New Democrats joined forces Monday with the Liberals to cut short initial debate on a bill aimed at ensuring a federal election could be held safely, if need be, during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The move means Bill C-19 will be put to a second reading vote Tuesday, allowing it to be referred to a House of Commons committee for greater scrutiny and potential amendments.
It prompted howls of protest from Conservative and Bloc Quebecois MPs, who accused the minority Liberal government of gagging MPs and short-circuiting democracy on a bill meant to protect it.
Changes to election rules "should go forward if and only if there’s a large consensus around it," Bloc Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet said.
"One player cannot impose his own rules on every other player on the ice."
Among other things, the bill would allow for a three-day voting period, rather than the usual one day, and make it easier for voters to obtain and cast mail-in ballots. It would also allow Elections Canada more flexibility to conduct mobile polls in long-term care facilities.
Conservatives accused the government of "rushing" the bill on which they've had only four hours of debate since it was introduced almost five months ago.
Cutting short debate on legislation is never acceptable but doing so on a bill concerning "the right to vote of citizens is to add insult to injury," said Conservative House leader Gerard Deltell.
They also argued that the move shows Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is planning to pull the plug on his own government in the midst of a deadly pandemic.
"If the government does not want a pandemic election, what is the big desire to rush this bill through now?" asked Regina Conservative MP Warren Steinley.
Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc noted that the Conservatives are the ones who repeatedly move motions of non-confidence in the minority Liberal government — which would result in an election if all three main opposition parties were to support any of them.
"If anybody is rushing to an election, it would certainly appear the Conservatives are willing to play chicken all the time, hoping somebody else swerves," he said.
"We do not think that is a very responsible way to to proceed," LeBlanc added, noting that the bill was prompted by the chief electoral officer's urgent appeal last fall for temporary rule changes to allow, if needed, for the safe conduct of an election during the pandemic.
While Conservatives maintained they wanted more time to debate the bill, they ate up the three hours that were supposed to be devoted to C-19 Monday, using a procedural tactic that forced the Commons to debate instead a committee report on the Line 5 pipeline dispute with Michigan.
New Democrat MP Daniel Blaikie said his party supported imposing time allocation on C-19 debate only after the Conservatives made it clear they're only interested in blocking the bill.
"I don't think it's responsible as parliamentarians to wait until we stumble into an election," he said in an interview.
Earlier Monday, the NDP had proposed extending Commons sitting hours to allow more time for debating C-19 but Blaikie said the Conservatives rejected that idea.
"It's hard not to conclude that the Conservatives are being totally disingenuous when they say they want more time for this bill, that they're not just trying to stop it from moving forward at all," he said.
The Conservatives' approach to the bill raises the suspicion that they'd be perfectly content if a pandemic election was held and thousands of voters were not able or were afraid to cast ballots, Blaikie added.
"This is the kind of conclusion one ultimately has to draw," he said. "I think we all have to ask ourselves why it is that the official Opposition is so dead set against (moving the bill forward)."