Being somewhat of a political science junkie, I’m fairly familiar with the term filibuster.
A politician, or political party, will stand and speak against a proposed bill, delaying or even stopping passage of that bill.
The film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington has a pivotal moment as the embattled Mr. Smith holds a filibuster to profess his innocence in a land scheme prior to a vote on his expulsion by his colleagues in the U.S. Senate.
Last year, opposition parties in Ottawa forced the Conservative government to vote on each amendment to its omnibus budget individually to highlight the extensiveness of cuts and changes to legislation. The vote lasted for days, with MPs cycling in and out of the house as families and fatigue took priority.
This is perhaps not technically a filibuster, but the spirit is the same – bear with me until I get to my point.
Then earlier this week, Texas lawmaker Wendy Davis stood for more than 11 hours in the state legislature to delay passage of a bill that would require clinics that performed abortions to be of a surgical standard – with nearly none of the clinics able to meet the proposed requirements, the bill would effectively ban abortion in that state.
Davis stood for the full 11 hours, despite wearing a back brace, unable to sit or even lean on a desk, and had to stay on topic or else her debate would come to an end. It did, 15 minutes short of the time needed to delay passage of the bill until the next day – one of her three strikes leveled by the senate president happened when a colleague attempted to adjust her back brace.
The bill was delayed, however, when protestors in the public gallery caused enough of a ruckus that actual voting didn’t take place until three minutes after midnight.
In neither of these cases – the omnibus bill or the anti-abortion bill – did the filibuster stop it from becoming law. The Conservatives hold a majority in the House of Commons, and the Texas governor simply recalled his senate for a special session.
But what is inspiring about a filibuster is the spirit in which it’s carried out – people who have no hope of winning carry on, fighting for what they believe in.
Politics is a belief-oriented industry. Politicians campaign on what they believe in; they join parties whose values mirror their own; and they (supposedly) represent the will of the people.
Those who captured our imaginations – Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, to name a few – did so because they stood up for what they believed in and spoke with passion about why the rest of the world should believe it too.
Eleven hours is not only a long time to talk, but also a long time to listen. I wouldn’t expect people to hang on Davis’s every word, or to attend every single vote over days within the lower chamber.
The workings of parliament and democracy can get pretty dull, when politicians argue points of order, ask for clarification or debate points that leave others scratching their heads as to the relevancy.
And that’s where people get bogged down and overwhelmed at the political system. A filibuster is an opportunity to take a step back, look at the big picture and consider what values these people we elect to office are trying to uphold.
At its heart, that’s what a filibuster is. It might not make a difference to one piece of legislation but it might inspire another to take up an environmental, human rights or social cause.
That’s ultimately what we need – for people to stand up for something.