PARLIAMENT HILL—The federal Liberals’ attempt to have Parliament sit for four days a week instead of five is running into strong opposition.
On March 10, the Friday before spring break, the Government House Leader’s website published a discussion paper titled “Reforming the Standing Orders of the House of Commons,” proposing major changes to the way Parliament functions.
These include eliminating Friday sittings in the House, adopting the British system of having the prime minister appear just one day a week during question period to answer questions, allowing electronic voting, and limiting the delay powers of opposition MPs.
“The Government has committed to modernize the rules of the House in order to make Parliament more relevant to Canadians,” the paper said, adding that the purpose is to stimulate a discussion of reforms to the Standing Orders.
During question period on March 21, Conservative and NDP MPs criticized the proposal to eliminate Friday sittings, saying it would enable the Liberals to be unaccountable and limit the Opposition’s ability to challenge the government.
“It’s not simply an inconvenience for the prime minister to come in every day to answer questions; it is an essential thing for him to be accountable to all Canadians. How can the prime minister justify his desire to only come once a week? Why is he trying to escape his responsibilities?” said Opposition Leader Rona Ambrose.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau replied that the aim of the paper is “to talk about how we can improve the functioning of this house of democracy, how we can make sure that Canadians are better heard, that the opposition has an opportunity to ask tough questions to hold the prime minister to account and to hold this government to account.”
“That is why among the many proposals we have made we have talked about the model of the British prime minister … that devotes an entire question period to the prime minister answering questions.”
Conservative MP Mark Strahl said getting rid of Friday sittings would “cut off debate in committees, eliminate debates on committee reports, and severely limit debate in this House.”
“The Liberals are diminishing Parliament and reducing accountability,” he said. “They should not be changing the rules of the House to make this a safe space for the prime minister. When will the prime minister end his constant attack on the ability of MPs to hold the government accountable?”
In June 2016, the Procedure and House Affairs committee held hearings on making Parliament more “family friendly” by eliminating Friday sittings but found no consensus among MPs. That same committee will be studying the current changes proposed by the government.
“We have asked the committee to do the important work that it does to modernize this place and to bring it into the 21st century,” said House Leader Bardish Chagger, who released the discussion paper.
“We believe that all members on both sides of this place should have the opportunity to have meaningful discussion, and that is why I think it is an important conversation to have.”
NDP MP Nathan Cullen accused the Liberals of trying “to stifle the voices of the opposition.”
“It is the Liberal prime minister who wants to automatically limit debate on all government bills, and it is the Liberal prime minister who says he only has to show up one day a week to answer questions Canadians have for him,” he said.
“Newsflash: this House does not belong to the Liberal Party. It belongs to all Canadians, so will the Liberals step away from this disastrous and undemocratic plan, and work with us to make Parliament work again?”