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On Becoming A Cog In The Machine
How the House of Commons gets a daily routine
When Arnold Chan approached me about taking on his responsibilities as the acting Deputy House Leader, the role was not well defined. As with many jobs in politics, the role is what you make of it.
From what I could determine, it consisted of two main responsibilities or tasks. First, I would go to the morning “tactics” meeting at 8 AM every day on which the House of Commons sat, where we would go over the plans for the day while the other parties each held similar meetings; and second, I would be backing up Winnipeg North MP Kevin Lamoureux, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons, in his responsibility for shepherding debate in the House on behalf of the government.
When I ran for MP, I knew the Hill from the perspective of an opposition staffer, which I had been for several years, not that of a government Member. The intricacies of the different roles were not really clear to me, and I was not even really aware prior to this event that there existed a role of Deputy House Leader that differed from the Parliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons. I knew Parliamentary Secretaries mainly in their Harper-era role as the de facto managers of Parliamentary committees, but under Justin Trudeau, in visceral reaction to the overt control the previous government had claimed over committees through this role, we would not even initially place Parliamentary Secretaries as full members of committees, granting them something akin to observer status — the right to attend, but not to vote.
I quickly understood that Parliamentary Secretaries, who have much of the responsibility of a Minister but none of the privilege or benefits, was just about the worst job for an MP to have, tolerated only because it was generally seen as the proving ground for potential Ministers.
In that context, my new role as an acting Deputy House Leader, with no clearly defined responsibilities, but no real benefits, ultimately did not disappoint.
At tactics, a typically 15-20 minute meeting with no interpreters, often delayed over who had access to 330S, the Privy Council Office-controlled Centre Block meeting room across the hall from the Prime Minister’s office, we would discuss proposed friendly questions in Question Period, who should ask them and whether they were appropriate given the day’s larger strategy.
Questions suggested by government Members were plentiful, Ministers’ offices prepared to answer them rather less so. The Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, had made it crystal clear to all involved that caucus members had a right to ask real, hard, public questions of our own ministers, and so the most ministerial staff could really do on not-so-friendly questions was stall for more time. As a majority government, we only had three of the 40 slots for questions on any given sitting day, and they were often set aside for specific questions to announce some aspect of government policy in the one window in which the media actually watched the House.
Who would be making statements in the House, and what their proposed text stated, was also a subject for these morning tactics meetings. The objective for both statements and questions was not so much to censor embarrassing statements, though there was certainly an element of ‘hey, that is risky, can we suggest they reword it?’, but rather to ensure that all Members had a turn, and that gender, race, regional, and language balance was dealt with in statements. A day limited to only white male MPs asking questions and making statements and, at that, only in English, was rather to be avoided, for example, so someone’s statement might get punted to later in the week to ensure that the “optics” – a far over-used word in politics – were appropriate. Managing the list of questions and statements was the responsibility of the assistant to the Deputy Whip, a staffer with considerable influence on the outcome.
The final list would be provided to the Table. The Speaker, who ostensibly chooses who speaks, would then be presented with the combined list from all parties as a fait-accompli, and the prompt screen by his feet pre-populated with the name and party of each Member to speak, in order of appearance.
The Table is the large white oak and walnut table in the centre of the House of Commons chamber at which sit the Clerk of the House of Commons - the senior public servant in charge of the Commons’ half of Parliament, and one or two deputy clerks. It is the administrative hub of the chamber.
There were no real rules for Statements by Members, known on the Hill as SO31s, named for the Standing Order that enables them. They’re essentially the one minute every now and again that MPs can say pretty much whatever they want. It is generally used to recognise an accomplishment by a constituent, mark an event, or make a partisan point about some wonderful or terrible thing, depending which side you are on, the government has done. It could also be used for humour. Long-time Nova Scotia MP Rodger Cuzner, for example, was famous for his annual Christmas Poems, which are universally still worth taking the time to dig up online.
The tactics meetings were usually attended by upwards of 20 people, most of whom were staff, and chaired by the House Leader or the Parliamentary Secretary to the House Leader. We would also learn what bills and motions would be brought forward and who would be speaking on them that day, what games we expected from the other parties, and what our reaction was anticipated to be — in short, the day’s tactics.
It was, depending on how you see it, either the battle plan or the theatre script for that day in the House of Commons. Each party would have their own such meeting and, as the saying goes, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy, so the day would often be full of surprises regardless.
The meeting and the discussions that came out of it would also feed into the weekly House Leader’s meeting, where the House Leadership teams (House Leader, Whip, Parliamentary Secretary to the House Leader for the government only, Deputy Whip, Deputy House Leader and their chiefs of staff and an assortment of other strategists from each party) would meet in an awkward encounter where each party did their best to keep their hand closed while attempting to see that of the others every sitting Tuesday morning.
If the opposition wanted to stall a bill, they would tell us they do not know how many of their members wished to speak on it, for example, knowing full well that they would be providing canned speeches to as many members as they could to keep the debate going as long as possible. This, of course, would force the government to limit debate as, procedurally, every opposition Member speaking for their maximum time could drag a single bill into months of debate.
The term for that is “time allocation” for bills and “closure” for motions. The use of that procedure would permit the opposition to declare that we were anti-democratically limiting debate in a farcical theatrical performance played by every opposition party against every government, regardless of party, and forever lapped up uncritically by the media looking for an easy story.
For any government, this game is no-win: either the opposition ties up debate and paints the government as incapable of moving anything forward and therefore having no vision for the country, or they paint the government as undemocratic for limiting debate, both of which resonate with the public. It is also why a notice of time allocation always begins with a government representative advising the House that no agreement could be reached between the parties. Unfortunately for the public’s perception, the great many times agreement is reached, our abilities to actually work across the aisle and move Parliament forward go completely unnoticed. That headline is less easy to write.
As a result of this overall structure, Question Period was generally the worst part of my four years as a government backbencher, second only to 24-hour voting marathons. QP is a largely useless affair for the average MP, offering no meaningful debate or discussion. The opposition's motivation is to embarrass the government. The government's motivation is not to be embarrassed. The whips' motivation is to ensure all the seats are filled, lest an empty seat be shown on television telling a story of a disengaged caucus - bad optics. With rare exceptions, nobody present is genuinely seeking nor offering a substantive answer to a question.
Those not asking questions on the opposition side must express wild enthusiasm for every comment made by their brilliant colleagues, while those not answering must not do much of anything at all, often hiding earphones under their earpieces — necessary to hear whether or not you need interpretation in the noisy chamber — to watch YouTube or Netflix lest they inadvertently doze off. The theatrics that result make great television, but terrible policy. To get noticed, opposition members have to be more and more outlandish. To avoid notice, government members have to be as boring and repetitive as possible, sticking to the script and avoiding even the slightest mis-speak, referring to detailed, thick, question-period binders schlepped to the QP Prep meetings, where ministers practise likely questions just before QP, and the Lobby by ministerial staff, with written-out answers to every question their department can conceive of, hoping the opposition does not come up with something not in the binder.
If all of this sounds like the whole place is pretty heavily scripted, you would not be wrong.