Liberals propose changes to how House of Commons works

The Liberal government is asking MPs to consider a number of changes to the way Parliament functions, including the introduction of a question period dedicated to the prime minister, the elimination of Friday sittings, limiting the ability of MPs to filibuster committee meetings and allowing MPs to vote electronically.

Those and other possible changes are outlined in a discussion paper the House leader's office released on Friday.

But opposition MPs are raising concerns about the potential impacts of those changes.

"Our government committed to working with members of Parliament to modernize the House of Commons and make it a better place to work," Bardish Chagger said in an interview.

"The paper contains ideas on how we can modernize the House to make it more accountable, predictable, efficient and transparent."

Some of the ideas, including the creation of a prime minister's question period and limiting the use of omnibus legislation, were included in the Liberal party's election platform.

The House committee on procedure and House affairs is currently studying the standing orders that govern how Parliament functions. The Liberal government intends its discussion paper as a contribution to that debate.

Reducing the opportunities for accountability and debate?

But Conservatives and New Democrats were quick to criticize.

"The Liberals' discussion paper on reforming the House outlines proposals that would be a setback for Canadian democracy," NDP House leader Murray Rankin said in a statement. 

"This discussion paper appears to be a follow-up to the ill-fated Motion No. 6, in terms of de-clawing the opposition of the ability to resist the will of the Liberal majority. Similarly, it would appear to go even further in attempting to systematically limit debate. We do look forward to a healthy debate on this discussion paper, even if it appears healthy debate may be severely restricted around here in the future."

Conservative MP Chris Warkentin pointed to the elimination of Friday sittings and the possibility that the prime minister would only be expected to be in question period once per week.

"My initial reaction is a concern that we've had for some time and that's that the prime minister and his cabinet have been looking to reduce the accountability that opposition MPs and Canadians have," Warkentin said. "The elements that are most concerning to us are the attempts by the government to reduce the number of opportunities that the opposition has to hold them to account in the House of Commons."

Electronic voting, omnibus bills and other changes

The government suggests the use of "programming motions" to set the parliamentary schedule, moving away from the current situation in which the parties negotiate and the government imposes time allocation when the parties cannot agree on how many days for debate a bill should receive.

A House committee studied the possibility of eliminating Friday sittings last year, but did not recommend the change after no consensus was found. The House currently sits for a shortened schedule on Fridays and proponents have argued that eliminating the day would make life easier for MPs who travel back to their ridings on weekends. Critics worry about the lost opportunity to question the government and debate legislation.

Among the other possible changes are:

- Doing away with the current system in which MPs must stand, one by one, to vote in the House and, instead, allowing them to vote electronically.

- Giving the Speaker the power to split omnibus bills.

- Giving the government 65 days to respond to written questions filed by MPs, instead of the current limit of 45 days.

- Putting a limit on interventions at committee so as to prevent filibusters.