Parliament in springtime: Our vibrant, tragic democracy

Summer arrives with everything still up for debate

Adrian Wyld/CP

Adrian Wyld/CP

In the waning moments of the spring of 2014, Pat Martin lost track of his metaphors.

“Mr. Speaker, the minister of employment wears everything that is wrong with the temporary foreign worker program like some big stinking albatross around his neck. Now, at the eleventh hour, he wants to put lipstick on a pig,” Mr. Martin explained, quickly realizing his odd imagery, “not to mix metaphors, on the very day that we adjourn for the summer.”

The NDP MP was of the opinion the Employment Minister knew that “not a single temporary foreign worker should be working in this country if there is a single qualified Canadian available for that work.”

“I want to ask the minister this,” Mr. Martin clarified, wagging his finger this way and that. “In whose interest is it to give away Canadian jobs and drive down Canadian wages? What is he doing for all those people who were displaced while he mismanaged this program for the last eight years?”

The Employment Minister was, first of all, disappointed in Mr. Martin’s tone. “Mr. Speaker, what we hear is the very typical demagoguery of the NDP,” Jason Kenney lamented, “that I do not hear from NDP provincial governments.”

For coherence’s sake, we should at least ask that parties better synchronized their demagoguery across federal and provincial lines.

“When I talk to NDP provincial governments, what they raise with me is the opposite concern. They raise concern about certain regions and industries that do not have Canadians applying for jobs. They ask that we take a prudent approach to ensuring that we not negatively impact those businesses and in turn end up causing Canadians their job. That is why today we are taking a tough but fair approach, a balanced approach that will crack down on abuse, will ensure that Canadians come first, and that will ensure this program operates only and always as a last and limited resort.”

Messrs Kenney and Martin are credits to their profession in their respective ways and all of this plan sounded lovely. Too bad then that the minister would not present the details of this approach for another two hours. Too bad, particularly, that the House had adjourned for the summer by then and so the minister won’t have to defend his reforms to the legislature for another three months. Too bad, as well, that his announcement, coming months after media reports raised new concerns about the program, was not preceded by weeks of hearings by a parliamentary committee tasked with studying the issue. Too bad, for that matter, that we don’t have parliamentary committees comprised of MPs whose work on those committees is beyond the easy power of the party whip. Good that the minister would take a particularly long time to explain his policy to the press—the Prime Minister might try that sometime—but too bad for what else might have happened.

It was in the middle of the just-completed spring sitting of the 41st Parliament that this place was declared the scene of a national tragedy—that of our failing democracy. Suffice it to say, the identified problems extended well beyond demagoguery and mixed metaphors. But you will understand that even in our fallen state it is not all bad.

For one, the gradual increase in the size of cabinet has more than offset the modern scourge of message control so that we continue to have good odds that sooner or later some minister will say something they shouldn’t have. If their precise utility might be debated, cabinet ministers should at least entertain us. And on that count, we have lately been well-served by the efforts of Peter MacKay (though for singular, captivating achievement, the Justice Minister remains hard-pressed to top Julian Fantino’s refusal to tolerate finger-pointing and the word “hogwash” during a meeting with veterans a few months ago).

For another, in lieu of proper functionality, the access to information system has been turned into a deeply hilarious and though-provoking satirical art project about the nature of transparency in the 21st century.

Best of all, after conducting 41 federal elections of questionable legitimacy, we will now have fair elections in this country. As Pierre Poilievre explains in this educational video, common sense has won the day and the Fair Elections Act has received Royal Assent. Huzzah. Granted, the bill will now be challenged in court, but what judge could possibly find against common sense?

It is a pity only that what was actually in the Fair Elections Act was arguably secondary to how the Fair Elections Act came to be. What with the general lack of consultation that preceded its tabling, the bitter partisan debate that ensued, a minister of the crown questioning the motivations of the chief electoral officer and all else.

Somewhere in all that was the suggestion that this was perhaps not the best way to go about establishing the laws of our federal elections. And possibly there is a theme here.

The post-adjournment announcing of changes to the temporary foreign worker program might yet be followed by an announcement about the procuring of a new jet fighter. Having previously touted and defended the purchase of the F-35, only to retreat when the auditor general revealed that the true cost of procurement had not been fully explained, the government is now in possession of a report about the various options for a new jet fighter, but it won’t release that report, possibly not until it has a decision to announce on which plane it will have us buy.

The government did manage, before the House adjourned, to table a series of new laws on prostitution, but it won’t release a legal opinion from the justice department attesting to the bill’s constitutionality. And though the government did commit this spring to new funding to study labour markets, it did so only after cutting Statistics Canada’s budget and getting caught using faulty data in the presentation of this year’s budget.

A new privacy commissioner was appointed this month, but amid wild-eyed criticism from the official opposition and after a mere 45 minutes of testimony before a House committee. He promptly called for one of the government’s bills to be split and was casually ignored.

Another omnibus budget bill passed through Parliament (though at least this one received a few amendments). Amid partisan consternation over the partisan nature of some NDP mailouts, the business of the committee that oversees such things continues to be conducted in private.

The simple stating of what bills will come before the House is now another chance to impugn the other side’s integrity and the frequent invoking of time allocation to impose a limit on debate at least suggests some inability to agree on even the parameters of disagreement.

The bungling of a Supreme Court appointment seemingly buried the previous process for selecting judges with no new process as yet identified. And the dream of an elected Senate, half-heartedly hoped for over the last eight years, has now apparently been deemed not worth pursuing (with 11 vacancies in the upper chamber and counting).

And, of course, the Parliamentary Budget Officer remains unable to complete a full analysis of the billions in budget cuts this government has apparently made.

And those are merely the matters of process, to say nothing of the actual substance of the issues therein, nor to mention at all the flaming bag of poop that was left on the Chief Justice’s doorstep, Justin Trudeau’s vow to whip votes on abortion, the small matter of what we’re going to do about climate change or the looming question of euthanasia.

So for whatever can be said about federal politics circa spring 2014, it cannot be said that it isn’t about anything. Rather it is about everything. Up to and including the way in which we do politics.

In the midst of all this was the remarkable scene in the House of Commons upon the news of Jim Flaherty’s death, and the apparently odd sight of MPs interacting with each other like normal humans, and the first hour of debate for Michael Chong’s Reform Act, a series of legislative changes that cumulatively pose basic questions about how bad things are with this place, what’s wrong and what’s to be done about it.

In ways imagined and unexpected, the 41st Parliament has lived up to its potential as a carnival of politics and the spectacle will surely only grow more fervid as we near the moment of sorting out which of the three talented, but flawed, men will be Prime Minister at the end of next year. In a way, our politics has perhaps never been more vibrant and competitive, even if it also seems to be failing us terribly.

At its worst—say when it’s mid-June and specific questions about government-sponsored refugees from Syria are being answered with complaints about NDP mailouts—the House of Commons can seem rather dumb, and perhaps even a little insane. And yet even then we should probably appreciate its existence, even if only for its ability to lay bare the dumbness and the insanity.

Even on a Friday morning in late June, when the usual half-heartedness of a Friday morning on the Hill might seem particularly perfunctory, the place maintains a certain nobility.

For most of the 15 minutes preceding Question Period, various worthy causes and individuals are publicly noted. Then, for forty-five minutes before a half-full House, the government is pressed on matters of climate change, labour, judicial appointments, refugee policy and food affordability in the North, as well as the technical details of the Sikorsky helicopter, the expansion of the Wabush Airport and funding for the Newfoundland ferry. There are moments of nonsense and the sight of duly elected adults reading scripted banalities into the official record and the incessant insistence on the part of each side to applaud every utterance from one of their own as if this were some self-esteem building exercise in kindergarten, but no one accuses the leader of the third party of pushing drugs on children so this might be considered a basically good day.

Just past noon, after the tabling of a few petitions and one last request from the Speaker to keep the unnecessary partisanship to a minimum, it is unanimously agreed to adjourn the House a couple hours early. With that settled only everything else is left to be decided.