It’s not uncommon to hear complaints about the state of debate in the Commons these days, but looking into the Commons during government orders does fill one with a bit of despair. Years of allowing the standing orders to slide and be undermined are turning debates in the House to irrelevance.
It’s more than just this video going around the internet showing MP Jonathan Genest-Jourdain apparently dozing off in the chamber after checking his hair. It was also evident in spades when I was in the chamber this evening waiting for the slightly delayed debate on C-304.
A mere couple of hours into the debate on the bill to create the government’s new pooled registered pension plans, Government House Leader Peter Van Loan dropped the hammer once again – time allocation. Because there is apparently no bill before Parliament that the government doesn’t deem to be such a crucial piece of business that they don’t want to hurry it through.
Making it worse is Van Loan then heading for the television cameras lamenting that the opposition spent x number of hours debating this bill, and they’re not really debating but delaying, and it’s just terrible they’re doing that. Worse than that, Van Loan then points to our neighbours to the south and says, “Look at the legislative gridlock they have going on. We don’t need that here in Canada. We need to take decisive action, and that’s what we’re doing.” And then, pleased with himself, he vanishes.
The other day, I interviewed Liberal Party president hopeful Ron Hartling, who is currently the riding president in Kingston and the Isles. While we were talking about engaging the queer community, I wasn’t able to use everything he talked about in the article, but he did say some things that I felt should be given some due attention.
Hartling explained that when he took over as riding president,Kingston and the Isles was a pretty sleepy riding association of about 350 members, but it grew to more than 2,000 members – the second-largest riding association in the country before the new year, with more youth members than some ridings have members, period. Kingston was also one of only two ridings in the country that elected a new Liberal MP, and it was the first time in 104 years that Kingston elected a Liberal to succeed a Liberal.
Amidst the nonsense that the Young Liberals were proposing with severing our ties to the “British Monarchy” as part of their convention resolutions (despite the fact that we have no ties to the British Monarchy and instead have a separate and unique Canadian one), crypto-republican columnist Stephen Maher came up with a brilliant idea – let’s elect the governor general to “modernize” our monarchy!
However, as is typical of such proposals, it’s never really thought through when it comes to the mechanics, or what it actually means structurally within our system, let alone the functional realities of what such a system would look like once it’s been implemented. And in this case, what the proposal entails is pretty much just the gloss of democracy, with a kind of “consultative election” for the GG, much like Alberta has been doing for its presumptive Senate nominees (as was discussed earlier in the week). And thus, we remain a monarchy on paper, the Queen still appoints the GG – meaning, of course, that she remains the head of state, as it is the Crown’s prerogative that does the appointing – and we get a GG who feels empowered with a democratic mandate.
Two NDP MPs from Windsor have told their local paper that while they’re not getting any new MPs in the region from the seat redistribution, what they really need is more constituency staff because of the huge workloads that they’re under. And immediately my warning lights went off, because this is indicative of one of the biggest problems that we face in the way our democracy is working right now.
Because most MPs don’t know their own job description – which is, of course, to hold the government to account by scrutinizing the estimates and keeping a hold on the purse strings of the nation – they wind up focusing a lot on constituency work, which has tended to mean taking on a kind of ombudsman role for public services in their constituencies, and it’s a lot of helping people with EI paperwork or immigration files. Some MPs have gone so far as to hire full-time staffers just to deal with immigration case files, which is actually alarming. And MPs tend to fall all over themselves to provide this kind of service, because they know it’s what gets them reelected.
I don’t really mean to add to the pile-on over Belinda Stronach’s editorial in The Globe and Mail that proposes term limits for MPs, but I thought a few things should probably be mentioned about the underlying ideas that haven’t yet been touched on.
As with most reform proposals, most of the ideas haven’t been thought through, and most have not been placed properly in the context of the way our political system operates. Nor does it necessarily look at what the very same proposal has achieved in places abroad where such a system has been implemented. Case in point: Stronach proposes that MPs be limited to two consecutive terms, with some 50 percent turnaround in the Commons every election (which we currently have set at four-year “fixed elections,” but that particular issue is better discussed elsewhere. I’d recommend picking up John Pepall’s Against Reform if you haven’t already). Other jurisdictions with two-term limits operate with varying degrees of success for political leadership – consider the “lame duck” syndrome in American presidents – and are abused in other countries, such as with the Putin/Medvedev seat-warming exercises in Russian, or those South American husband-and-wife rotating presidencies. It’s not inconceivable that something similar would happen under the system Stronach proposes.
Last week, “underdog” NDP leadership candidate Nathan Cullen released a policy paper on “Improving our democracy.” But looking at it, one should be terrified by what Cullen is proposing because of the implications.
To begin with, amidst general anti-Harper rhetoric, Cullen feels we need proportional representation and wants a referendum on a) whether to change the voting system, and b) which system we would prefer instead, giving his own preference for a mixed-member proportional (MMP) system.
A couple of weeks ago, the good folks at Samara Canada posted a three-part blog series that examined the concept of a “Digital House of Commons” that would allow ordinary Canadians the opportunity to participate in the creation of legislation.
Part one looked at how certain NDP MPs held contests in their ridings for schoolchildren to design private member’s bills on their behalf, with the winning piece introduced in the House (where it would never see the light of day on the order paper, but that’s another story). Part two was about expanding that notion to create a fourth institution of Parliament – a “Digital House” where people could use online tools to post and vote on ideas for legislation, which would then make its way into the actual Parliament by special process. Part three was about justifying this notion as somehow enhancing our democracy.
It seems that during the big Liberal telephone town hall on Sunday, interim leader Bob Rae was talking about the possibility of moving the party toward implementing a kind of “open primary” system when it comes to choosing the next leader. On the surface, it sounds laudable – get tens or hundreds of thousands of Canadians to have their say in who the Liberal leader will be. But scratch just below the surface and this starts to look like the very bad idea that it really is.
First of all, the idea of a primary is another attempt at importing an Americanism into Canadian politics, which is a fraught proposition to begin with. Our systems are very different, and we can’t readily import aspects from their system, graft them onto ours and expect the results to be either pretty or effective. Ways in which we’re choosing party leaders are already drifting away from their functional roots, and we’ve seen ways in which this has eroded our system by giving too much power to those leaders without any reasonable means of accountability. Installing a primary system will only worsen this problem.
Yesterday the NDP had second reading debate on a bill that would attempt to ban MPs from “crossing the floor” to other parties. Mathieu Ravignat, the bill’s sponsor (though the same bill has been introduced repeatedly by Peter Stoffer but never actually debated), said he felt the bill would somehow restore Canadians’ faith in our democracy.
“This bill also reflects a fundamental objective of my party, which is to do politics differently in order to renew people’s trust in elected officials,” Ravignat said in debate.