Thursday, 20 December 2012


Filibuster is a parliamentary procedure which permits a minority to obstruct the passage of a Bill in the parliament, using bluster, to delay a vote.  This is the action in which the Liberals and the New Democratic Parties are now engaged in the House of Assembly.  The procedure is permitted in most parliaments, though limitations on this “obstructionist” process, widely varies across parliaments. 

Wikipedia informs us that the term "filibuster" is “derive(d) from the Spanish filibustero, itself derive(d) originally from the Dutch vrijbuiter, "privateer, pirate, robber" (also the root of English "freebooter". The term in its legislative sense was first used by Democratic congressman Albert G. Brown of Mississippi in 1853, referring to Abraham Watkins Venable's speech against "filibustering" intervention in Cuba”.

The practice of filibuster has much earlier origins. The online Dictionary also notes “that “(o)ne of the first known practitioners of the filibuster was the Roman senator Cato the Younger. In debates over legislation he especially opposed, Cato would often obstruct the measure by speaking continuously until nightfall.  As the Roman Senate had a rule requiring all business to conclude by dusk, Cato's purposefully long-winded speeches were an effective device to forestall a vote”.

As a parliamentary device, the filibuster is still a useful tool for opposition minorities who believe, as this Opposition does, in the case of Bills 60 and 61, that the P.C. Government’s agenda is overarching and contrary to the public interest.
For those of you unaware of the purpose of the two pieces of legislation, Bill 60 is designed to exclude the Muskrat Falls Project from rate review by the Public Utilities Board and give a wholesale monopoly to Nalcor in the Province.  Bill 61 permits expropriation by Nalcor of the land area required to construct the Labrador Island Transmission Link. 

In British Parliamentary systems, less like the bicameral American system, ours is characterized by very strict caucus discipline. We rarely see Members opposing a Government initiative.  Rather, for most parliamentary majorities, the antidote to filibuster is “closure”, which under parliamentary rules, governments may invoke to cut off debate with limited notice.  Government takes this action at its peril. 
Closure is rarely viewed positively by the public because it is seen as an arbitrary stifling of legitimate opposition.  By the same token, the effectiveness of filibuster is lost on the public if it is invoked on frivolous matters and used too frequently.   Taking the action places an onus on the Opposition to demonstrate that the Bill is either offensive to good public policy, that it is defective or somehow discriminatory.  If it fails the opposition risks losing public support for stonewalling the legislative process.

In the context of the current filibuster, the two Opposition parties need not fear the wrath of the public. Even if a majority of people support Muskrat Falls, as recent polling by The Telegram and NTV indicates, a still larger majority supports better scrutiny of the Project than the Government has afforded throughout this entire process. Therefore, on the ‘importance’ scale, the Opposition had little to do to prove its case, given the level of controversy the Project has engendered.   

That the Opposition would sit through successive nights, during the cherished Christmas Season, at great personal discomfort and inconvenience, further lends credibility to its tactics.   If the Government invokes ‘closure’ now, it will aggravate an already uncomfortable public.  It will further confirm its arrogant attitude and its arbitrary behaviour on all matters Muskrat.
The Government knows, as does the Opposition, that the Tories will prevail when the vote is finally taken. But, the Opposition may throw the Government off its schedule.  It wants the Bills passed by Christmas Eve; it has no desire to return to the House soon to face a public, now too busy with festive making, and who may be less inclined to patience when the credit card invoices arrive, in the cold month of January.

In addition, it is important to note this fact; that these Bills are being debated now is no coincidence.  As the Opposition Parties have correctly noted, these Bills have long been in preparation; they have not been given basic courtesies.  The Bills ought not to have been tabled at the ’last minute’.  Nor was it necessary to schedule the debate so late in the Sitting when Christmas would be allowed to cause Closure of a sort and truncate debate.
Earlier disclosure of the Bills would have enabled greater analysis by the Parties or allowed them to alert the public to the implications of allowing Muskrat Falls to be outside scrutiny or rate setting. Neither does the Government wish to invite another thousand questions over how Nalcor’s monopoly status might offend the rules of FERC, the U.S. regulatory regime that requires exporters of electricity (this Government has talked a good line about send power to the northeastern U.S.) to not impede the open transmission of electrical power.

If the Opposition parties failed to use every tactic to oppose and delay these Bills, they would risk being blamed, at some future date, for failing to perform their constitutionally sanctioned role.
Opposition is a tough job. In the case of Bills 60 and 61 the Government will prevail. But, we have to give full marks to the two Opposition Parties for their dedication to the democratic process and for carrying out their responsibilities when they might prefer to be heading home to be with their families for the Holidays.

What they are doing is fundamental. While they will not prevail, their filibuster is important.  It is necessary.  They deserve our respect.