I am finally home again, freed from what could be called “House arrest.”
Originally, the Parliamentary calendar looked favourable for a Wednesday adjournment for St. Jean Baptiste Day. Instead, we adjourned on Saturday night around 8:30 pm, after a marathon session that began with a “hoist” motion from Jack Layton on Thursday evening. In the strange and magical world of Parliamentary tradition, the day stretched on, as all the debates for the next 48 hours took place “officially” on Thursday, June 23. We voted on the Canada Post back-to-work legislation at around 60 o’clock on Thursday June 23rd.
From the routine start of my day Thursday until Saturday night, I did not leave the building. I didn’t want to miss a vote. And (if at all possible) I wanted to inject a plea for compromise from both the Harper Conservatives and the NDP Official Opposition. Compromise was the best way to get mail moving and avoid the draconian back to work legislation tabled by the government. Sadly, the Harper government was completely inflexible. While the Harper conservatives were the clear architects of this debacle, the NDP was not entirely blameless. Some of their tactics (escalating rhetoric in the House and refusal to share NDP amendments until the filibuster was all but over) were unhelpful.
Resisting jumping to hasty conclusions, I have some observations to share, some prompted by questions to me on twitter that defy short tweet-form answers. Tweets are a great communication tool. Haiku-like, they require concise thinking. They are, nonetheless, inadequate to explain complex political machinations.
Filibusters- Why does Parliament insist on sleep deprivation?
The whole filibuster manoeuvre is unusual in Canadian political tradition. In 1999, the Reform Party under Stockwell Day filibustered to delay passage of the Nisga’a Treaty. That remains the longest filibuster. One tweet asked why Parliament cannot take breaks. The normal House of Commons day is full of breaks. It is only when the House is in a filibuster mode that there are no breaks. As long as there are MPs to rise and speak to an issue, the filibuster can go on….and on.
The great Frank Kapra film, “Mr. Smith goes to Washington,” has our hero Jimmy Stewart in a US-style filibuster. In the US Congress, a lone Senator can filibuster as long as he or she can stand and speak without a break. Canadian filibusters allow for MPs to operate in shifts. So the larger parties organized themselves to share the load round the clock. Being in the Opposition Lobby where all of us -- the NDP, Liberal, Bloc and the lone Green MP -- have a space for meetings, coffee, meals brought in, etc, starting Wednesday night I heard snippets of conversations about the rotating shift work of each party. I realized I would have to be there all the time or the Green Party voice would be lost. So I packed Thursday AM for a long haul. Essential “freshening up” toiletries, re-charger cords for blackberry, and a few changes of clothing, and I planned to be awake for the next 48 hours and see how it would go from there. Based on the marathon rounds in UN climate meetings, I knew I could function through a 48 hour sleepless work shift. How I would manage if the filibuster went on for weeks was something I was prepared to figure out as events unfolded.
How did the filibuster happen?
The Harper government tabled the Canada Post back to work legislation (Bill C-6. “C” is for “Commons”; 6 because it was the 6th bill in the 41st Parliament).
Then the government brought in an oddly worded motion for on Tuesday. Peter Van Loan (Conservative House leader) moved that the bill would have all three readings without adjournment and that the bill would not go to the labour committee, but would have a hearing of the Committee of the Whole. The Committee of the Whole is the whole of the House of Commons meeting as a committee. If that motion had been worded differently, it would not have left an opening for Layton’s “hoist” motion (to delay taking up the bill for 6 months). A hoist motion can only be made at second reading and with the process established by the Government motion, lacking time limits, Layton had the opportunity to move the bill be set aside for the next 6 months.
Ask yourself: what are the chances that the Harper government made a mistake with the way the motion was worded and what are the chances it was a deliberate move to set a trap for the NDP? What followed was high theatre, dramatic and increasingly partisan over-the-top rhetoric from both of the main parties. I wish we had done better by the workers. Less rhetoric and more flexibility might have helped.
Some on twitter have asked if there was less civility as the filibuster wore on. Unquestionably, the answer if “yes.” Government members heckled just as they did before the election. The NDP pledge to refuse to heckle also broke down (albeit not as severely). NDP attacks got personal. I happen to like Labour Minister Lisa Raitt. I know I am naïve about people. And I may be unduly influenced knowing she is from Cape Breton, and that her dad and brother died from cancer from the coke ovens and steel mill I worked to clean up for so long. No question, the legislation was egregious. As Labour Minister, she is responsible for a dreadful precedent, but I felt really uncomfortable as the attacks in the House turned on Lisa in a very personal way.
What was wrong with Bill C-6?
I don’t think the Opposition Parties would have objected to back to work legislation that told Canada Post to end the lock-out and then moved the dispute to binding arbitration. This bill was opposed because it was so one-sided in supporting management over the workers.
The dispute was largely not precipitated by the union. The mail was still moving, despite revolving strikes by CUPW, when management locked out the workers and brought mail delivery to a standstill. This created the crisis to allow the government to bring in back to work legislation. As has been noted by many in the media, it appeared that the government was working in collusion with Canada Post management. Once Canada Post locked out the workers, it was the government’s turn to bring in a bill that would get the mail moving, but would fix wage increases at less than Canada Post had already offered. Salaries were not the main sticking point in any event. Health and safety and pensions ranked higher. The Bill tied the hands of the arbitrator by instructing the arbitrator to set terms and working conditions to be consistent with other “comparable postal industries.” Of course, there is no operation comparable to Canada Post. No other operation delivers mail everywhere -- to those places where you can make money and those rural and remote locations where daily mail delivery is a public service.
The legislation also instructed the arbitrator to only rely on certain sections of the Canada Labour Code. Various flexible solutions that should have been available to the arbitrator have been taken off the table. Also unpalatable was the prescription of “final offer selection”—further tying the arbitrator’s hands.
Every labour lawyer and academic who has spoken out about this bill has opposed it as bad legislation.
Public sector workers have every reason to be fearful. The government’s approach on Air Canada (not public sector) and on Canada Post suggests an interventionist, pro-management, anti-labour agenda. We need to protect collective bargaining and labour rights in general. The empirical evidence is over-whelming that the healthiest economies have strong unions. On the other hand, demonizing all employers and ignoring the fact that many Canadian workers are non-unionized creates unnecessary conflict.
Beyond labour unrest, this experience does not auger well for the next four years. Some commentators hoped that the Prime Minister would moderate his behaviour knowing he has four years with a majority in the House and the Senate. Some pundits thought we might see a kinder, gentler Stephen Harper. Maybe we still will. But the last few weeks suggest the government will rely on “might makes right.” Somehow we need to create an atmosphere that encourages consensus over surrender. Governing over bullying. And a commitment to Canada over excessive partisanship. The summer could be a cooling off period for hot tempers.
What else happened this week?
A huge low point was Canada alone blocking consensus in Geneva for the listing of asbestos as “hazardous” under the Rotterdam convention. Traditional allies were enraged by Canada’s action. Adding insult to serious injury, the Prime minister chose to visit the asbestos region of Quebec to celebrate his success in keeping asbestos unlabeled as we ship it to the developing world.
The main and supplementary estimates were passed. The mega-trials bill (with no improvements) cleared its final hurdles. (I voted for it as it is, over all, good legislation, but it may well run into trouble due to the refusal of the Conservatives and NDP to allow amendments).
Parliament is now adjourned until September 19.
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