Rock Bottom: Bill C-10 Gag Order and No-Notice Meetings Means the End of Committee Review is Near
Yesterday was not a good day for those who still believe that democratic ideals matter. The day began with an iPolitics-sponsored debate featuring MPs who have played a starring role at the Canadian Heritage committee review of Bill C-10: Liberal MP Anthony Housefather, Conservative MP Rachael Harder, NDP MP Heather McPherson, and Bloc MP Martin Champoux. The substantive discussion largely mirrored the committee debate, but far more dispiriting was Housefather seeking to justify the Bill C-10 gag order by arguing that it was the democratic right of the government to use whatever legislative tools are available to it (even if that tool had not been used for two decades) or Champoux talking about the need to respect democracy while simultaneously supporting the gag order.
While the MPs presumably thought that they would not be meeting again to discuss Bill C-10 until Friday (the usual committee meeting day), hours later they were back in committee for a four hour marathon secretly negotiated by the party whips for the Liberals, NDP, and Bloc. The meeting had so little notice that committee chair Scott Simms opened by making his displeasure with the party whips very clear:
I just want to point out to everyone in this room. I know the bell’s are ringing and I will be seeking unanimous consent in just a few moments. Ok. I know I said some time ago that I would try to give you as much ample notice about a meeting as I could and when I seek out meetings I will do just that. I will be cognizant of the time, I will cognizant of your situation. The whips amongst our parties – and again, I am not specifically pointing to any particular whip of any recognized party – there are four groups in question. The whips have decided that they will put this meeting together. I received notice shortly before you did. Now, because we passed a motion on March 26th that states that we will seek out meetings and it didn’t say anything about notice, we have to have this meeting as of right now.
That being said, I’m going to say this publicly, I’m going to say this in front of you my colleagues, I’m going to say this while we’re in session. As chair I have the floor, so I’m going to say it.
This is a message for the benefit of my colleagues, staff, analysts, clerks, interpreters, technical staff, everyone involved. I ask you to please consider the fact that these people have families. That these people live in rural areas like myself. We are not emergency works, we’re not paramedics, we’re not fire fighters, we’re not on call like that. These are planned meetings, normally. So to the four represented whips at this meeting – and I know you’re on this call – please consider it when we do this again. Not just as a chair, but as a human being. Thank you.
The committee suspended for an hour immediately afterward (part of the meeting strategy curtailed previous House plans which led to calling the MPs for a vote), followed by Conservative MP Alain Rayes revealing that the four whips was really three as the Conservatives were not supportive of the meeting (confirmed by Conservative whip Blake Richards). NDP MP Heather McPherson then effectively blamed the Conservatives for the entire situation. Three hours of discussion on a series of Conservative amendments again designed to limit the harms of regulating user generated content soon followed and predictably none of the amendments passed.
The committee will hold at least one (possible two) two hour meeting today (that was also negotiated by the party whips) which will bring the committee’s clause-by-clause review to a premature conclusion. At this stage, it would appear that many amendments proposed by all parties will never be fully debated and the House of Commons will be asked to vote on a bill for which a comprehensive clause-by-clause review was not completed. For a government that was elected on a platform that pledged to “strengthen Parliamentary committees so that they can better scrutinize legislation” this represents a complete abdication of that commitment.
As the committee work comes to an end, it is important to recognize that there was no full study for Bill C-10 and that many witnesses – including digital first creators – were excluded altogether. However, given that the Liberals, Bloc and now effectively the NDP have supported this approach, the outcome of the vote on Bill C-10 in the House of Commons is not in doubt. The Canadian Heritage committee did not do its job. It will fall to the Senate to do theirs.