Politics better when parties play fair
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/12/2020 (720 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Many politicians are fond of using sports analogies to describe the governing process. In this perspective, the legislature is the “arena “where the “game” is played. The 57 MLAs are organized into competitive “teams” (without the uniforms), they “huddle” in secret caucuses where the “quarterbacks “(party leaders) call the “plays” in terms of legislative tactics. Team loyalty and team play are embedded in the cultures of the parties.
The game is meant to be played by the written Rules of the Legislative Assembly, but just as “receivers” in football feign catching a pass when it actually hit the turf, competitive parties seek to bend the legislature’s rules. The Speaker serves as the “referee,” declaring that some players are “offside” and when more serious offences occur, they are sent to the “penalty box” (being suspended for the day).
Present in the “press box” are the media who provide coverage that prompts “spectators” to cheer, boo or just become exasperated by the quality of the play.
Seeing the legislative process as a game trivializes its fundamental democratic purposes. It also means there is less sense of “fair play,” by which I mean respect for the institution, for the role of political opponents, and for not only the letter but also for the spirit of the rules.
Officially, the rules exist to serve several purposes: to ensure timely consideration of government business, to provide opposition parties with adequate opportunities to challenge government bills and other business, to support all-party co-operation when circumstances require, and to protect the rights of individual MLAs. A shared sense of fair play is needed for these potentially conflicting purposes to be respected in practice.
These thoughts were prompted by a point of order addressed to the Speaker in late November by the NDP, complaining that the government was violating Rule 2(8)a (henceforth called Rule 2) by refusing to distribute the actual text of bills that had been introduced for first reading. Understanding the issues involved in this dispute requires some knowledge of the genesis of Rule 2 and its provisions, which are detailed and complicated.
Rule 2 was a key component of the last major overhaul of the rules that took place back in 2015. Reading the proceedings of the rules committee reveals the tough negotiations it took to balance the right of the government to timely consideration of its bills and an opposition right to adequate time to raise concerns about contentious bills.
Under the rule, the government has the right to designate its priority bills no later than 20 sitting days after the throne speech. A vote at second reading, which constitutes approval in principle of a bill, must happen no later than the 15th day after first reading date.
These deadlines guarantee progress on key bills before the usual summer recess. The tradeoff for the opposition is the right to carry over to the fall session five bills they believe deserve longer consideration by the legislature and the interested public.
On Nov. 25, the NDP raised a point of order with the Speaker, alleging that the government was breaking the letter, or at least the spirit, of Rule 2 by presenting a long list of titles for bills but no text. The lack of actual content made it difficult for the Opposition to prepare informed commentaries on them and to educate the public.
It also meant affected groups and interested individuals would have less preparation time before bills went to a legislative committee for detailed study after second reading.
In the NDP’s view, the introduction and distribution of bills should normally occur simultaneously. In support of its case, the NDP submitted a comparative study from the legislative library, showing that nowhere in Canada or in several outside jurisdictions was there a situation in which a government used delayed distribution of a lengthy list of bills to gain tactical advantage.
Timing of distribution, the government claimed, was its prerogative and this did not have to happen until the second reading stage was reached. It did not address the complaint that withholding a lengthy list of bills was unprecedented. Instead, it argued that the NDP played “fast and loose” with the rule the previous spring by using frivolous matters of privilege to prevent bills being introduced before the specified deadline for guaranteed consideration by early summer.
Premier Brian Pallister declared that he “would go to the wall” to prevent NDP filibustering, which suggests payback was partly the motivation behind the government tactic.
The Speaker has the dispute under advisement. If she sticks to the wording of the rule, the NDP case is problematic. If she considers the multiple purposes it was meant to serve and the lack of parliamentary precedents from elsewhere, she might use the opportunity of her ruling to urge all parties to practise “fair play,” an uncodified ethos of respect that should support the broader democratic functions of the legislature.
Paul G. Thomas is professor emeritus of political studies, University of Manitoba.