Cause and effect in parliament

Is parliament too rude, too partisan, and too dysfunctional?

There’s a lot of weird stuff in today’s Hill Times piece retailing Keith Martin’s parting shots at his place of work for the past seventeen years. The least plausible, though, has to be his claim that when he was elected as a Reform MP in 1993, the House was “a place for bipartisan activity” and a place “where you could work quietly with other political parties to advance initiatives for the public good.” Mr. Martin, surely you kid.

But nostalgia is a powerful drug, and bashing parliament is all the rage these days; declaring our democracy “finished” is the sort of thing MPs and affiliated partisans turn to when they aren’t getting their way in the Commons. (Recall that reforming parliament was the centrepiece of the Reform/Alliance agenda when it looked like the Liberals were in power forever. Funny how that went away once they gained office).

The HT piece contains three main claims: that parliament is too rude, too partisan, and too dysfunctional. They are often treated as equivalent, but as Joe Comartin (wisely) points out, they are distinct. Let’s look at each in turn.

1. On the rudeness question, I don’t see how that should bother anyone outside parliament. If MPs want to run their workplace like it’s always last call on Friday night at YukYuks, well, good for them. But if MPs do want to do something about it, they might want to begin by understanding just what rudeness is. For example, I loved this bit quoting David McGuinty, who – get this – blames the prime minister for the uncivil tone of parliament:

But Mr. McGuinty said any true change has to come directly from the Prime Minister.

“If the Prime Minister of Canada wants to set a civil tone, if he wants to detoxify the House of Commons, if he wants to work as a democrat, he can do that. But Stephen Harper doesn’t want to do that,” Mr. McGuinty said.

2. With respect to partisanship: I’m always surprised when members of parliament who are also members of a party complain that parliament is beset by partisanship. Why, then, don’t they quit their party and serve as independents?

Here is Keith Martin on committees: “Many committees are ground down by partisanship. The committees have just become another theatre for political warfare, an extension in fact of the House.”

I see this as the consequence of two things. First, deliberate changes have been made to strengthen the power of parliamentary committees, as demanded by MPs. When you give a body made up of political partisans more power, what the heck do you expect will happen? Second, the instability and uncertainty of minority government means that every issue is politicized in a way it need not be when the government has a majority and knows it will be in power for four or five years. The math isn’t difficult: Stronger committees + minority government = increased partisanship.

3. Parliamentary dysfunction:

Remember a few years ago, when everyone was convinced that the solution to whatever ailed our democracy was minority rule, that it would force the parties to work together in a more bipartisan and collegial manner? Some of us argued at the time that it would only make things worse, and we were right.

Is our democracy seriously broken? I don’t think it is, but I need to find time to write something defending that position. I hope to do so soon. In the meanwhile, everyone should pick up John Peppal’s Against Reform, as preparatory reading.

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