Alex Binkley


Finally, Parliament is an issue in election campaign

By Alex Binkley
True North Perspective
Former prime minister Paul Martin raised a lot of hopes when he promised to correct what’s called the democratic deficit in Parliament. He never did and Prime Minister Harper certainly hasn’t.

The topic may sound airy fairy to you. Well, it should be as important as any issue that gets debated in the May 2 election campaign.

That’s because you’re voting to send your representative to Parliament. But if that man or woman is reduced to little more than a rubber stamp or trained seal by the government, then your voice is lost, especially if you voted for the MP as the best person to represent your community.

Don’t like the hockey game behaviour you see in Question Period? Well, that’s just an ugly manifestation of the democratic deficit, which leaves MPs with little of significance to do.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff has brought up the issue of the virtual neutering of MPs and hopefully the other parties will as well. He says a Liberal government would “convene regular face-to-face meetings of all party leaders to take stock of the tone of Parliamentary debate, productivity in the conduct of the people’s business, and the mandates for in-depth work by standing committees.”

This would be a good first step toward a distant finish line.

A pat on the back to Ignatieff for admitting his party has to share the blame for the sorry state of Parliament. There were signs of it during the Trudeau and Mulroney governments, but it got much worse during the Chretien years and Harper has certainly intensified it even though he objected the downgrading of Parliament when he was in opposition.

Donald Savoie, a professor at the Universite de Moncton and author of Governing from the Centre, the Concentration of Power in Canadian Politics, has chronicled the shift of power to the prime minister’s office from Parliament, cabinet ministers and the bureaucracy. A U.S.president faces checks on what he can do from Congress and the Supreme Court that the Canadian prime minister doesn’t.

Savoie likes to describe the Canadian situation as court-style government, where the prime minister sits as king governing with select senior ministers. The rest of his MPs must do what they’re told to and opposition MPs have to be vilified.

MPs “readily acknowledge that Parliament now has little impact on public policy,” he adds. “Parliament is regarded by prime ministers and their closest advisers as an obstacle to be overcome or, if possible, to be avoided.”

If anything, minority Parliaments exacerbate the trivialization of MPs rather than making them more important. MPs have to accept some of the blame for not pushing back against their court jester status. Some have certainly tried but if they’re not pumping the government line, they’re shunned and belittled for their efforts.

The one place where MPs should be able to shine is in participating in the Commons standing committees. But the government sees them as a rubber stamp for its legislation and usually dismisses any recommendations from committees that it doesn’t like. The result is the committees become battle grounds between government and opposition MPs, but otherwise sterile environments. MPs show up and go through the motions but without the kind of preparation they should be putting into the job.

Former Commons Speaker Peter Milliken has said, “I do not think it is overly dramatic to say that many of our committees are suffering from a dysfunctional virus that, if allowed to propagate unchecked, risks preventing members from fulfilling the mandate given to them by their constituents.”

Ignatieff says the highly controlled Parliament means voters have lost interest as can be seen in the declining participation in elections. 

Canadian democracy is in poor health – not terminal, but declining.

A Liberal government would open up government and make policy in public. It would also limit the prime minister’s power to prorogue Parliament. It would also change Question Period “with more time for both questions and answers, scheduled themes and rosters of required ministers, and a weekly Prime Minister’s question period.”

Committees would be “tasked more widely to dig deeply into major issues before policy decisions are taken or legislation is introduced,” he promised.

Will the other parties respond?

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