The Commons: Is this any way to run a democracy?

Sitting and standing for hours and hours

Shortly after Question Period concluded, the Speaker formally called for yelling. All those in favour of the motion were invited to yell yea. All those opposed were invited to yell nay.

Technically, one supposes, the members need not yell yea or nay. They could nearly say so aloud. But democracy is not for the quiet. And so on one side they yelled yea and on the other side they yelled nay, the NDP’s Peter Julian seeming to particularly enjoy this (holding his yell for an extra beat or two). The Speaker made a judgement as to who had yelled most and then, inevitably, at least five members of whichever side had lost stood to demonstrate their desire for a formal standing vote to be recorded for the sake of posterity.

With a few of these final formalities dispatched with, the Speaker called for the members—all those duly elected to be here given 30 minutes to report to the House to spend the next seven hours expressing their respective wills on Bill C-45, the second budget implementation act of 2012.

Out in the foyer, as the dull digital tone that now stands in for the ringing of actual bells chimed over and over, Bob Rae attempted to explain to a cluster of reporters what could be hoped to be accomplished by what was about to happen.

“Well, you know, we want to inflict, frankly, as much damage and make the government realize this is just a crazy way  to do public business,” he said. “We’re happy to discuss navigable waters. We’re happy to discuss the tax credit policy of the government. We’re happy to discuss what their approach is to small business. We just think these things have to be dealt with in a way that respects the House and respects the democratic process. And we just don’t see that in the approach that’s being taken by the government. They are pushing any approach that’s being taken by any other parliament in the world much, much, much further. In fact, if you go back to many of the principles of parliamentary democracy, they’re opposed to this joining together of several measures in one bill. In some states in the United States, to do that is actually unconstitutional.”

Were these vote marathons losing their effect?

“I don’t think so,” Mr. Rae said. “I mean I think the main thing we’re sending is a message to government members. Obviously, it’s an inconvenience to them as much as it is to us. And we’re simply trying to remind government members that it’s their own government’s incompetence which has led us to this point and their own government’s unwillingness to really deal with us directly and follow what I think need to be very clear rules. And, clearly, we are committed now and will continue to be committed now as a party to changing this entire process.”

(Each and every member of the current opposition should probably be required to make such a commitment.)

A short while later, the opposition and government whips made their customary walk down the centre aisle as MPs took their seats. The Speaker called the vote. The New Democrats applauded Thomas Mulcair as he led the yeas. The Conservatives applauded Stephen Harper as he led the nays. About eight minutes later, with 290 MPs having stood and had their surname called by a clerk and then returned to their seats, it was reported that the nays outnumbered the yeas, 156-134.

The rest was technically a formality, practically more and figuratively much more than any single thing or anyone—the motions of the Westminster system, the realities of public policy and the principles of representative democracy.

“In this fragile economy,” John Baird reported to the House an hour earlier during Question Period, reading from a blue piece of paper in his hand, “this House needs to have the NDP stop fighting the job-creating hiring credit for small business, stop fighting the new economically vital Windsor-Essex to Detroit crossing and get behind the budget bill of the Minister of Finance.”

Of 457-page bills, little is easily said. If the New Democrats have a complaint about the hiring credit, it would seem to be that the measure isn’t generous enough. Of a bridge between Windsor and Detroit, Peggy Nash pronounced her side in favour less than a week ago.

“However,” she explained, “these changes are all bound up with many other changes that we do not support.”

In this case, within C-45′s 457 pages, besides its amendments to a few dozen existing acts of Parliament, is the creation of a separate and new act of Parliament entitled the Bridge to Strengthen Trade Act, which would exist solely to provide for a bridge between Windsor and Detroit.

On this note, the Conservatives sent up Jeff Watson, the MP for Essex, to pronounce shame on the NDP for moving that this legislation be removed from the budget bill. “Shockingly,” Mr. Watson reported, “the NDP and the MP for Windsor West who should know better are putting politics before progress and have introduced a motion to delete this Bill C-45 and stop this bridge from moving forward.”

After the Transport Minister had urged the NDP to “put politics aside,” the NDP’s Megan Leslie stood with a question. “Mr. Speaker, speaking of the monster budget bill, one of the more troubling aspects of this bill are the changes to the Navigable Waters Protection Act,” she ventured. “With no rhyme nor reason, the Conservatives have stripped away protection from thousands of lakes and rivers across Canada. Nova Scotians were shocked to learn that along with many other rivers, the Shelburne Heritage River will no longer be protected under this act. How is it that millionaires in Muskoka get lake protection but Nova Scotia Scotian rivers do not? Are there no Nova Scotian Conservatives over there who will stand up to this cherry-picking and this favouritism?”

Here the Transport Minister, Denis Lebel, stood to declare this much ado about nothing more than responsible governance. “Mr. Speaker, my department has consulted with every province and territory on the list of waterways,” he declared. “None of them have any concerns with the list.”

Perhaps Mr. Lebel is quite right here. Perhaps his changes to the act are entirely defensible. And perhaps Ms. Leslie is worrying herself unnecessarily. But perhaps Mr. Lebel would have an easier time now if his government didn’t apparently believe that a reference to “productivity-enhancing and transformative measures” in the spring budget was meant to convey that a future budget implementation bill would overhaul the Navigable Waters Protection Act.

It was of the NWPA that Ms. Leslie stood in the House on Monday at noon and read aloud from a long list of waterways. (She might still be reading if the Speaker hadn’t decided, shortly after Orren Creek, that the House had the gist.) And it was when the House arrived Tuesday night at votes related to the NWPA that the New Democrats began to vote in slow motion. For two rounds they moved methodically, luxuriating in the act of standing and sitting, the slowest among them seeming to take great care to move each muscle and joint in a deliberate fashion.

The Conservatives were displeased with the tactic. “Canadians are watching!” one of them cried.

This was likely the hope on both sides.

Beyond the cameras, MPs fiddled with iPads and laptops, caught up on their reading or paperwork, signed Christmas cards and snacked on candy. Jokes were exchanged across the aisle. The air was noticeably humid. The voice votes continued, the members on each side of the House invited to yell yea or nay (the opposition side even managing to win a couple of these entirely symbolic shouting matches.) The stuffed dog that taken a seat on the government side during the 22 and a half hours of voting on C-38 in the spring did not reappear, but NDP MP Dan Harris found time again for Lego and Tony Clement tweeted a penis joke. The economy pitted against democracy amid the atmosphere of an undergraduate lounge.

As the final vote was recorded, just over six hours after the first vote had begun, the New Democrats stood and cheered and chanted “2015!” en francais. After a few moments of considering a response, the Conservatives by banging their desks and chanting, “car-bon tax!” In the end, not a single change to C-45 was made.

If the opposition parties believe—as Stephen Harper once did—that omnibus legislation of this sort is an affront to our democracy, then they would seem compelled to ensure this is what happens each and every time. And if the government believes that it is behaving reasonably and responsibly in presenting these bills in this way—and that the opposition is somehow tarnished in fighting like this—then one must assume there will be more of this from them too. Another bill this spring and then another next fall. And then two more in 2014. And then maybe one more in 2015 before that year’s election. Maybe five more nights like this of grown men and women in business attire standing and sitting and standing and sitting and standing and sitting for hours and hours and hours. The government claiming efficiency, while the opposition argues for a more perfect process. (Somewhere between them is probably something like a reasonable compromise. Or at least something less time-consuming than this. And more substantive than what the government made a show of offering this time.)

This is probably no way to run a democracy, even if it is precisely how our democracy is maintained.

So maybe, ultimately, something’s gotta give. Only with how we govern ourselves in the balance in the meantime.

The Commons: Is this any way to run a democracy?

  1. And as the sun sinks slowly in the West……..

  2. “This is probably no way to run a democracy,–” that’s the point, Aaron — this ceased being a democracy when Harper and his trained seal MPs got their long coveted majority. The Reform libertarian agenda is being implemented one omnibus bill at a time. The media, operating as they now do by repeating or expanding a bit on press releases, may not inform the voters about this for years, if ever. One day piece by piece Canadians will come to realize that the country they thought they lived in doesn’t exist any more.

    • This belief that we somehow don’t live in a democracy anymore is completely ridiculous. No matter what you think of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, he was elected by the people of this country in a democratic election. Majority governments are not undemocratic and neither is the first past the post system.
      Claiming we do not live in a democracy because the election didn’t go as you had hoped is more of an affront to democracy than anything else. You may not like the Conservatives, or Stephen Harper, but you have to face the fact that he was given a majority government by the people of this country in a democratic election.

      • I agree with you. But…. there are certainly enough instances of the government limiting debate and back dooring legislation through omnibus bills to warrant concern. Harper won the election, but he did not campaign on a lot of these changes and is hammering them through with as little debate as possible, and that is something that is hard to deny

        • I do agree that large omnibus bills are not an ideal way to get legislation through but they are also allowed under our current system. My thoughts are that Harper is using the omnibus approach for two reasons.
          1) A conservative party has not won a majority in Canada since 1988. Combine that with the fact that a minority Conservative government cannot appeal to parties on it’s left and right (as the Liberals can in a minority situation) and you can understand that they probably have a mountain of changes that they want to make.
          2) This reason is more political. Harper will also try to get anything through parliament that is controversial in the first couple years of his mandate.
          With these two reason in mind my predication is that we will see a reduction in the use of omnibus bills as we get closer to 2015. In 2015 people will decide if this issue is important enough to influence their votes… That is if they even remember.

          • 1) This is …”quite frankly”… a pathetic excuse…rationalzing, whatever you want to call it. He has a majority; you said yourself he already has the hammer, he could permit reasonable debate and or amendments…and still win! He doesn’t because he obviously does not want his controversial agenda to be widely scutinized or debated in public…IOWs, the govt is afraid it may lose the PR war. Hence, real democratic scrutiny and accountability has to go!
            This behaviour is unprecedented in a federal govt, although there may well be examples that equal it provincially.
            It all boils down to Daddy knows best. Which when you consider Harper’s record of railing against this kind of behaviour in others, puts him into a unique category of hypocrisy all his own.

      • “…and neither is the first past the post system.”

        When the result is almost certain to put a group with a minority of votes in power, it is not terribly democratic. There are worse ways of determining who rules a nation (civil war, for instance) but there are many better.

        And no, my view on this is not dependent upon which party is in power…

      • Whining is what the left does best. Notice how all the media howls of outrage over the Ontario legislature still being prorogued have quietly gone away? Where is all of the ongoing “anti-democracy” drum beating from lefties against the Ontario Liberal Government? The reality is lefties can’t handle a Harper majority and whining and crying the blues bout it is a daily occurrence.

        • You call opposition objection to the repeated, indiscriminate use of monster omnibus bills “whining”?

          • Not at all. I am calling out all of the selective media wining that is far more focussed on supposed Conservative “attacks” on Democracy but is far more silent on Liberal or NDP Governments that engage in similar attacks or worse.

            I am also calling out lefties that constantly whine about Conservatives using the majority they were given by Canadians. Please cue up the usual leftist wines about only “XYZ” % of Canadians voted for the Conservatives. Of course they ignore that even fewer Canadians voted for them. Next let’s blame our democratic system. Funny how you never heard all of these whines when there were Liberal majorities…

          • “Funny how you never heard all of these whines when there were Liberal majorities…”

            That’s actually not true, nor even relevant. I complained frequently about the Liberals’ own brand of arrogance when they were in office. During their hegemony, we had a Liberal MP in our riding and he got an irate email from me on more than one occasion and I recall signing a few petitions about some of their policies. Nor was I alone. You just failed to notice such dissent because you were, in all probability, “whining” just as much at the time and assumed your kindred complainers were all (your language) “righties”.

            It seems to me that anyone (of whatever political stripe) who cares about the accountability of our democratic system should be concerned about these procedural abuses. The Liberals did introduce omnibus bills but the Cons have taken the strategy to egregious lengths, especially given their own vow to restore accountability to government, if elected. Surely, you can’t defend the blatant hypocrisy on that score…or can you?

            See, I can express my discontent without any reference to the Cons’ faux majority.

          • I certainly agree with you that when in opposition there are complaints over omnibus legislation that do not exist when the same party is in power. I also agree that the Conservatives can certainly be credited with advancing the use of omnibus legislation in budget bills.

          • Except that I didn’t say either of those.

            Typical Con manoeuvre: distort something I said so that you can then “agree” with it. Right out of the PMO Operational Manual.

          • I actually thought I was agreeing to your points but clearly “how” someone agrees with you is a point you would like to debate.

            Gee, this is just like a debate in the House of Commons…all about process and the act of debating but not about the content.

          • “Gee, this is just like a debate in the House of Commons…all about process and the act of debating but not about the content.”

            On that point, we’re in complete agreement. There needs to be a debate about process because the process to which the Cons now routinely resort virtually precludes any meaningful examination of content.

            You seem to be OK with that.

          • This is just my observation but when there is time for debate it often seems that much of the debate is spent debating the process of the debate itself and not about the content. The exception is private members bills – there you seem to consistently get debate over content and not process.

          • The opposition would have no need, nor excuse, for resorting to such procedural sandbagging if the government didn’t repeatedly use such a ham-fisted means to get its way. With a comfortable majority and a good two years left in their mandate, there isn’t even any particular urgency to implementing their agenda this way.

            The only plausible explanation for the Cons autocratic methodology is that they know many of the items tucked away in this monstrous bill wouldn’t bear close scrutiny in the House or the media.

            Or maybe they’re just doing it this way simply because they can…the true hallmark of an autocracy.

          • More likely they are too stupid, too lazy and too dishonest to do their jobs properly. Look at how ignorant Cabinet Ministers have shown themselves to be: Fantino doesn’t know what CIDA is about, Toews didn’t bother to read his own legislation and Kent doesn’t bother to meet with environmental groups.

          • Er…one of the reasons for that Einstein [ there were objectors to liberal majority behaviour. A quick check of even the so called liberal media[ Simpson, Martin] can turn them up] the temperaure was lower during liberal majorities was ” they simply weren’t as bad”…

        • I admire the 99% protesters because they get in the streets and make their voice heard. Same for the G-20 protesters in Toronto – though they were illegally detained (and in some cases brutalized) for their trouble.

          Surely the “right” could organize a weekend rally to protest McGuinty’s prorogation?
          Where is the passion?

          • But why does it need to be the “right” who would organize the protest? Why is it all of those who are so valiantly defending “attacks on democracy” not organizing protests of far more serious attacks on democracy such as the shut down of the Ontario legislature ? Why are they not condemning democracy being usurped by the non democratic efforts to remove Mayor Ford from office? It is such a one way street with so called democracy freedom fighters…

          • You had a point…until you mentioned Ford. Who gave the finger to the integrity commisioner [?] who couldn’t be arsed to recuse himself from a vote that concerned his ethical behaviour and whether it should be examined?
            You highlight the problem of partisan politcs on all sides right there, by choosing which side you are on and aren’t on, all in one post.

          • Where is the lawsuit against Fontana?

            How about the lawsuits against the various Quebec
            mayors ?

            Once again all those righteous zealots crusading for ethics and integrity in local government only target oneMayor…..I suppose we can once again overlook the selective nature of that yet again much as we can overlook partisan media.

            How long will it take before the others side starts using the courts to remove leftist mayors ? how long until more effort is made to hire “non partisan” right wing media shills ? This is the road blind partisanship leads too and I don’t see it as a positive one. But again, that’s just me.

          • I must have missed the bit where macleans[ a LW rag according to your side] pointed out the level of corruption was becoming intolerable within QC.
            The people of Montreal are free to pursue the same level of litigation as Toronto
            , it wouldn’t bother me at all.
            I’ll take you seriously on partisan media when i see you camped on Sun media’s doorstep.

        • You don’t know what you’re talking about. There was a good deal of anger with McGuinty’s behaviour within the LPC membership.

          Although i would agree that many of the front line politicians behaved somewhat like the CPC..ie.they formed a fort like Muskox protecting their own.[ at least that's the way it looked to me] No chance at all any of your warrior robots would even stick their head over the parapet wall.

          • Yes, there was some “anger” of the Ontario Legislature being shut down but initially but a quick scan of google news shows there has hardly been a peep in the media for almost a month on that subject. In other words one of the largest “attacks” on democracy in Canada is basically now being given a free pass by all of those “democracy” crusaders…..Hence my earlier comments about the selectivity of the so called “democracy” crusaders….

          • “Free pass”…ridiculous!

      • You always have to remember that a majority in the House of Commons is not the same as having the majority of voters on your side, given our completely stupid electoral system. Too often, governments of all stripes conveniently forget that fact and rule as if God himself has given his blessing to every crazy idea hatched in the PMO.

        The only way we can rectify this insanity is to adopt an electoral system that will e a House of Commons truly reflective of the will of the voters.

      • His point is that the reform agenda is being implemented “despite” the House and country still having the trappings of a democracy. But you likely knew that before you threw a spit ball, didn’t you?
        It is, or is fast becoming a sham democracy – that is the point! Not whether you and i can still toddle off to the voter’s booth or watch the farce the House has become.

        • It’s called a majority government. Accept it, deal with it, and next election you can vote accordingly. If it makes you feel better to whine about it in the meantime, fill your boots.

          • Yawn!

          • Does this mean that once the CPC is no longer in power, and the Liberals or NDP have a majority, we can expect you to be fully silent about it?

          • What I can say is that if (when) either scenario occurred there are two things I would not do…

            I would NOT whine over what percentage whoever got elected by (waste of time to do so in my view as the election is over) and likewise I would not whine over how they decide to implement their mandate because ultimately a majority government is given a majority for a reason.

            What I would whine about are the actual polices that I disagree with along with the reasons why. But as far as complaining about the process they use to get their mandate implemented I don’t really care. I care more about WHAT they are doing and not so much the process of how they go about it.

          • Okay. So you’re an idiot then.

            The reason the process is there is so that we can examine and debate changes *before* they go into effect, thus hopefully sparing Canadian taxpayers from hopelessly short-sighted legislation and costly court cases.

            If you care about what they are doing, then you need to care about the process, because that’s what makes it so that your cares about what are getting done get noticed before it’s too late.

  3. Such a big feeding Wherry has sprinkled into his aquarium this morning!

    “Come fishes, come, eat, eat, same, same…..”

    • Memory is a net: one that finds it full of fish when he takes it from the brook, but a dozen miles of water have run through it without sticking.

      Oliver Wendell Holmes

      • “Anyone who conducts an argument by appealing to authority is not using his intelligence: he is just using his memory”

        Leonardo da Vinci

    • Might as well since all the rivers and lakes are about to be polluted and reduced with impunity. Something about a last supper.

      • Perhaps Wherry should clean out his fish tank.

        • What is that supposed to mean?

          • I rather think it means she thinks “we” are tank scum.

          • I take it to mean that Wherry should try and be less politically partisan and more open minded in his media work. In other words, clean out the polluted fish tank of leftism and re-stock it with a more fairly represented group of fish….or reptiles or whatever would be in the aquarium in the Francien metaphor…

          • I thought you just wanted him to be up front with what you suppose is his bias.

            Now you want him to change what he’s reporting to better match yours.

  4. Unfortunately, AFAIK neither the NDP nor Liberals have put forward concrete ideas as to legislation a NDP or Liberal government would bring in that would disallow omnibus bills. And given the Liberal leadership campaign underway, this would be a great time for LPC candidates to not only criticize the CPC about omnibus bills, but also tell us what they would do to prevent it from ever happening again if they were PM.

    In other words, without legislation, there is absolutely nothing to prevent a repeat from a non-CPC government.

    So, NDP and LPC, by all means criticize the CPC for doing this (they deserve it). *BUT* also tell us what you would do to prevent it from ever happening again if we gave you the keys to the country. And saying “trust us” doesn’t count.

    • Hear, hear!

  5. Logical conclusion of having technocratic government for past forty years. Provincial legislatures are being shut down as well, pols don’t want to debate anything.

    Our fed/prov governments and bureaucrats are supposedly smart people making decisions for all us so no debate is necessary because the bein pensant are ever so clever and people who disagree are know nothings because they are not informed like bureaucrats and Cabinet are.

    The State is all wise, debates are superfluous.

    • You keep using that word.
      I do not think it means what you think it means.

  6. would be cool if we had a say in this. at the very least, it would be great if our elected officials could have a say on our behalf. but they can’t.

  7. Could direct democracy look any worse right about now?

    • Direct democracy is referendums. Not sure how that figures in here.

      • Just being sarcastic. I’m no fan of DD…not yet anyway.

  8. “About eight minutes later, with 290 MPs having stood and had their
    surname called by a clerk and then returned to their seats, it was
    reported that the nays outnumbered the yeas, 156-134.”

    Curiously, i thought the Harper majority was slimmer than this. Does this mean some opposition members voted with the govt?
    Or is it some strange quirk…i note that there wasn’t a full house…still odd!
    I suppose the answer is that some opposition members didn’t make since they knew they didn’t have the # in any case?

    • They were going in shifts. CPC has 165 currently. Opposition parties total 136.
      There’s also 4 Bloc, 1 Green, 1 Indpendant-conservative, and one independant.

  9. scheer is really is the worst speaker of the house by far……..way over his head in the job of house speaker……please do democracy a favor mr scheer….resign already ….

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