The Downside of Obstruction


Column/Don Newman

The budget tabled on March 19th was designed to change the channel away from the SNC-Lavalin controversy and onto the Trudeau government’s plans and promises leading to October’s general election.

To further make sure that would happen, on the morning of budget day the Liberals used their majority on the justice committee to shut down hearings and prevent former Justice Minister and Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould from returning for a second appearance as a witness critical of the Trudeau government.

But instead of drawing a line‎ under the affair with their heavy-handed maneuvering, the Liberals so enraged the Conservatives that when it came time for the budget presentation the Conservatives devolved into an unruly mob on the floor of the House of Commons. They brought chaos to the Commons to both protest the committee being shut down and also to show their anger at being out-maneuvered by the Liberals so the budget could be tabled.

At the centre of all this objectionable behaviour was the SNC-Lavalin affair. The Liberal majority on the justice committee on the morning of March 19th shut down the committee hearings into allegations by Wilson-Raybould that she was inappropriately pressured by the prime minister and others in his office and government to allow SNC-Lavalin to escape criminal prosecution on bribery charges and instead admit its guilt in a Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA). The DPA would allow the company to admit guilt, pay a fine, but still compete for government contracts. Conviction on criminal charges would carry a ten-year ban on competing for government business.

The Conservatives had planned to protest the committee shutdown by delaying the tabling of the budget with procedural tactics. But the Liberals outsmarted them. Knowing the Conservative plans, the Liberals had Finance Minister Bill Morneau quickly table his budget earlier than expected, then leave the chamber. Realizing they had been outsmarted, as Morneau returned an hour later and finally rose to read his budget, the Conservative MPs broke into choruses of catcalls, desk-banging and other disruption that made it impossible for Morneau to be heard. That lasted for about half an hour until Conservative leader Andrew Scheer led most the Members out of the House and Morneau continued with his speech.

The day after the budget was tabled, an “opposition day”, the Conservatives triggered a voting marathon, with Liberal MPs and cabinet ministers who would normally have been selling the budget to their constituents and special interest groups by then tethered instead to the House, voting on every single line of the government’s spending plans.

The Conservatives obviously thought their strategy to cause a massive disruption followed by a walkout was a winning one. Otherwise, why would they have done it. But both the initial reaction and the history of similar disturbances indicate they could be wrong.

In October 1990, the Senate was considering the legislation introduced by the Brian Mulroney Conservative Government to bring in the Goods and Services Tax (GST). The tax was unpopular and controversial, the Liberals had a majority in the Senate, and on the evening of October 4th, amid heckling and recrimination between the two parties, the Liberal Senators suddenly started parading around the Senate playing kazoos, bringing the proceedings to a halt. At the time, the Liberals thought they had been very clever, but that is not the way the public saw it. Unpopular as the GST was, the childish parading and kazoo playing was even more publicly unpopular. The Liberal Senators were chastened.

And earlier, in March 1982, the Conservatives in Opposition kept the division bells in the House of Commons that call MPs for a vote blaring continuously day and night, stopping the business of the House, deafening anyone nearby and creating a Parliamentary crisis that would take two weeks to resolve. At first, the bell ringing was something of a curiosity. But it quickly became a symbol of time wasting, and public indignation that Members of Parliament were skipping out of work.

The immediate reaction to the Conservative budget meltdown and walkout was similar. Even people who agreed with the Conservatives opposed to the justice committee shutdown thought disrupting and missing out on what arguably is the most important parliamentary day of the year was childish and foolish. As leader of the party and leader of the Opposition, Scheer has been unable to positively connect with Canadians who are not already Conservative Party supporters. This may not help.


Don Newman is Senior Counsel at Navigator Limited and Ensight Canada, and a lifetime member of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery.