Friday, February 18, 2011

Parliament's irrelevance

I have to admit reading this story in Macleans didn't make me really happy, but it wasn't really surprising either.   Other than Question Period or really important votes, most MPs don't see any reason to hang around in the House of Commons chamber.   And nothing substantive really gets done.   During the Pearson era, about 86% of government bills proposed were passed by the House -- and usually with unanimous consent.   Since Harper came to power five years ago, only 42% of bills have passed -- and it's not just the opposition "stall tactics" the government claims, but also the fact bills are introduced then a session is prorogued if the government can't get its "way."   The increased heckling and unnecessary standing ovations only makes the optics worse.

Moreover, budget bills are now top loaded with items that have nothing to do with the budget at all, as a result, issues can't be properly debated.  And look at QP:   On a good day, about 250 of the 308 MPs show up.   By the time it goes to "orders of the day" (the bill or opposition motion of the day to be debated) it is down to maybe 15, and by the end of the evening around six o'clock you'd be lucky to find seven in the cavern.   Incidentally, Article 48 of the Constitution of 1867 stipulates that quorum is twenty members (including the Speaker or Presiding Chair).

Even more bizarre is the fact that the Cons who were elected on a promise (one going all the way back to the original Reform "Blue Book" in 1987) to make all votes other than budget and appropriation bills free votes (the practice that has evolved in the UK) has naturally broken that promise and can threaten to make even a motion to adjourn for the day early a confidence matter.   Admittedly, having free votes on absolutely everything does go against some of the principles of parliamentary democracy, as Richard Cashin (co-founder of the Fisherman's Union, now part of the Canadian Auto Workers) pointed out in the Spicer Commission report twenty years ago.  However, on such things where a Governor General "recommendation" is not required, I think there is room for MPs to reflect the views of their constituents whether it's such things as altering regional disparity programs, amending the criminal law, or creating new national parks if it encroaches on existing property rights without adequate compensation; after all some agencies can get new "territory" that has nothing to do with their original mandate, provinces can get shucked with unfunded mandates for a whole pack of new prisoners doing two years less, and a lot of our public parks are still technically privately owned with very carefully defined public access rights that could be terminated at any time, respectively.

I also noticed, in drafting this post, that Canada finally endorsed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (which results in the unfortunate acronym DRIP) back in November.   This was actually a flip flop from 2007, when Harper ordered his ambassador at Turtle Bay to vote against the treaty.  All well and good that the PM got some common sense.  Except for the fact legislation continues to be introduced at the federal level as well as at the provincial and territorial order that impacts on Native North Americans, Inuit and Métis without any consultation prior to introducing such laws.   (A more recent example of this was the introduction last fall of the long delayed devolution bill for the NWT which would give the territory a much higher level of autonomy, similar to what's been enjoyed by the Yukon since 2003 and give the region's First Nations as well as the territory's whites the oil and diamond royalties that rightfully belong to them -- problem is of course, the NWT's First Nations weren't even told the GNWT and Ottawa were in talks at all.   Only two of the territory's seven tribes -- the Inuvialuit and the Métis -- have signed on so far to the tentative deal.  Others, like the Dene and the Deh Cho, want serious concessions and with just cause)

Nor was, far as I can tell, any resolution introduced in Parliament to ratify the DRIP treaty -- the feds just announced it.   That MPs and Senators weren't given the chance to voice their consent even by a positive voice vote (which would have been more than obviously granted) is contemptuous for the executive at base.

I don't know what it will take to turn things around.   But a few thoughts:
  • No more snarky comments from any member or any party.   No unnecessary extraneous comments.  Only one member speaks at a time.  This includes ending the cheap shot comments we've become so accustomed to, especially from Harper.  This is Canada, not the United States.
  • Rather than the present QP where all or most Cabinet members show up and then routinely pass the buck to a lesser ranking member if he or she doesn't like a question, set aside days where one or a grouping of ministers MUST answer any and all questions.   For example do what they do in Britain and have the PM answer any and all questions one day a week, prior to his or her weekly meeting with the Queen -- except here it would be for an hour, not 30 minutes, and the obvious substitution of the GG for Her Majesty.
  • A PM must meet with the GG every week Parliament is in session -- no exceptions.   Harper has made a mockery of this long standing convention and it must stop.
  • No more questioning member's patriotism, even for the Bloc.   Once one takes an oath to the Queen, he or she is a member and that's the end of it.
  • Committees should have the resources to actually do their work and make recommendations for meaningful amendments to proposed bills -- government or private member's bills.   The last time I can remember a committee actually did something truly useful was back in 1992 when the Justice Committee worked together to draft a rock solid "rape shield" law that replaced the previous law declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the Seaboyer case; not only did it actually make the law stronger (not weaker, as some women's groups feared) it expanded the definition of consent to sexual activity to make clear that no really does mean no.  This law was passed unanimously in Parliament and it was later upheld in the Darrach decision in 2000.
  • Committees should also have sub poena powers.  They actually do but this is rarely used.   If groups are invited but refuse to testify but they have a valid point that needs to be put in the public record, then they should be required to do so even if it is in writing.
  • The Speaker must use his or her power to rule out of order blatantly unconstitutional bills.   We see this when the Senate tries to introduce a money or tax bill (of course, appropriations must always be introduced in the House) but if it's a constitutional amendment that requires a section 37 or 42 amending procedure (7-50 with or without opt-out as the case may be) rather than just Parliament's sole voice then that must be enforced (e.g. the Senate "democracy" bills -- this has to go to referendum, plain and simple).
  • I have also long believed that while cabinet collective responsibility is a keystone of our democracy, a government should not fall because of the incompetence of one of its members unless the act is so egregious that it encroaches on obstruction of justice.  For instance the current kerfuffle over the Bev Oda memo is an example where the House should be able to vote no-confidence in a single Cabinet minister alone, not the entire government -- unless it can be shown that Harper himself ordered the doctoring of the memo in which case the entire government is in contempt of Parliament and by extension the people of Canada.
Would all of these end the decline?   No, of course not.   But I think it's somewhere to start.  That even Caribbean countries  have more robust debates in their national legislatures than we do speaks to our entropy.

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BlastFurnace said...

Serious comments, please. I've already marked one as spam. I try to have some fun here but this is a serious subject. If you want to advertise, go to Craigslist or eBay.

BlastFurnace said...

And I had to delete a second one ... does anyone have a serious comment or rebuttal, please?