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.

How did it get to this point?

It starts with the gag order approved earlier this week by the Liberals and the Bloc. It limited further Bill C-10 debate to five hours and after which the committee was required to proceed immediately to conclude clause-by-clause review with no further debate permitted. The Liberal, Bloc and NDP then agreed to several meetings without notice to run out the five-hour clock.  Once the five hours concluded, the committee thanked Canadian Heritage officials and proceeded to the final clause-by-clause review.

This led to two issues for committee chair Scott Simms, both related to whether further amendments could be raised for a vote at committee. First, Simms ruled that a series of amendments proposed by the Green Party had already been “moved” (months earlier the committee had agreed to allow for the Green Party, which does not have official party status, to introduce amendments) and were therefore eligible for a vote. Second, he ruled that all other amendments from the Liberals, Bloc, NDP and Conservatives were ineligible to be voted on since they had not yet been moved. This decision was in keeping with the gag order and had the benefit of taking secret law making off the table.

Yet the ruling was immediately challenged by Liberal MP Anthony Housefather. The committee proceeded to a vote on the chair’s ruling, with Liberal MPs Housefather, Julie Dabrusin, Marcie Ien, Lyne Bessette, and Tim Louis all voting to overrule the decision (joined by Bloc MP Martin Champoux and NDP MP Heather McPherson). As a result, the Liberals gave themselves the right to introduce and vote on legislative amendments that have not been publicly disclosed with no debate or discussion.

To see Liberal MPs support this secretive law making approach simply destroys any credibility the MPs or the party has with respect to the commitment to transparent law making (and for the NDP to back this approach is appalling). Yesterday, the committee worked through several secret amendments with enormous implications for the Broadcasting Act. For example, my understanding is that LIB-7N was a Housefather amendment that includes significant changes to how the CRTC determines what constitutes a “Canadian program” for the purposes of the Act. To pass such an amendment without publicly disclosing the proposal, seeking out expertise, and engaging in debate is terrible lawmaking. The same is true for G-12, another Housefather backed amendment that uses net neutrality language such as “unjust discrimination” but in the context of the Broadcasting Act may undermine net neutrality and lead to hundreds of complaints about the content found on streaming services.

And those are just the amendments passed yesterday. There are dozens on the agenda for later today that touch on issues such as contractual negotiations, French language spending, and copyright. How do you pass these amendments without ever publicly disclosing them, consulting experts, inviting sub-amendments or doing anything else consistent with transparent and democratic lawmaking?

For the Liberals, NDP and Bloc to adopt secret new provisions that will not be revealed until after the committee has concluded its work forever taints Bill C-10 as the product of an illegitimate process. If the bill makes its way to the Senate, it will be incumbent on the Senators to conduct the democratic, public hearings that the Liberals rejected and ensure that the dozens of amendments that were never part of a proper Parliamentary process are fully revisited and properly vetted.

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