Guillotine clause severs debate

Long, boring speeches given by Yukon government ministers are a lot more than a blessing for insomniacs, say members of the opposition.

Long, boring speeches given by Yukon government ministers are a lot more than a blessing for insomniacs, say members of the opposition.

They’re a threat to democracy.

That may seem a stretch. But Todd Hardy, leader of the NDP, puts it in those stark terms.

Long speeches play to the government’s advantage, thanks to a peculiar standing order of the legislative assembly, popularly called the guillotine clause.

It’s a Yukon oddity. No other jurisdiction within the Commonwealth has a rule quite like it, as far as Floyd McCormick, the legislature’s clerk, can tell.

The guillotine clause forces a vote on all bills tabled in the house at the sitting’s end — regardless of whether the draft law has received review within committee of the whole.

The Liquor Act passed in such as fashion earlier this year, to Hardy’s consternation.

Similar time constraints prevented the review of the budgets of a half-dozen government departments, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, said Hardy.

The guillotine clause was introduced in 2001, under a Liberal government and at the consent of all three Yukon parties.

Before that, any bill that had not received third and final reading by sitting’s end would remain on the order paper until next sitting.

Opposition members could stonewall the government to their own advantage. The government would usually compromise in order to get business done.

The rules were changed because occasionally, a legislative sitting would stretch on far longer than usual.

One sitting in the early 1990s stretched on for more than 70 days.

To correct this, the guillotine was accompanied by another rule, which fixed the maximum length of a session to 60 days.

Opposition parties agreed to give up some power in order to allow business to move along more quickly.

Now they regret it.

“It’s one of the worst things that ever happened to democracy in the legislative assembly,” said Hardy.

Yukon Party ministers “rag the puck,” he said.

“It happens all the time.”

Gary McRobb, house leader of the Liberals, also accuses ministers of filibustering.

In the past he’s called out Archie Lang, minister of Highways and Public Works, for reading portions of the same speech several times.

This complaint led the house speaker, Ted Staffen, to admonish Lang for “needless repetition” in speeches this May.

“We’re hamstrung because the Yukon Party has a majority and it’s chosen the despicable practice of using house rules to its own strategic advantage,” said McRobb.

Was it naive to assume government politicians would always play nice?

“We expected a heck of a lot better than what the Yukon Party is delivering,” said McRobb.

“I believed they would earnestly live up to the spirit of the new rules. And I guess I didn’t consider the Yukon Party at the time.”

What’s to be done?

Hardy wants the guillotine abolished.

“No bill should be shoved through,” said Hardy. “Go back to what we had before: no guillotine, no nothing.”

McRobb is less firm. He only objects to the guillotine under Premier Dennis Fentie’s rule.

“Under a conscientious government that would live under the rules, I’d be OK with it, because it’s a compromise,” McRobb said. “But something has to be done when you’ve had this situation in the past six years.”

“I think all parties need to come together and discuss it. Do I think that’s going to happen? No.”

Standing orders fall under the responsibility of the standing committee on rules, elections and privileges.

The committee, which is dominated by the Yukon Party, has not met in a long time, said McRobb.

And as long as the Yukon Party shows no interest in changing the rules, no reform will happen.

Premier Fentie typically shoots back at opposition complaints of filibustering that they should learn to manage their own time better.

He also dismisses complaints directed at the standing orders as “rearranging the deck chairs.”

Has the guillotine and the 60-day sitting limit made the house more efficient?

Number-crunching by the clerk suggests this may not be the case.

It’s hard to quantify how much work gets done each year but, on average, more time is eaten up in the house post-guillotine than before.

Lengthy sittings of the past were an exception to the rule. On average, before the new rules were set the typical sitting lasted for 44 days.

Now, each session inevitably lasts 60 days.

Other jurisdictions have their own rules to manage time while the house is in session. Members of Parliament, for example, may invoke closure, which means a single bill must be voted upon by session’s end.

“Here, we invoke closure on the entire sitting,” said McCormick.