The dangers in a Liberal plan to ‘fix’ Parliament
TheGlobeandMail.com – Opinion/Editorials
Mar. 31, 2017. Globe Editorial
The opposition parties in Ottawa are in a panic over a proposal by the Trudeau government to change the rules of Parliament. What the government claims is an honest effort to bring “greater accountability, transparency and relevance” to the House of Commons is, in the eyes of the opposition, totalitarianism run amok.
That’s not an exaggeration. Interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose last week unironically linked the proposed reforms to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s “admiration” for China’s dictatorship and his “bizarre infatuation” with the late Cuban dictator, Fidel Castro.
Is Mr. Trudeau trying to turn Canada into a Communist autocracy? If he is, going about it by changing some of the standing orders of the House of Commons is not exactly the sort of fiery revolutionary act one usually associates with these things.
But while we don’t endorse the opposition’s histrionics, we do share its cynicism regarding the government’s proposals. Some of them are clearly designed to make life easier for a majority government. And that is unacceptable.
Any majority government like Mr. Trudeau’s controls the House of Commons, which means it holds almost all the parliamentary marbles. It can pass the bills it wants, and cut off debate when it suits it. It typically also uses its majority to control committees, further ensuring that little gets in the way of its legislative agenda.
There is little except its own conscience, and its fear of voters in the next election, to stop a majority government from doing what it wants. Which is where the opposition parties come in.
They can prick the conscience of the Prime Minister and his cabinet in Question Period, which is well covered by the media and will often generate unflattering headlines for the government.
And as legislation moves through Parliament, opposition members can question, delay and filibuster in the House and on committees, and thereby force the government to use its majority to curtail debate in a unilateral fashion, which never looks good to the public.
This is standard procedure in parliaments everywhere. It is not always pretty, but it helps keep governments accountable. Mr. Trudeau, however, thinks it’s all a nuisance. His government considers the opposition’s limited arsenal to be “tactics which seek only to undermine and devalue the important work of Parliament,” and which “sow dysfunction” and are not “rational” or “defensible,” according to a discussion paper it released on its proposed changes last month.
Those contentions are cynical bunk. The Trudeau government is hawking a utopian vision of Parliament, in which members from different parties politely discuss the government’s proposed legislation on a schedule set by mutual agreement, and there are cheers all around when the House enacts laws that are a perfect reflection of the selfless compromises agreed to in a collegial fashion on committees and in the House.
In this paradise of reason, the government has no hidden agenda and never tables politically motivated bills that are deeply flawed. There are no Fair Elections Acts, no bills reducing citizens’ privacy in the name of fighting terrorism – and no blatant partisanship of any kind. There are just sunny ways passing beneath crisp rainbows.
It would be very convenient for Mr. Trudeau if he could fool Canadians into thinking that Parliament needs a “recalibration of the rules to balance the desire of the minority’s right to be heard with the majority’s duty to pass its legislative agenda,” another line from the government’s discussion paper.
But this, too, is bunk. Is the Prime Minister really saying that there is an imbalance in favour of the opposition that is preventing his government from doing its “duty”? That the chips are stacked against him? If so, he’s being absurd.
For the record, the government’s proposals include one to limit committee members’ interventions to 10 minutes – an obvious attempt to reduce the opposition’s ability to make a public display of its dissent by filibustering during hearings.
Another one is to implement “programming” motions in which the opposition and government jointly fix the time for debate on bills. This move would allow the government to avoid the stigma of imposing time-allocation motions unilaterally.
Another proposal is for Parliament to adopt Britain’s famous Prime Minister’s Questions, in which the PM stands in the crosshairs for 30 minutes on Wednesdays taking questions from opposition party leaders. Doing so could well lead to Mr. Trudeau attending only the one Question Period per week, and to the diminishing of the media’s interest in the days he skips – further weakening government accountability.
There are some useful ideas in the government’s discussion paper, but they pale in the face of the Liberals’ desire to make the life of a majority government even easier.
It is also disillusioning to discover that the Liberals have this all so backward. The imbalance in Canada’s Parliament is weighted entirely in favour of a majority government and its legislative agenda, not the other way around, as Mr. Trudeau’s party absurdly claims.
That’s because MPs, who were once elected to form governments, and oversee them, now mostly serve the wishes of their parties.
The neutering of MPs has been constant over the past 50 years, and it is the reason so many Canadians find Parliament to be irrelevant. Opposition filibustering, and a Question Period with the Prime Minister in attendance, are among the last remaining ways our elected representatives can hold a majority government to account.
A party truly committed to invigorating democracy would enhance the independence of MPs and allow them to vote freely, rather than as a bloc controlled by the Prime Minister’s Office or that of the Leader of the Opposition. Instead, we have the Trudeau Liberals, whose new rules threaten to make a government less accountable, not more.