Fresh off imposing a five-hour gag order on committee debate on Bill C-10 and rushing through a secretive process in which dozens of amendments were passed without any debate, discussion or even disclosure of the amendments, the government is back for a gag order sequel. Yesterday, the Liberal government introduced another motion, this one designed to limit debate even further: one hour for debate at the report back stage and 75 minutes at third reading. In other words, less than 2 1/2 hours total for debate on the bill in the House of Commons. The motion was introduced before the updated Bill C-10 was even posted online, though it is now available.
The move led to hours of discussion on the motion last night, leading to a consistent drumbeat from Liberal, NDP and Bloc MPs, who kept asking what was in the bill that presented a concern for a freedom of expression. Left unsaid, is that at least part of the answer is what is not the bill:
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The Liberal government’s push to pass Bill C-10 took a disturbing turn at the Canadian Heritage committee yesterday as the Liberal MPs overruled the committee chair to allow for dozens of undisclosed amendments to be voted on without any debate or discussion. While the MPs on the committee have access to the amendments, they are not made available to the public until after the committee completes its review. In normal circumstances, an amendment is introduced by an MP (the amendment may not be posted but it is often read into the record by the MP and its intent is discussed), there is an opportunity to ask questions of department officials on the implications of the amendment, MPs engage in debate and can propose sub-amendments. Once all MPs are satisfied that they understand the implications of the amendment, it comes to a vote. All of this takes place in a transparent, public manner.
Not with Bill C-10, however. For example, yesterday the committee approved amendment LIB-7N. The only thing disclosed during the committee meeting was that it amends something in clause 8 in the bill. The specific amendment was not publicly disclosed, there were no department officials to comment or answer questions, there was no debate, and no opportunity for sub-amendment. The amendment was simply raised by number and MPs were asked to vote on it. The amendment passed with the support of Liberal, Bloc, and NDP MPs. This form of secret law making is shocking and a complete reversal from a government that claimed to prioritize transparency. Indeed, it is hard to think of a more secretive law making process in a democracy than passing amendments to a bill that are not made available to the public prior to the vote nor open for any discussion or debate.
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Yesterday was not a good day for those who still believe that democratic ideals matter. The day began with an iPolitics-sponsored debate featuring MPs who have played a starring role at the Canadian Heritage committee review of Bill C-10: Liberal MP Anthony Housefather, Conservative MP Rachael Harder, NDP MP Heather McPherson, and Bloc MP Martin Champoux. The substantive discussion largely mirrored the committee debate, but far more dispiriting was Housefather seeking to justify the Bill C-10 gag order by arguing that it was the democratic right of the government to use whatever legislative tools are available to it (even if that tool had not been used for two decades) or Champoux talking about the need to respect democracy while simultaneously supporting the gag order.
While the MPs presumably thought that they would not be meeting again to discuss Bill C-10 until Friday (the usual committee meeting day), hours later they were back in committee for a four hour marathon secretly negotiated by the party whips for the Liberals, NDP, and Bloc. The meeting had so little notice that committee chair Scott Simms opened by making his displeasure with the party whips very clear:
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Several weeks after Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault introduced Bill C-10, I started a 20 part blog post series called the Broadcasting Act Blunder (podcast edition here). The series examined many of concerns with the bill, including issues such as over-broad regulation and discoverability requirements that would only garner public attention many months later. I thought about that series yesterday as I watched Guilbeault try in the House of Commons to defend the indefensible: a gag order on committee review of the bill, the first such order in two decades. While the bill is in dire need of fixing, what occurred yesterday was far worse than a blunder. It was a betrayal. A betrayal of the government’s commitment to “strengthen Parliamentary committees so that they can better scrutinize legislation.” A betrayal of the promise to do things differently from previous governments. A betrayal of Canada’s values as a Parliamentary democracy.
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Communications issues have been in the political spotlight in recent weeks with the controversial CRTC decision to reverse a pricing decision on wholesale broadband that swiftly led to calls for the resignation of Commission Chair Ian Scott as well as the ongoing battle over Bill C-10, which envisions granting extensive new powers to the CRTC.
Konrad von Finckenstein is a former chair of the CRTC, having led the Commission during a similarly contentious time during debates over net neutrality. He has since been outspoken on communications policy issues, including arguing that Bill C-10 should be scrapped and re-written. He joins the Law Bytes podcast to talk about the CRTC, the recent decisions, and what he thinks a better approach to Internet and broadcast regulation would look like.
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