When opposition MPs used procedural tactics to delay last Wednesday’s budget for half an hour, it was the parliamentary way of jumping up and down and screaming to get attention. They did it because they want people to notice that the Liberal government might be trying to take away the tools they use to scream for attention.

The nitty-gritty details of the workings of Parliament are eye-glazingly dull, so most people quite rightly ignore them most of the time. But this is one occasion when Canadians should keep watch. The Liberal government has signalled they want to change the rules, extensively, quickly, and possibly without the consent of the other political parties in the House of Commons.

This is no small thing: It’s the way laws are made, governments scrutinized, and how much time and capacity will be given over to dissent, or to highlighting mistakes governments make. It is the rush, and the suggestion the Liberals will act unilaterally, that has the opposition’s backs up.

When Stephen Harper’s Conservative government changed election laws unilaterally with its Fair Elections Act, the Liberals and NDP screamed. Now the Liberals appear intent on changing Parliament’s rules in a matter of months.

“How would the Liberals have reacted if Mr. Harper had done this?” NDP House Leader Murray Rankin asked Friday.

The “this” in question is changing the Standing Orders of the House of Commons, the written rules of procedure. Parliamentary rules can be arcane, and there are things that could be updated: The Liberals’ proposals include some things opposition MPs might eventually support, like electronic voting. The Liberals insist it’s just a discussion paper – but then Liberal MP Scott Simms proposed that a committee report by June 2 on which proposals should be adopted.

There’s a reason to be careful about “fixing” the Standing Orders. They allow the Commons to more or less work so the majority can pass legislation but the minority have an opportunity to question and point to things they think are wrong – often in inconvenient ways, like Wednesday’s move to delay the budget.

There’s always a tension. And young governments like Mr. Trudeau’s, now 17 months old, get frustrated. The rules give the government most of the power to decide when things will be debated, but the opposition can slow the progress to passage of legislation it doesn’t like. Majority governments can force bills to votes, using procedures like “time allocation” or “closure” to curtail debate, but they don’t like to do it too often, because then they are accused of dictatorial behaviour – the Liberals and NDP called Mr. Harper an autocrat when he used those methods.

The Liberals don’t want to use those blunt instruments,. And they also promised to make Parliament less about partisan squabbles. So they’ve put forward proposals to make the Commons more “efficient,” including “programming,” where the Commons sets aside time in advance for debate on each bill.

But it’s the majority, usually the government, that gets the final say on programming. The opposition fears that that, along with other proposals like eliminating filibusters at committees, would diminish their main parliamentary tool: procedures they can use to occasionally jump up and down and scream for attention. “Once in a while, if you have to pull the fire alarm, you want the fire alarm to be there,” Mr. Rankin said.

Of course, governments find that annoying. The Liberal government wants to adopt its agenda. Mr. Trudeau’s government has a lot of folks focused on policy and politics, but few influential advisors who care deeply about the eye-glazing work of Parliament. Such sages might have warned that seeking rapid changes in Parliament’s rules won’t lower partisanship, and will create a precedent that might one day be turned on the Liberals.

The Liberals once had such wise heads: the late Jerry Yanover, the party’s parliamentary expert, advised government and opposition leaders for decades on outwitting the other side with tactics – and when it was unwise to try. Once, when Paul Martin was in power, he confided that he wasn’t sure his advice would be taken. “Sometimes governments are like teenagers,” he said. “They’re physically large, so they think they’re smart, too.”

When it comes to reforming the rules, the Liberals should act with more maturity. And on this occasion, Canadians should keep watch on how they do things in Parliament.

The Globe and Mail
Published Sunday, Mar. 26, 2017 6:48PM EDT
Last updated Sunday, Mar. 26, 2017 7:15PM EDT