Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Health of Parliament

Parliamentary purists are wonderful people. Peter Kormos, the recently-retired MPP from Welland, was considered a passionate expert of parliamentary procedure. On the federal level Bill Blaikie (Elmwood-Transcona, MB – NDP) was another example of this. These purists put the value of parliament above all else – personal interest, cause, party demands and so on. Parliament is sacred to these folk.

Respect for Parliament as an institution is more meaningful than merely obeying the old traditions, but Parliament is our central institution of government and popular will. The House of Commons and provincial legislatures are the beating heart of our democracy. Making Parliament function as intended is central to the health of Canadian democracy.

So, obviously this was building to something. Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative government has been none-too-friendly to Parliament this year. Harper does not have an excellent track record in terms of respect for Parliament. Before May 2, 2011 I chopped up any of Harper’s anti-Parliament behaviours as a reaction to the minority parliament. Bullying the opposition parties and bending the rules of Parliament was part of how a government might react in a minority situation. I emphasize might because other Prime Ministers did not often do the same things to the same extent.

This week there have been a number of stories in the media that have caused me a great deal of anger. As a politics nerd, and a Canadian, I love Parliament and hate to see her so mistreated.

First, Question Period. I will be the first to admit that Question Period is not as valuable as it could be. That being said, I recently read that the Prime Minister now only attends QP three days a week. He used to only take Fridays off, but now he has taken to skipping Mondays too since winning majority government. The first mission of Members of Parliament is to hold the government to account. If the Prime Minister is not showing up that makes it more difficult.

Second, the body of Parliament is not beingallowed to debate. Three major pieces of legislation flew through the House of Commons – the omnibus crime bill, the abolition of the Wheat Board, and the termination of the gun registry. The Parliament was not given an opportunity to serve its principle purpose – debate legislation. Analysis in the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail point out some of the problems in the legislation (especially the crime bill) demonstrated how even some scrutiny would make the bill better. There were little errors that could have been amended if given the chance.

Our system of democracy requires majority governments to be a little magnanimous. Majority governments have absolute power, so there is no harm in letting the opposition have their say because ultimately the government has the votes. Harper could allow the opposition to scream until their hoarse and he could still pass whatever he wanted, within reason. Debate refines legislation. Ignoring it makes Parliament a rubberstamp for the Prime Minister’s Office.

Third, the much dreaded prorogue. There are rumours thatPrime Minister Harper is going to prorogue Parliament early – again. This will be the third time, and with a majority government there is really no justifiable reason for it, except to limit debate and accountability. Harper, it is argued, is almost complete passing the major aspects of his legislative program, so he does not need Parliament any more. Lori Turnball recently wrote in the Globe and Mail that the rules for prorogation needs to be addressed.  Turnball argues that the right to prorogue needs to be transferred from the Governor-General (therefore the Prime Minister) to the Parliament with a two-thirds vote. Right now the central democratic institution of our nation can be arbitrarily suspended by one person. I personally do not care for this Banana Republic-style democracy.

John Ibbitson wrote today that the House of Commons willnot be prorogued this winter, but probably will be this summer. The case he lays out is not any more comforting if Parliament is dismissed in a few weeks or a few months.

Dan Leger with the Chronicle Harold writes of Harper’s attitude to Parliament. His criticisms are spot on. The Prime Minister is not the centre of Canadian governance, the Parliament is, and this should be better reflected in the power arrangements we see. I wish all 308 MPs were Parliamentary purists who had great love, and not contempt for Parliament. This is not about Conservative government, it’s about the health of our democracy. Precedent is very important in the Westminster tradition, was a precedent is set it is hard to break. Harper’s true legacy might be a less functional Parliament and a less vibrant democratic tradition.

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