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Opposition leaders move to remodel the House

Globe and Mail Update

Opposition party leaders made their first power play under a Liberal minority government Thursday, promising to push for fundamental changes to the way the House Of Commons operates when Parliament resumes sitting in October.

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, New Democratic Leader Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe of the Bloc Québécois unveiled a laundry list of measures at a joint news conference in Ottawa, topped by a call to require votes on all opposition motions -- a move that could lead to House votes on international treaties, Canadian Forces deployments and changes to marriage rules.

The three leaders also said that they should be consulted by the Governor-General if the Liberals seek the dissolution of the Parliament.

"The agreement we are announcing today profoundly alters the operation of the House of Commons in ways that opposition parties have been demanding for years," Mr. Harper said.

"It will make Parliament a more meaningful place for debating and deciding issues, and it will make the government more accountable between elections."

The leaders also want representation on all committees for opposition MPs as chairs and vice chairs, speeches by all members – including the Prime Minister and leader of the Opposition -- to be subject to questioning and new House committees on aboriginal affairs, women's issues, privacy and access to information to be established.

Mr. Layton, Mr. Harper and Mr. Duceppe have already agreed to the idea of reviving a public-accounts committee investigation into the sponsorship scandal.

Asked how the leaders planned to get their proposals implemented, Mr. Harper offered a stern warning to Prime Minister Paul Martin.

"I would like to see these adopted immediately," Mr. Harper said. "If the government refuses, obviously there is a majority of the opposition that would be willing to do it."

"We intend to seize the first opportunity, the first opposition day, to effect these changes."

Mr. Duceppe said the opposition leaders have given Mr. Martin the perfect opportunity to address the "democratic deficit" in Ottawa that he has long said he wants to eliminate.

Mr. Layton said he was particularly excited about the possibility that the House of Commons will be able to vote on international treaties and the overseas deployment of Canadian Forces.

"There's a general agreement that Canadian politics needs to be cleaned up," Mr. Layton said. "That's something we heard at the doorstep from coast to coast. We're proposing new structures, new committees, new processes....lots of changes in order to help open the doors of Parliament to the winds of democratic reform."

Mr. Duceppe made it clear that the opposition leaders will not form any kind of coalition, explaining that the three men "agree on how to disagree."

"We want a very democratic debate in the House instead of having measures imposed by the government without any discussion," Mr. Duceppe said. "It has happened too often in the House concerning, as an example, international treaties."

Parliament resumes Oct. 4 with the Liberals holding 135 seats. The three opposition parties have a total of 172 seats and there is one independent MP.

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