The 41st Parliament hits bottom

This Parliament appears to be a lost cause

Adrian Wyld/CP

Adrian Wyld/CP

Shortly after three o’clock this afternoon, Michael Chong’s Reform Act passed the House of Commons by a vote of 260-17. Even in its amended form, its passage—the Senate must now approve the bill—is worth celebrating. Even if not quite the leap it might’ve been, it is still now a small step toward what might be considered a better Parliament: one in which each of the individuals we elect, not simply the leaders of the various parties, is significant and, as a result, the legislature is a truly robust forum for debate, study and accountability. Of course, there are very many steps left between this and that.

Should the bill receive royal assent, it will be something for which this Parliament, our 41st Parliament, can claim credit. But it will be for the next Parliament to make something of it. Which is perhaps fitting because the legacy of this Parliament—its contribution to a more perfect democracy—might depend entirely on whether its gross failings inspire its successor to commit acts of change.

That there are as many as seven more months left in the life of this Parliament almost doesn’t matter. That it exists is unquestionably a good thing and that it counts among its members any number of remarkable and inspiring people should not be forgotten and that it might sit until at least June will provide some benefit to the nation. But so far as it might’ve been something more, this Parliament now looks to be a lost cause.

Our Parliament, faced with a deadline, cannot say yet what it will do about assisted suicide. We also cannot assume that our Parliament will give serious consideration to our civil liberties and national security. And our parliamentarians cannot be trusted to provide serious oversight of what our government does in the name of security. And we cannot necessarily expect a yes or no response to a question the government is willing to answer. And all that just a week after the House of Commons surrendered a decision on its own security to the judgment of the government with barely a discussion.

On Tuesday evening, by a vote of 146 to 132, the House of Commons formally and officially agreed to acknowledge its own inability, or unwillingness, to lead on what is apparently one of the more difficult issues facing our country today.

Specifically, the elected members of this 41st Parliament voted to reject a Liberal motion that would have established a special committee and charged it with studying the issue of assisted death. That committee would have had from March 11 to July 31 to investigate the matter and then advise Parliament as to how our national legislature should respond to the Supreme Court ruling of nearly three weeks ago.

Instead of doing that, the House will do not much of anything. At least not now. At least not unless or until the government decides it wants to do something. At which points perhaps the government will give the House something to do.

“We will be opposing the motion,” Bob Dechert, parliamentary secretary to the minister of justice, explained on the government’s behalf yesterday, “because we intend to launch meaningful consultations soon with Canadians and key stakeholders so that we can hear all perspectives on this difficult issue.”

We are apparently to understand that an assigned grouping of 12 of the people we elected to represent us would be basically unable to conduct meaningful consultations and hear all perspectives.

It was indeed Dechert’s opinion that a committee could not possibly hear from as many citizens as is necessary. What was needed here, he said, was to consult with “tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands” of citizens. He suggested that maybe an Internet survey could be set up to gather the public’s views.

One might hope that a dozen members of Parliament, supplied with some amount of money, could figure out how to hire a firm to conduct an Internet survey. And so as not to read Dechert’s explanation as some condemnation of the capacity of a dozen random legislators stuck in a room together, let us presume that he was asserting that the power to conduct an Internet survey is an executive prerogative.

“I do not consider this a partisan matter at all,” the Prime Minister explained during question period yesterday.

On that count, we can claim success, at least insofar as the defeat of the Liberal motion means no partisan here is obviously doing much of anything about the issue right now.

While Dechert was telling the House that a committee of its members could not possibly handle the task of sorting out how we should arrange our laws around a right to assisted death, some of his Conservatives colleagues were reportedly trying to ensure that the government’s new anti-terror legislation would receive only the barest of study by the public safety committee.

“The bill is now before the committee and I encourage the committee to study it as quickly as possible in order to adopt these measures to help Canadian security during the life of this Parliament,” the Prime Minister told the House yesterday.

So while assisted suicide is so complicated an issue, you see, that our legislature could not possibly be expected to sort through it by July 31, national security is perhaps too serious an issue to be studied at length by our legislature.

The latter at least lines up with the government’s position that parliamentarians are not suitable to oversee the policies and actions of our national security apparatus—what is needed, Peter MacKay explained, is “third-party, non-partisan, independent, expert oversight.” Never mind MacKay’s previous involvement in drafting a proposal for precisely the sort of parliamentary oversight the New Democrats and Liberals are now calling for, you will understand that the serious business of national security cannot be fairly judged by the unlearned partisans we elect to represent us.

Committees of the House have at least some agreed-upon responsibility to approve legislation before it passes the House, but while demanding that the public safety committee should conduct a thorough study of a bill that has profound implications for civil liberties and law enforcement is merely asking that Parliament do its job, it is fair to wonder how good of a job Parliament could do or ever does in this regard. During debate in the House last week on C-51, Liberal MP Wayne Easter openly suggested that only so much scrutiny could be expected of committees that are closely managed by the government—”What I am saying is that the process has to change if we are going to make this legislation good legislation.” (Former Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber has made similar complaints.)

“The committee is totally independent of me and that the committee will decide by itself how to proceed,” Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney pleaded last week—a claim that would be easier to believe if his dutiful parliamentary secretary wasn’t a member of the committee.

In the midst of such existential quandaries and quagmires yesterday, there was the smallest and cruellest of blows to this place.

Of the Supreme Court’s ruling on assisted suicide, both Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau wondered aloud whether the government would invoke the notwithstanding clause.

“Can the Prime Minister assure Canadians that he will not be using the notwithstanding clause to overrule the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision on end-of-life care?” Mulcair asked.

“Mr. Speaker, the government said quite clearly that we respect decisions of the courts,” the Prime Minister responded.

“Can the Prime Minister state clearly that he will not use the notwithstanding clause with respect to this important issue, yes or no?” Trudeau asked.

“Mr. Speaker, the government has always respected the Supreme Court’s decisions,” Harper explained.

It fell to the Prime Minister’s Office to state to reporters afterwards that the answer to the question was “no.”

Of course, that the House did not receive a clear and unequivocal answer to a straightforward query posed during question period is not nearly news. That the Prime Minister was unwilling to simply say the word “no” could be the inspiration for a book on the state of our species’ ability to communicate publicly with each other, but as an occurrence in the day, week or life of our Parliament it is merely a footnote.

That the government won’t entirely avoid the ruling is a firm promise of something, but it is not really much of anything. It is actually the opinion of some Conservative MPs that 12 months, with an election in the middle, is not nearly enough time to draft a bill and so the government should ask the Supreme Court for an extension on its homework. This would seem to wholly dismiss what this Parliament could accomplish in the next seven months—if not passing a new law, at least putting in great effort to study and consult. (Anyone who tells you that the House adjourns in June is ignoring the fact that the entire House, or just a committee of it, could continue to sit through the summer and past Labour Day until an election campaign is necessitated. MPs merely have to be willing to do so.)

That a multi-party committee could be charged with the task has a certain utopic allure. Give us Steven Fletcher, Libby Davies, Irwin Cotler and a half-dozen others (excluding parliamentary secretaries) and we might see an impressive display of our legislators crafting public policy on one of our most fraught matters in a worthy and serious fashion.

If seven months is not enough for this Parliament to do something and 12 months is not enough for any prudent bill to be drafted, it is at least to wonder why other matters—omnibus budget bills, endorsements of war, large rewritings of our national security regime—are so easily dispatched in a fraction of the time.

But here we are, blessed of a Parliament of very unclear utility and purpose.

Someone will argue that, by votes and numbers, it is one particular party’s members who are responsible for this situation, but all members should have to account for their own seriousness these last few years and anyone who promises to do better should be checked for seriousness (and scorned if they ever get the chance to retract their promises or practice what they now bemoan). Some might be holier than others, but there are no angels here. (Collective responsibility as it pertains to Parliament is a good idea for a book.)

But so the Reform Act has passed. Now what?

To answer that question, perhaps go back to the one unquestionably wonderful moment of this Parliament and consider another question: What should we be cheering for?