No, you shut up: The politics of the modern filibuster

When political junkies think of the filibuster they often recall the 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

When political junkies think of the filibuster they often recall the 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. For those unfamiliar with the famous political drama, it revolves around the story of a young idealistic senator who refuses to yield the Senate floor and engages in a filibuster in an effort to expose and thwart the corruption of his fellow senators. He also seeks to clear his good name which has been slimed by his colleagues.

His efforts end when he finally collapses on the floor out of exhaustion but, in the usual Hollywood fashion, manages to accomplish his goals and bring about a happy ending.

The story of the fictional Senator Smith casts the practice of filibustering — or talking indefinitely to avoid bringing legislative matters to a vote — in a positive light. In the morally black-and-white world of Hollywood storytelling, Mr. Smith carried the torch for what is right and good. If there ever was a time for a filibuster, this was it.

But in the real world of hyper-partisan modern politics, with its many shades of grey, the practice of yammering incessantly just to gum up the workings of a legislature is more complex.

There is no guarantee whatsoever that filibusters will always be used for good. In an alternate universe, it could just as easily have been Senator Smith’s political adversaries filibustering some type of oversight legislation that might have exposed their corruption instead.

But perhaps more importantly, democracy is, after all, supposed to be about (among other things) the rule of the majority. At what point does intentional delay by the opposition in an effort to prevent the elected majority from having its way become undemocratic?

Many modern legislative bodies — including the Canadian Parliament — have various mechanisms in place for majorities to ultimately put an end to lengthy filibusters. With some exceptions — like the United States Senate where filibusters are actually used to stop legislation — they are at best an unsustainable stalling tactic.

But filibusters don’t just take the overt theatrical form that we saw in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or, occasionally, in the real world. In the scheming, Machiavellian world of modern politics, the practice of delaying passage of particular legislation or just slowing the pace of a government’s agenda more generally by endlessly repeating the same objections and talking points under the guise of debate represent a subtler method of filibustering.

Here in Canada, a package of proposed reforms being pushed by the Trudeau Liberals aimed at speeding up the legislative process has come under attack in recent weeks by the opposition parties.

They accuse the government — perhaps correctly — of trying to stifle debate and ram through its agenda in a hurry without sufficient oversight by the opposition. After all, while majority rule is an important part of a democracy, debate and deliberation, opposing points of view, and the fine tuning of proposed changes are important aspects of our democratic process as well. Moves to limit that debate are cause for concern and the waters are muddied by the fact that the party with the power to decide how much debate is the right amount is the one with an interest in keeping it to a minimum.

But there is an inverse relationship between the quantity of debate and the amount that a legislature can get done in a session. And if the opposition doesn’t want anything to get done — which is very often the case — extending debate is a means to that end.

As is so often the case in politics, one’s perspective on the issue depends heavily on which side of the aisle their favourite party sits.

When Stephen Harper was the prime minister, the opposition Liberals bemoaned his “high handed” use of omnibus bills (the practice of jamming a bunch of unrelated measures together in one bill), and time allocation (stipulating a maximum length of time for debating it) – both of which were used to get more things done.

But now in government, they have had a change of heart. Perhaps most controversial is a proposal to impose a pre-emptive form of time allocation on debate where a maximum period of time is prescribed from the get go.

The Conservatives are now crying foul, saying that these changes go much further than anything Stephen Harper ever did, and accusing the prime minister of having dictatorial proclivities. The Liberals say that the new system is better than what Stephen Harper did because there is certainty from the beginning which keeps the House of Commons moving without having the governing party simple decide when enough is enough debate.

Is any of this really necessary?

Unfortunately, the truth in this debate is virtually impossible for your everyday observer with a full-time job to settle. Political parties can hardly be relied on for an unbiased assessment.

One would have to sit down in front of CPAC every day and make one’s own decision about whether quantity of debate on issues is inadequate on the one hand or so excessive as to prevent Parliament from moving on to the next subject on the other.

It would be great if, for once, our politicians could take a step back and attempt to view these issues not from their narrow short term political self-interest, but rather by considering where the proper balance lies in a healthy democracy. Because this is ultimately what is needed — balance.

And if that type of idealistic reflection is not possible, perhaps they ought to at least consider for a moment that they might someday find themselves on the opposite side of the aisle and arrive at some sort of balance that way.

Unfortunately, that kind of idealism is more common in the early 20th century cinema that gave us Mr. Smith than in the hyper-partisan political culture of the 21st.

Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.

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