Death To The Filibuster

August 1st, 2012 - C. P.

For centuries filibusters have been touted as the only tool for an outnumbered opposition party in a senate or house to delay – or completely stop – new laws from being passed. For those who don't know what a filibuster is, it is nothing more than a series of lengthy, drawn out speeches during a senate debate or question period inside a house of representatives. The historic ability of a filibuster to entirely prevent a piece of legislation from passing in Canada is below 1%. The cost of filibusters to taxpayers is much higher than their actual value. If we measure success by how many tax dollars are burned to ashes, the rate of success is 100%.

Canadians became more familiar with filibustering in June of 2011 when the NDP put Canada's House Of Commons into a 58 hour marathon. The non-stop marathon was meant to delay a bill to put Canada Post employees back to work during a strike. The NDP's aim was to send a strong message to Canadians and their own supporters. However, that message fell flat with most Canadians when a poll released a week later showed nearly 70% of Canadians in favour of the Conservative's back-to-work legislation.

The tally of official costs for the NDP's 58 hour filibuster is not subject to Canada's freedom of information laws. But, whenever the House is sitting, all House services are in full operation. This allows us to estimate the rough daily cost of the NDP filibuster to be around $50,000 an hour. These were the numbers that were estimated by iPolitics.

During filibusters, members of parliament are served snacks, drinks, and other amenities. Security guards are paid nearly $50 per hour to guard the House into the early hours of the morning. Most of them are paid overtime. MP assistants and secretaries are also paid for their extra time.

After the 58 hour filibuster, the Conservative's back-to-work bill was passed as expected. The NDP's filibuster accomplished absolutely nothing and only burned a hole in the House's annual budget – and in the pockets of taxpayers.

In Canada, filibusters are not exclusive to the NDP. Conservative MP, Tom Lukiwski, once filibustered a House committee to prevent the study of a private bill that would have implemented the Kyoto Accord. Lukiwski spoke for 120 minutes and later admitted to deliberately stalling the House.

Filibusters have a stronger record of success south of the border, like when Democrats successfully blocked ten of George W. Bush's judicial nominees by slowing the process and taking advantage of eventual Republican absences. Filibusters force members of a senate to tap their will power, patience, and determination. When one fails, the other wins. This happens more often in a two-party system with a slim majority.

Filibuster itself is not an official right or rule in Canada. In the U.S., “filibuster” is recognized as an official term – in Canada it is not. In the U.S., there are some rules and restrictions on filibustering and members can halt debates by invoking cloture.

No processes or tools exist in the Canadian House Of Commons to prevent or stop filibusters – mainly because filibusters are not recognized as anything official in Canadian politics. No House rules or limits have been written or designed to address filibusters. This needs to change.

A well versed politician should have the ability to express his/her thoughts with the fewest words possible. Aiming to halt the democratic process with no justifiable result should be considered a violation of democratic law and politicians should be held accountable for the costs. By delaying inevitable laws, parliamentarians deprive their constituents of several democratic rights, even if they don't support the bill that is about to be passed.

In the U.S., filibusters can be overridden by a 60% majority. Similar rules may not work in the House Of Commons, but even acknowledging and recognizing filibusters could pave the way for promising reforms in the future.

Filibusters can meet a quick demise in Canada with the implementation of time limits on MPs. A simple five minute allotment for each MP would probably seem fair to most Canadians, with the inclusion of adequate rebuttals and retorts with similar limits. These rules have worked well in televised debates during elections when voters are expected to assess an argument and then make a decision within a limited amount of time. First, second, and third readings over the course of a month seem more than adequate for members of parliament to assess a bill.

If voters are capable of making timely decisions, then so are their elected officials. Halting the passage of inevitable bills is not only undemocratic, it's costly – regardless of whether we identify as conservatives, liberals, or socialists. Whether we are members of the minority or the majority, delaying democracy doesn't do much good for any of us.

It's easy to praise filibusters when someone is attempting to go against what we believe. However, our democracy affords us some very common processes of due diligence. Every four years, voters are given an opportunity to hire, fire, and recycle their governments. Sometimes we like the results and sometimes we don't. These are the realities of democracy.

Conservatives, Liberals, and New Democrats must consider the invaluable nature of filibusters. All parties must step up and reassess their positions on delaying democracy. They must see the harm filibusters cause to a democratic system that is under the legal obligation of the people to make timely decisions in a cost-effective manner.

Rather than vowing to refrain from filibustering, our parties must make moves to address filibusters and make efforts to pass reasonable reforms to prevent them.