OTTAWA — The customary grilling of government that follows the tabling of a federal budget was all but shoved aside Thursday as opposition MPs pressed the Liberals not on their fiscal balance, but their work-life one.
Government House leader Bardish Chagger spent more time on her feet in question period than did the finance minister as she was forced again and again to defend Liberal proposals to change the rules that govern the operations of the House of Commons.
Chagger released a discussion paper last week, proposing ideas including abolishing Friday sittings, allowing electronic voting and creating a special question period in which MPs would direct all their questions to the prime minister.
The goal of the changes, she said Thursday, is to modernize the way the Commons works.
"The more hours I sit in the House, the more I believe that we do need to do things better," she said.
But the debate that's ensued since her paper was introduced has consumed the Commons and even contributed to a half-hour delay Wednesday in the tabling of the budget.
The issue for Opposition MPs is both the proposed changes and the way the government is trying to implement them.
Commons' committees are supposed to be free to set their own agendas, yet Chagger wants her paper discussed by the procedures committee, which some view as an abuse of her power.
Then, a Liberal MP is proposing to have the committee report back on the paper by June 2, a move the opposition views as an effort to curtail debate on what they describe as a crucial part of the democratic process — their work.
Also, the opposition wants a guarantee that any changes to the way the House runs will be adopted by a true consensus, not by a Liberal-dominated committee.
Chagger said all she's trying to do is start a conversation.
"This was not a recipe to say this is exactly what we will do and this is how we'll do it," she said.
Both the Conservatives and NDP don't see it that way.
"This is nothing less than a massive government power grab, which is only meant to help the prime minister avoid accountability," said NDP leader Tom Mulcair.
The committee has already considered a number of the ideas in the past, but declined to act on them.
In a report just last June, it could find no consensus on eliminating Friday sittings, with some MPs in favour and others concerned that it would reduce the ability of opposition MPs to hold the government to account. It thus made no recommendation on the matter.
The Opposition claims that Chagger's paper lays the groundwork for the prime minister to only have to show up in the Commons once a week
While campaigning, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said "sunlight is the world's best disinfectant," said interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose Thursday.
"My question for the prime minister is: What dirt is he trying to hide?"
Earlier Thursday, Chagger said the Liberals won't recommend the prime minister only attend once a week.
"Looking at question period, we are saying let's look at other jurisdictions," she said.
"Let's look at other models to really make a made-in-Canada solution so that the prime minister can be more accountable, not less accountable."
Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press