Parliament is broken, not worthless
TheStar.com – Opinion – Parliament is broken, not worthless
Published On Mon Jan 18 2010. By Carol Goar Editorial Board
Why should you care if Parliament is closed for the next six weeks?
It’s not as if MPs were accomplishing much with their relentless partisan bickering. The government won’t stop functioning when the legislature is dark. There will be no interruption in Old Age Security, employment insurance payments, children’s benefits or provincially run health and social programs. Federal services will continue. Life will go on more or less normally.
Does this mean Prime Minister Stephen Harper is right that proroguing Parliament is just a “routine constitutional matter”?
Yes, if a government has completed its legislative agenda, there is no work for parliamentarians to do and a timeout is needed to prepare a new plan.
But the current hiatus does not meet any of those criteria.
There were 36 bills on the order paper when Harper pulled the plug on Dec. 30. A parliamentary committee was busy investigating reports the government ignored evidence that Canadian soldiers were handing over Afghans to local authorities who tortured them. And Parliament’s six-week Christmas break gave Harper and his colleagues plenty of time to “recalibrate.”
Cutting off democratic debate in these circumstances is not at all routine. It is a deliberate misuse of the rules of Parliament.
What is more, it is part of a pattern.
Since Harper was first elected four years ago, he has systematically silenced inconvenient voices. He began with his own MPs and cabinet ministers – they can no longer speak without authorization. Next, he shut down parliamentary committees. Then he fired or cut short the mandates of independent public watchdogs. Then he turned on public servants who tried to sound the alarm. And now he has prorogued Parliament twice.
This may all seem distant and theoretical to you. How does it affect your life if an irritating, dysfunctional debating forum is shuttered?
• It means the government will operate behind closed doors this winter. When Parliament is closed, Harper and his ministers can avoid public scrutiny. The government can spend taxpayers’ dollars unwatched. It can act unilaterally.
If you trust Harper implicitly, this is not a problem. If you don’t, it is.
• It means your taxes will be used to provide each of Canada’s 308 MPs with a 12-week paid Christmas break. They’ll earn $35, 867.62 during this hiatus. They could work in their constituencies, of course. But they could also do party business, look after their personal affairs or take it easy. You have no way of knowing.
If you consider this good value for your money, you’re not affected. If you don’t, you are.
• It means you and 34 million other Canadians are involuntarily relinquishing your say in the nation’s affairs. It was already pretty tenuous. For the past 35 years, Liberal and Conservative prime ministers have weakened Parliament to strengthen their own grip on power. Harper has gone further than any of his predecessors, capitalizing on an ineffective opposition and a tuned-out populace.
If you think this slide toward one-man government is fine, a shuttered Parliament is no problem. If want to preserve the fragile safeguards that remain, it is.
The stakes go beyond the here-and-now, beyond Harper’s political tactics, beyond the ill-tempered, unproductive wrangling in the House of Commons.
If Parliament loses its legitimacy, your children and their children will have no institution capable of reining in an autocratic leader or a government that is out of control.
If people with talent, fresh ideas and clear principles give up on Parliament, the best hope of fixing it will be lost.
It may not bother you if democracy is diminished.
It does trouble Canadians who believe the rights their forebears fought and died to protect are worth defending.
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