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Goertzen's filibuster asserts the power of legislature

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Conservative house leader Kelvin Goertzen recently announced he would filibuster the NDP government's Bill 20, which raises the provincial sales tax to eight per cent from seven per cent. True to his word, Goertzen rambled on in the legislature on several occasions following question period. But his vocal cords were spared when a deal was brokered to end the filibuster last Thursday and Bill 20 moved on to public consultations.

Some may criticize the Steinbach MLA for grandstanding and wasting time. To the contrary, Goertzen has demonstrated how filibustering can be an effective tool for MLAs to stand up to the government and draw public attention to an important issue. While the powers of both legislatures and MLAs have seemingly weakened considerably, Goertzen's filibuster reminds us individual MLAs can still make a difference.

A filibuster is the use of obstruction tactics such as extended speech-making in the legislature. The goal of filibusters is to both stall the legislative process and draw public attention to important issues.

A dramatic example of filibustering took place in the Canadian Parliament in July 2011. The Opposition NDP wished to stall the passing of Bill C-6, which sought to impose a four-year contract and pay conditions on locked-out Canada Post workers. NDP MPs took turns speaking 20 minutes each for no fewer than 58 hours, effectively delaying Parliament's summer break and attracting renewed media attention to the bill and its consequences.

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul provides another example of a filibustering politician. Paul bristled against the refusal of U.S. President Barack Obama's administration to confirm drone strikes would not take place against citizens on U.S. soil. In response, he launched a one-man, 13-hour filibuster on the Senate floor. Paul ultimately got the guarantee he wanted. But, in the meantime, the Kentucky senator had attracted intense media attention, embarrassed Obama, earned admiring comments from both parties and cemented his place as a front-runner in the upcoming Republican presidential primaries.

Both cases of filibustering illustrate how parliamentarians, acting individually or as groups, can stand up against executive powers in exceptional circumstances and represent their constituents. There are three reasons why it's very important for parliamentarians in Canada and Manitoba to do so.

First, severe party discipline in Canada enhances the power of party leaders and cabinets. Individual MPs and MLAs are often denigrated as trained seals that happily bow to the party whip, rubber-stamping whatever legislation is put before them. Political scientist Donald Savoie goes one step further, arguing power has risen even above the cabinet, and is now concentrated in the hands of the prime minister and his unelected staff. It is especially important given the power of party discipline that MPs and MLAs use tactics like filibusters to assert themselves.

Second, executives have shown they are willing to clamp down on legislative debate. Governments introduce time-allocation measures, which limit legislative debate on certain issues. They also invoke closure, which shuts down debate altogether. Overuse of these measures -- or, some would argue, any use at all -- neuters legislatures and silences citizens' representatives. The federal Conservative government, for example, has invoked time allocation no fewer than 49 times since the 2011 election.

Finally, even if MLAs were permitted to speak, they would find it difficult to do so because provincial legislatures sit for brief periods. Shorter sessions of the legislature mean MLAs have fewer opportunities to hold the government to account and speak out on behalf of citizens.

The number of days the Manitoba legislature is in session has experienced a sharp decline since the NDP was first elected in 1999. The legislature sat for 78 days in 2000; by 2012, that number had dipped to 52 days. Manitoba's MLAs have lost roughly an entire month where they can speak out in the legislature. And sitting days have declined further still from the banner year of 1988, when the legislature sat for 121 days.

Party discipline is strong, legislative debates are limited, and legislative sittings are short. It is difficult indeed for individual MLAs under these circumstances to speak out and command the executive's attention. Goertzen's filibuster, like many before his, accomplished exactly this feat, and we hope to see more in the future.


Royce Koop is an assistant professor in the department of political studies at the University of Manitoba. Co-writer Davis Hirsch received an undergraduate research fellowship to work with Koop this summer.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 25, 2013 A9

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