Gazing at the Crystal Ball

Sometimes events take place deep inside the Ottawa political culture that are telling indications of where a political party is heading. While these events often play out in press events, the House of Commons, and other public venues, they are often missed by the general population but give keen observers insight into the future.

Today, Aaron Wherry from the CBC writes a very good piece on the use of time allocation motions in the House of Commons. Wherry is no stranger to this topic having written articulately on the issue previously in Macleans.

Time allocation, also known as Standing Order 78, or closure motions, are typically introduced by the governments of all stripes to limit debate on a government bill. Also typically, these motions are introduced by the government to cries of foul behaviour and the death of democracy by opposition parties of all stripes. While they have never been introduced by the NDP, and are consistently bemoaned by the NDP, we don’t have any data points on how they would behave if they were the government for obvious reasons.

Outside of Ottawa, perhaps even outside of Wherry and myself, there are few people paying attention to the Liberals’ new found re-discovery of time allocation motions. The Liberals made much use of Standing Order 78 when last in power, and the Conservatives were legendary addicts to closure motions.

The reader may rightfully ask ‘So what?’ at this point. Both the Liberals and the Conservatives do it in government, and every party complains about it when it is done to them in opposition. This is clearly not news.

But it is. As I alluded to at the outset, this could be an indicator of issues to come for keen observers.

Immediately after the recent federal election, our research professionals fanned out across the country to conduct research on why people voted the way they did and what they expect from the government. Our research report can be found here.

One of our key findings was that voters expected this government to behave differently than what they perceived to be the insular previous government. They had little knowledge of specific policies proposed by Trudeau and, frankly, did not care to know. What voters we spoke with were focused on was the way in which Trudeau would govern. They were, and are, looking for a different approach.

‘Canadians expect better, and Trudeau promised better. They want to see respect restored to governing. They want collaboration. There is a strong desire for consultation.’
— Back to the Future — Ensight Canada’s Post Election Research

Trudeau campaigned on running a more accessible, open and transparent government, and this pledge struck a chord with voters. Canadians told us they crave a government that is more civil and less exclusive, and they will be watching Trudeau closely on this issue.

Unlike Harper, who believed he would be judged on how many of his promises he could accomplish, Trudeau will be judged on his behaviour in implementing change.

Liberals constantly, and consistently, stood in their place in the House of Commons and complained about time allocation motions. Their protestations worked. Canadians now see various mundane procedural motions such as closure, prorogation, and in camera meetings as negatives in politics due in large part to the Liberals themselves in opposition. Ironically, as they use these same legitimate tactics themselves, it is their own success in driving their message then that will cause them problems now.

To date, the Liberal talking points have been ‘they did it too’ or ‘we do it less’. From a political point of view these messages are a dangerous tactic. Like a refrain from The Who song ‘Meet the new boss, same as the old boss’, it only serves to hurt the very core of the brand that brought Justin Trudeau to 24 Sussex — that he is different than the guy they just booted out.

At the end of the day, will a time allocation motion cause the government to be defeated at the polls? No. Time allocation motions are a legitimate part of our system, just as prorogation and closed door committee meetings. I support the need for them and the use of them regardless of the party in power. What we are seeing, however, is a party that is transitioning from the true believers in the third party adjusting to the realities of governing. How they make that adjustment now will set the stage for how they are judged later.

And the name of that song from The Who?

‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’