Democratic Accountability

Posted on October 15, 2015 in Governance Debates – Full Comment – National Post View: The Choices Before Us, Part 4:
October 15, 2015.   Editorial

In the minority government years, some Conservative supporters might have been inclined to excuse its excesses in the name of survival. For example, the prime minister’s decision to prorogue Parliament in 2008, in the face a confidence vote he seemed sure to lose, might conceivably find favour with historians: though it put the governor general in a position she should never have found herself in, it spared her having to decide whether to hand power to the bizarre and unwieldy coalition that had notionally agreed to support Stéphane Dion.

But the second prorogation a year later, invoked for no purpose but to shut down tough questioning in the Afghan prisoners’ affair, lacked even that slim defence. Still worse was the government’s sustained misrepresentation of the costs of the F-35 fighter jet, backed by its refusal to release the documents Parliament had demanded that would have shown this: the proximate cause of the formal finding of contempt of Parliament in 2011, and of the election that resulted.

Yet even after that election, and the winning of the long-sought majority, the government continued in the same vein. When the PBO revealed the plane’s true costs, the same government that had stonewalled all their inquiries attacked their credibility; when the auditor general backed them up, they attacked him.

The assault on Parliament was carried to new levels, with the introduction of a series of massive omnibus budget bills, hundreds of pages long, containing dozens of bills: essentially the government’s entire spring or fall agenda, packed into one vote. (Again, omnibus bills are not unprecedented; but again, the Harper government took it much further than any previous.)

But the Commons was not the only branch of government to fall victim to the centralizing urges of the Prime Minister’s Office. The prime minister, who came to power vowing never to appoint unelected people to the Senate, or to appoint Senators to cabinet, on his first day in office did both. Since then he has appointed dozens more to the Senate, many of dubious quality, and while that, too, has precedent, the mishandling of the Senate-reform file has none.

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We don’t particularly care for the Supreme Court’s reasoning in the Senate reference, but the possibility that it would so rule was surely evident; had the government sought the court’s advice upfront, it might not have wasted eight years in the attempt. Likewise, the amateurishness of the attempt to appoint Marc Nadon to the court, notwithstanding the questions surrounding his eligibility, is in no sense relieved by the dubiousness of the court’s ruling against him — while the attack on the chief justice’s integrity in response is still stunning in its childishness.

There’s more, much more: the bloating of Cabinet and its associated decline; the ruination of the census; the attempts, only partially reversed, to tilt the electoral field their way in the so-called Fair Elections Act; the routine invocation of time allocation, cutting off debate in Parliament, on bill after bill; the passage of a succession of plainly unconstitutional crime and other bills, in apparent disregard for their likely invalidation by the courts; and on and on.

Suffice to say that when the Wright-Duffy affair exploded, the revelations that emerged, of a cover-up involving virtually every senior member of the Prime Minister’s Office, seemed almost unsurprising: the culture of expediency, deception and central control was by then so well established that it was a matter of secondary importance whether the prime minister personally knew of the plot.

At this point, one might say: but how can we be sure the opposition would behave any differently? The Harper government is not the first, after all, to have come to power promising more accountability, only to reverse itself once in office. Indeed, we cannot be sure. Fortunately, public concern at the state of Canadian democracy has risen to such a level that the opposition parties have been rather more concrete in their reform proposals than in the past.

The Liberal platform contains measures to curb the use of omnibus bills, to protect the independence of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, to ban partisan government advertising and to buttress the powers of parliamentary committees, among a long list. There are also vaguer promises of more free votes in Parliament and limits on prorogation, in addition to a restatement of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s previous pledge of a more independent, less partisan process for Senate appointments.

The NDP offer some similar proposals, plus measures that would require the minister to whom a question is put in Parliament to answer it; a bipartisan process to review government appointments; and of course, Senate abolition, for what that’s worth. Of greater potential impact, both parties, along with the Greens, are pledged to reform of some kind of Canada’s electoral system — a matter that will require a great deal of further debate and popular input, beyond this election.

In the end, however, voters have little but their word on it; the merits of their proposals for improving democratic accountability must be weighed against the likelihood of their implementation. And not only that: the Conservatives’ deficiencies on this file must be weighed against their relative merits on other issues of importance to the nation. Amongst these are the personal qualities needed in a prime minister, to which we turn next.

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