The Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage conducted the one day of debate on Bill C-11 yesterday that Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez and the Liberal government – aided and abetted by the NDP – required under a House of Commons motion. The result was an embarrassment to the government that leaves a stain that will not be easy to remove. Despite the absence of any actual deadline, the government insisted that just three two hour sessions be allocated to full clause-by-clause review of the bill featuring debate and discussion (MPs on the committee were all open to extending each session by 30 minutes for a total of 7 1/2 hours). With roughly 170 amendments proposed by five parties, there was only time for a fraction of the amendments to be reviewed. Instead, once the government-imposed deadline arrived at 9:00 pm, the committee moved to voting on the remaining proposed amendments without any debate, discussion, questions for department officials, or public disclosure of what was being voted on. The voting ran past midnight with the public left with little idea of what is in or out of the bill. The updated bill will be posted in the next day or so.
This sham process notably excluded debate on many of the proposed amendments on regulating user content. The issue arose about 30 minutes before the 9:00 pm deadline, resulting in some discussion on a Green Party amendment to clearly remove user generated content from the bill consistent with what Rodriguez has said he intends. The debate was cut short by the 9:00 deadline, where the chair moved directly to voting on amendments and the Liberals, NDP and Bloc all voted against. The effect was that despite numerous witnesses, including creators, platforms, and experts raising concerns about the implications of the bill on their creativity and expression, the government literally cut off debate on many of the proposals to address their concerns. My podcast this week highlights some of those comments and the decision to simply reject or ignore their concerns is emblematic of their worst fears.
The Liberal government was elected on a platform that emphasized good governance, transparency, and consultation. This hearing was a firm rejection of those principles. The meeting was chaired by Liberal MP Hedy Fry via video. No serious government would treat its legislation to the review presided over by Ms. Fry in a hybrid format. She was frequently confused, rarely knew who was speaking, often spoke while on mute, and required multiple suspensions to get advice from the committee clerk. Much of this is due to her chairing the committee via video, but that was the government’s choice and the result was entirely predictable to anyone who has watched Ms. Fry struggle through the hearings.
But the betrayal of democratic norms is ultimately about Rodriguez, the government, and the NDP support for the approach that was virtually guaranteed to result in cutting off debate and appropriate review. While there might have been a case for requiring the committee to set a date for clause-by-clause review, there was no reason to impose draconian limits on that review. That decision was both indefensible and entirely unnecessary given that there is no deadline for passing Bill C-11 and nothing turns on the bill passing through the House of Commons before the summer recess.
Last night was a political decision designed to allow Rodriguez to claim victory in ushering the bill through the House of Commons. Even if the bill passes the House over the next week as is expected, it will require extensive review at the Senate in the fall, now made more urgent by a committee review that is sure to have resulted in mistakes given the lack of opportunity for discussion and which allocated less than 30 minutes discussion to an issue that has sparked widespread concern. The so-called political victory comes at a high price for Rodriguez, who will forever be associated with the Bill C-11 legislative malpractice and democratic betrayal in the name of personal political ambitions.