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Marriage bill hearings may be rushed through Parliamentary committee

Legislation continues to struggle upstream

The Little Marriage Bill That Could continued its journey through Parliament Thursday.

Members of three parties sitting on the special parliamentary committee reviewing the legislation hinted yesterday that it may work long hours and limit witnesses in order to rush the bill back to the House for third reading.

That would improve the bill’s flagging fortunes and make it possible that it could at least make it through Parliament-though perhaps not the Senate, which is also required-before an expected non-confidence vote forces a spring election.

Still to be worked out are details around who may appear before the committee and what they will discuss. Proponents of the bill worry that it could be stalled at committee level if a broad consultation is put in place as opponents demand. Conservative MP Vic Toews continued yesterday to demand the committee hold five hearings outside of Ottawa in BC, the Prairie region, Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada.

Meanwhile Liberal MP Pat O’Brien, who strongly opposes the bill, continues to insist that Paul Martin promised him the committee will hold full public hearings in exchange for O’Brien remaining in the party.

The marriage bill inched closer to becoming law Wednesday evening as it passed second reading in a packed House of Commons by a vote of 164 to 137.

If the committee work proceeds at a rapid pace, the bill’s chances of passing third reading this spring and being approved by the Senate, appear better than they did just two weeks ago.

Conservative leader Stephen Harper has vowed to topple the Liberals and predicts the marriage bill will not pass before an election. However, Conservatives seem to have abandoned stalling-tactics in the House of Commons in a bid to boost their election chances. Recorded votes on the divisive issue could become campaign fodder in some ridings where the bill is unpopular.

Conservatives are expected to call for range of witnesses at the committee stage, including church groups who have mounted national campaigns against same-sex marriage.

With the second reading, Parliament has approved Bill C-38 in principle and proposed amendments from the committee would need to be consistent with the spirit of the bill.

Critics note that delay is the only real option open to Conservatives and Liberals who oppose the bill.

Same-sex marriage is now legal in seven provinces and the Yukon and a court challenge is pending in New Brunswick.

Alex Munter, national coordinator of Canadians for Equal Marriage, was on hand for the vote. He notes that legal same-sex marriage is already a reality for 90 percent of Canadians.

Munter also points to polls suggesting Canadians don’t want a speedy election.

Thirty-five Liberals broke-rank Wednesday, voting with the Conservatives. Among the Liberals was New Brunswick MP Paul Zed, who was absent from a failed vote last month to scrap the bill. Zed joined 34 Liberal colleagues who had previously voted against their party’s bill.

The Liberals, who hold a minority of seats in parliament, were bolstered by support from all but one of the NDP caucus, most members of the Bloc Quebecois and four Conservatives. Conservatives Belinda Stronach, James Moore, Jim Prentice and Gerald Keddy, also voted with the government.

NDP Churchill MP Bev Dejarlais was in the House but did not vote-prompting heckles of “free her, Jack” from the Conservative benches. NDP leader Jack Layton has ordered his caucus to support the same-sex bill, although Dejarlais has expressed opposition to it. Seven Bloc members voted with the Conservatives.

Debate of Bill C-38 in advance of the Wednesday vote, seemed a rehash of past positions, with a host of Conservative members reaffirming their insistence that marriage should be “the union of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others.”

The stale air wasn’t lost on Munter, who says most Canadians have already made-up-their-mind on the issue.

“We’ve had two years of debate, three votes in Parliament, six months of cross-Canada consultations. I think people have made up their minds,” says Munter. “There is not much left to say on either side of the issue.”

At least one Liberal thinks there is more to be said, however. O’Brien wants more debate.

“More than we’ve had, that’s for sure,” he says.

“You certainly should expect that the legislative committee is going to hear public hearings where a significant [number] of Canadian groups will have a chance to have input,” says O’Brien.

Gay MP Bill Siksay (NDP) will sit on the committee. In a media scrum outside the house, Siksay said he was very pleased with the vote but wouldn’t say whether he expected a third reading of the marriage bill sooner rather than later.

“We haven’t figured out what the committee is going to do yet. What I want, as a member of the committee, is for the committee to do its job effectively and fairly. And I don’t want it to drag on unnecessarily and I don’t want to shut people down unnecessarily either.”
says Siksay.

The CBC reported Thursday that the Liberals are not making special arrangements with the Senate to ensure the bill passes quickly should it get that far. Such arrangements are being made for the budget bill.