canadians.
Why is this problem? Obviously for the Liberals it is not a problem however for other political parties different electoral system can have a significant impact. As an example for both the Green Party and the NDP, typically far more Canadians vote for them compared to the number of seats they will win in the House of Commons. For this reason they favour proportional representation as it would increase the number of seats they have in the House of Commons. For the Liberals, who often tend to be either the first or second choice for many voters, it has been suggested that the ranked ballot system could all but guarantee Liberal Governments for the foreseeable future. Obviously for the Conservative Party different systems that better advantage other parties will in turn be a disadvantage for them.
What is the best electoral system? In reality every electoral system has advantages and disadvantages. From my perspective there is no perfect system and that any potential changes should not be rushed as Canada has a unique federation, wide geography and diverse population. From the perspective of individual political parties, obviously some electoral systems will be far more desirable than others creating a clear conflict of self-interest. The question that should be asked is what is the best electoral system is for Canadians? It is my opinion that it is not for political parties to decide on. Ultimately this is a question for Canadians to decide on through a democratic referendum. Canadian democracy does not belong to politicians; it belongs to the people of Canada who should have the democratic opportunity to decide our electoral future. I welcome your views on this or any subject before the House of Commons. I can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 1-800-665-8711.
Ottawa has once again been a busy week as a number of debates have been occurring while Bills progress through the House and in some cases assisted by the Liberal Government through invoking time allocation to limit debate and force votes. In addition to time allocation Bills such as the Medical Assistance in Dying legislation, is being fast tracked through committee stage review where a Government dominated committee is consistently refusing the vast majority of amendments from opposition parties in order to force this legislation through onto third reading before it will hit the Senate. In other words our new Liberal Government is using precisely the same tactics as the previous Conservative Government used in order to advance Government legislation through the House. The primary difference I have noticed is that in the past when these tactics were used pundits often applied terms such as “anti-democratic” or “dictatorship” whereas the same tactics used today by a different Government are referred to as legitimate tools of democracy.
Why do I raise this point? In reality Parliamentary tools such as time allocation, prorogation and closure were created so that majority governments can ultimately implement the mandate they were given by voters. Few Governments could implement policy effectively if the legislative agenda could always be derailed or otherwise usurped by the opposition. In the last Parliament when I sat on the Government side of the House I always found it deeply disappointing and at times troubling how often pundits and some media would refer to the legitimate use of parliamentary tools as somehow being anti-democratic. While I feel it is fair game in opposition to point out that Liberals promised not to use similar tactics, it must also be pointed out that the tactics themselves are fair game and are part of decades old Parliamentary procedure.
What is time allocation and why is it used? Time allocation is sometimes confused with closure which is a different Parliamentary procedure. Time allocation sets a fixed period of time that is available in the House of Commons to debate a specific stage of debate during a Bill. Closure is different in that it ends the debate on a Bill or motion anf then calls for a vote. Why does a Government use time allocation?
There are a variety of different reasons that time allocation is invoked by government however the most common reason is that Government will have a number of bills to move through the House and into the Senate. If too much time is spent debating a particular bill it will bog down the House and delay the passage of other legislation. Typically government and the official opposition house leaders will try to work together to agree on time limits for each debate on a specific bill however when there is disagreement more often than not time allocation may be used.
In some cases there might also be bills that may be embarrassing or otherwise politically award for the government so the government may use time allocation to advance a bill very quickly through the house. A good example of this was Bill C-10 that essentially removed a restriction on Air Canada that would allow it to eliminate maintenance jobs here in Canada and potentially move those jobs into other countries with lower wages. Obviously the Government in this case did not desire to spend a considerable amount of time debating a Government bill that potentially eliminates Canadian jobs- thus time allocation was used. As I have now reached the 550 word allocation of my weekly report I must also conclude with an invitation for citizens to contact me directly with comments or questions at email@example.com or call toll free 1-800-665-8711.
Our thoughts and prayers this week are with our neighbors in Alberta from the community of Fort McMurray who have been devastated by a raging wildfire that has caused immense loss of property but fortunately to date no reported loss of life. Citizens in the Okanagan know firsthand the impacts of forest fires and I know all citizens in our region are in support of the many first responders who are working tirelessly to regain control of the situation. In Ottawa the Federal Government will be providing military support to assist with the firefighting efforts and the Prime Minister has indicated other supports may be available as this situation unfolds. I would also like to thank those citizens who have donated to the Canadian Red Cross relief effort for victims who have lost homes in this tragedy.
In Ottawa this week debate has been largely focused on Bill C-14 (Medical Assistance in Dying) with daily sittings extended into the late evening as the Liberals also prepare to shut down debate using an upcoming vote to enact time allocation. After my recent MP reports on this subject the overwhelming response I have heard back on this bill is largely supportive however with concerns as well as constructive suggestions on how the bill might be further improved with additional safeguards. One additional challenge to this Bill is that the Supreme Court has established a June 2016 deadline for the bill to be passed. This Supreme Court imposed deadline ultimately limits not only the debate but also what amendments and other criteria might be added to further ensure that the bill does not adversely impact those who are most vulnerable. As an example of this currently Bill C-14 proposes that a written request for medical assistance in dying is independently assessed by two doctors or nurse practitioners.
One suggestion I received is that this two person requirement could be expanded to also include a social worker, a medical ethicist, a palliative care expert and possibly someone with mental health experience. This is only one example of potential amendments that could better strengthen this legislation.
One other update I would like to provide stems from my April 13th MP report on the Bank ``bail in`` legislation contained in the new Liberal Budget Implementation Act. At the time of that report it was unclear if the bank bail in provisions would specifically exclude the deposits from everyday bank customers. I can now confirm that the Bank bail in provisions would exclude, and thereby protect, consumer bank deposits from this legislation. As a result I now believe that the Bank bail in provisions will further strengthen our Canadian banking system while also adding increased accountability with less taxpayer risk. For a refresher on this topic my April 13th MP report can be viewed here: www.danalbas.com/mp-report/bail-in-or-bail-out
On a final note I would like to announce that my primary West Kelowna Constituency office has made a small move and is now located at 2562-B, Main Street, in West Kelowna. The new location has ample parking and I invite citizens to drop in if you require assistance or would like to arrange an appointment. For seven of the next eight weeks I will be in Ottawa as the House is now in the spring session that is the busiest of the year until the anticipated June 24th summer adjournment. This summer, as in previous years, I will also be conducting my annual summer listening tour as I look forward to visiting all communities and regions within Central Okanagan-Similkameen-Nicola. As always your comments, questions and concerns are welcome and I can be reached at Dan.Albas@parl.gc.ca or toll free 1-800-665-8711.
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Dan Albas is the Member of Parliament for the riding of Central Okanagan-Similkameen-Nicola.