Yes, contempt of Parliament does matter
TheStar.com – news/Canada/politics
Published On Fri Mar 25 2011. By Thomas Walkom, National Affairs Columnist
The Conservatives say their government’s contemptuous approach to Parliament doesn’t matter. They are wrong.
They are wrong on any number of levels. The most basic is the most obvious. For all of its imperfections (and they are many), the only thing close to a democratic national body in Canada is the House of Commons.
To be contemptuous of its members is to disdain those who elected them. Canadians get precious few chances to determine what their leaders do. When voters elected a minority government in 2008, they were signalling that they didn’t trust Stephen Harper’s Conservatives (or indeed any other party) to run the nation’s business single-handed.
Instead, they wanted the opposition parties to check government — to act as watchdogs, moderate its ideological excesses and keep it in line.
But throughout the life of this now-dead Parliament, Prime Minister Stephen Harper refused to accept the voters’ verdict. His decision to operate as if he controlled a majority of Commons seats may have been good short-term politics. But it contradicted both the spirit and reality of the very limited mandate voters had given him.
Had he stopped there, Harper’s approach might have been excused. The fact that his government survived as long as it did can be blamed in large part on the opposition’s failure to call his bluff earlier
What cannot be excused is the attitude behind this approach. True, Harper is not the Great Satan that some paint him to be. He is thoughtful and intelligent. Those who know him far better than I credit him with a sense of humour.
But there is a bitterness to this prime minister that has infected his entire caucus. All politicians are partisan by definition. Harper’s partisanship is over the top. He not only disagrees with Canadians who are liberals and left-leaners. He seems to despise them.
All of this was manifest before he took over the merged Conservative Party. In those days, he disparaged what he called the moral failings of liberals, calling them nihilists bent on the destruction of western values.
In power, his rhetoric was often more restrained. But as former nuclear regulator Linda Keen found, those he believed tainted by Liberalism could expect no mercy. Keen was axed in 2007 because she insisted that Canadian nuclear plants have back-up power systems — systems we now know that Japan’s ill-fated Fukushima reactors famously lacked.
But her real sin was to have been appointed to by a previous Liberal government. That, Harper suggested, made her inherently untrustworthy.
Opposition MPs and others who had the temerity to disagree with the government were given equally short shrift. Canadians who questioned Ottawa’s handling of Afghan prisoners were treated as traitors. Richard Colvin, the veteran diplomat who testified to this mistreatment, was savagely and personally attacked.
At one point, when it looked like his government might be defeated, Harper simply shut down the Commons.
The contempt motion on which the government fell Friday related specifically to the government’s refusal to tell elected MPs the full cost of its programs. That refusal in itself demonstrates the Conservatives’ profound disdain toward the only democratic national institution we have.
Yet it is also part of a pattern. This government is willing to sacrifice Canadian soldiers to bring democracy to Afghanistan and Libya. But it cavalierly dismisses democracy at home.
Cynics hold that Canadians don’t care about such abstract matters, that as long as our bellies are full we will put up with anything. We shall see. The cynics have been surprised before.
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