Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Canada: A Strictly Ceremonial Democracy

It has only been a few weeks since I started posting twice a week. With the prorogation and Liberal leadership race in Ontario, the second omnibus budget bill in Ottawa, and some other minor issues that have popped up in recent weeks it feels like I don’t have enough time. I determined what I would write about a long while ago today before McGuinty resigned or the economic was introduced. Suddenly posting three times a week seems like a good idea. Luckily for me this is just a temporary problem and I am sure a slower news cycle will take hold soon enough.

The common thread of the two stories of the moment is the health of democracy in Canada. Watching The National’s At Issue panel on Thursday I was stunned by the force of the language used and unanimity of their condemnation of the federal government’s use of a second omnibus budget. To paraphrase Andrew Coyne, many international news items reporting from the developing world will refer to the ‘largely ceremonial’ legislature. Canada now has a largely ceremonial legislature.

In essence, in Canada, our House of Commons and provincial legislatures are more similar to the American Electoral College than the parliamentary democracies of our past. The leader of the party that receives the most seats gets to rule with limited checks or balances on his or her power. The only group that can threaten his/her control is the caucus of the governing party in a majority situation. But MPs in that caucus, so fearful of retribution from the leadership and the desire to climb the party ranks and perhaps secure (a now neutered) cabinet post, will not stand up to their leaders.

Bill C-45, the formal name of the second omnibus budget bill, is, as the Toronto Star calls it, an affront to our democracy. These omnibus bills fundamentally undermine the purpose of our representative parliamentary democracy. The job of a Member of Parliament is pretty straightforward. They must represent their constituents, hold the government to account and scrutinize laws. When a piece of legislation is over 400 pages, affecting dozens of pieces of legislation and the implications of the changes are not clear, how is a MP to do his/her job? In the space of a few short weeks, with limited debate, Bill C-45 will become law and our environmental laws and who knows what else.

Drip by drip the fundamental institution of democracy fades ever so slightly into something less than a democracy. No, I don’t suspect that one day jackbooted men will walk in our streets and cameras will carefully watch our every move and dissenters will be banished to camps in Kenora, but our democracy will start to feel a lot less real, and much less responsive until it resembles the ones found in countries like Singapore, or worse, Russia.

The recent prorogation in Ontario is a symptom of the same terrible disease. The province will be governed by the cabinet without public input until at least January 25th. At that time a new Liberal leader will be selected and Dalton McGuinty will resign. Still, the legislature will not be sitting. Ending the parliamentary session to undergo a leadership race is inexcusable. Constitutional expert Peter Russell slammed the McGuinty government for abusing its powers and shutting down the legislature http://ontarionewswatch.com/onw-news.html?id=410.

As ONDP leader Andrea Horwath (ONDP - Hamilton Centre) pointed out on The Agenda last week, governments have gone through leadership races without ending a legislative session. The government’s explanation is weak and as Martin Regg Cohn argued, it is a mismanaged retreat.

I fear our democracy is in decline. It has been in decline for decades but there has been a brief and rapid acceleration. Our constitution is dependent upon the respect of tradition as much as written rules. Governments increasingly abuse these unwritten rules. Even if voters punish the Ontario Liberals and the Conservatives it may not (and probably will not) reverse this trend. Governments do not abandon the power and concentration of authority, even if the parties switch.

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