The Year of Parliament - Macleans.ca

The Year of Parliament

Aaron Wherry on 2013: Mark Warawa, Brent Rathgeber, the Reform Act and a tomato analogy

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(Sean Kilpatrick, The Canadian Press)

When, on the morning of June 2, 2011, the 41st Parliament convened for the first time to commit its first necessary act, the election of a Speaker, the first concern was whether or not our 308 elected representatives would be sufficiently civil with each other. The word “decorum” was uttered some 16 times that day.

After Andrew Scheer was chosen on the sixth ballot, opposition leader Jack Layton stood and swore that his side would never be heard to heckle. Bob Rae then stood and swore that his corner would assume no such vow of silence. “I am looking forward to the first sign of life from the official opposition, to the first heckle and to the first joke,” Mr. Rae chided. “I, myself, will be keeping book on how many days, indeed hours, it will be before he sees that happen.”

If the House of Commons is somehow now a nicer place than it was previously, it is probably only slightly and periodically. And if Question Period is a somehow more relevant forum it is not quite because the atmosphere is less frightful, but because the official opposition, blessed of a slowly unfolding crisis for the government side, decided that it would useful to adopt a more prosecutorial tone—the straightforward query, particularly when deployed as part of an extended inquiry, often being far more effective than the blood-curdling harangue.

But if the House of Commons now seems to matter more than it did, particularly over the last 12 months, it is because the questions about the conduct of its members have become more numerous and more profound. The 41st Parliament began with some vague sense that something had to change. In 2013—a year of and about Parliament—the question became whether almost everything should, maybe even must, change.

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“Imagine for a moment a parliament that functions well, a parliament where debate is intelligent, informed, witty and, above all, respectful. Imagine a parliament where our interaction leads to more inclusive public policy, and thus to win-win situations for all Canadians,” the NDP’s Denise Savoie, runner-up to Mr. Scheer, had mused in making her appeal to the House on that first day of the 41st Parliament. “I am not proposing a utopian project, but an objective that must be met to reverse the cynicism that Canadians feel toward their politicians and democratic institutions … Our outgoing Speaker said recently that federal politics had become less democratic and more partisan since he was a rookie MP. I hope that one of the rookie MPs here today will retire as MP one day and can say the exact opposite. Let us say today that the 41st Parliament was the turning point. Let that change begin today.”

This was at least a lovely little dream.

A year and a half later, we might still be waiting for a change to come. Or great change might have already begun.

So far as 2013 is concerned, the fun might’ve started on March 21. It was on the morning of March 21 that the three members of the Subcommittee on Private Members’ Business of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs met to discuss the voteability of more than a dozen items tabled by backbench MPs. Just one, Motion 408, was ruled out of order. That motion, tabled by Conservative MP Mark Warawa, proposed “that the House condemn discrimination against females occurring through sex-selective pregnancy termination.”

The reasons for rejecting that motion were dubious, but Mr. Warawa might not have attracted much more attention if he hadn’t been scheduled to deliver a statement in the House that afternoon and if he hadn’t been told he would not be permitted to deliver the statement he wanted to make and if he hadn’t then stood in the House on the morning of March 26 and complained that his privileges as a duly elected Member of Parliament had thus been infringed upon. Nine other Conservative MPs stood in the House and pledged themselves to this cause. And the Speaker subsequently invited any MP who wished to speak to ignore their whips, stand and seek to be recognized.

“So it is up to us now,” Brent Rathgeber wrote of his fellow backbenchers.

A month before Mr. Warawa rose on his point of privilege, Mr. Rathgeber had used his blog to consider the future of the parliamentary budget officer. In the midst of that, he had fired a shot across that backbench. “It is understandable why the Executive Branch might be insulted when the PBO challenged its numbers; but it remains a mystery why some Members of Parliament were similarly dismissive,” he wrote. “I understand that Members of Parliament, who are not members of the executive, sometimes think of themselves as part of the government; we are not. Under our system of Responsible Government, the Executive is responsible and accountable to the Legislature.”

This was not quite revolutionary in concept, but it might’ve sounded revolutionary in the current context—a Parliament in which voting against one’s party 1.42% of the time is the height of rebellion.

Almost precisely three months after publishing those words, Mr. Rathgeber would resign from caucus after his fellow Conservative MPs voted to amend his private member’s bill, consequently raising the salary disclosure threshold for civil servants from $188,000 to $444,000. “I will continue to support the government generally, but not unequivocally,” Mr. Rathgeber explained. “I will support the Government when warranted—which incidentally was always my understanding of the proper role of a Government Backbencher, save for in matters of Confidence.”

Kevin Page’s term as the first parliamentary budget officer ended in March with serious questions hanging about Parliament’s ability to properly scrutinize the government’s spending of public funds. Mr. Page’s pursuit of the information necessary to analyze the government’s budget cuts was picked up by his successors. In September, Thomas Mulcair demanded that the PBO take the government to court over its refusal to disclose. In a briefing note this month, the PBO summarized the extent of our reigning lack of knowledge. “Direct program expenses savings have been the primary measure to improve the fiscal outlook in successive budgets following the recession. Little information has been provided to assess service impacts, the likelihood of achieving spending targets, and whether short-term restraint will require higher spending in future years,” PBO officials explained. “The Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat has rejected PBO’s requests for information which is necessary to analyze the approximately $10 billion of budgetary authorities which went unspent in each of the past three years. The Government has failed to provide a concrete explanation for historical and projected revisions to these lapses, which were responsible for roughly $3.6 billion of the unexpected improvement in the budgetary balance in 2012-13 and which account for a significant portion of the Government’s budgetary improvement going forward.”

In the fall, the Prime Minister asked the Governor General to prorogue Parliament, putting off the return of the House by several weeks for no obvious reason. When the House of Commons returned in October, the Harper government tabled another omnibus budget bill, this one including amendments to the Supreme Court of Canada Act. A procedural amendment then made it more difficult for independent MPs to compel the sort of vote marathons that had brought attention to last year’s over-stuffed budget bills. The New Democrats moved unsuccessfully to limit the circumstances in which committee business could be conducted in secret. Conservative Senators voted to suspend three of their former colleagues and the federal and provincial governments appealed to the Supreme Court for a definitive answer on how we might go about figuring out what to do with the upper chamber and its residents. The Finance Minister chose again to deliver the economic update to a luncheon audience far from Parliament Hill. The RCMP alleged that the Prime Minister’s Office had engineered changes to the Senate committee’s report on Mike Duffy (notably against the objections of one of the Government Senate leader’s aides). By year’s end, the NDP had counted some 37 uses of time allocation or closure to manage the time permitted by the government for debate of a bill in the House of Commons.

Unto this world was born the Reform Act, and the angels sang to herald its arrival and lo were the despondent and yearning drawn to it from far and wide like a shining beacon of hope and change. And lo was this followed by much agonizing about what horrors might occur if the bill’s measures were ever actually implemented.

Perhaps the Reform Act would bring salvation. Or perhaps it would turn our elections over to felons and Holocaust deniers. Or perhaps neither. It might be symbolic. It might be a good nudge in the right direction.

At issue now is simply and entirely the role, purpose and usefulness of the Member of Parliament. From that and those questions about what we expect and want from our MPs follow all other matters that might be discussed about the state of our politics in the first part of the 21st century, from what we expect of House committees to why we vote and why we don’t vote.

Government House leader Peter Van Loan says “Parliament is working better than ever right now.” Ask NDP MP Pat Martin about the state of things and he’ll email you to say that our parliamentary democracy is “in tatters.”

“What’s left is really only a facsimile of a democracy,” he writes, “like those tomatoes you get in January that look like the real thing but taste like the box they came in.”

So we are somewhere between better-than-ever and never-been-worse. Has the House of Commons ever been better than it is? Has it ever been worse? Whatever it is, has it always been thus? It’s possible to answer each of those questions in the affirmative with some grounds for saying so. But the questions are of limited value. Perspective is important, but the present is what matters and it should be judged on the basis of whether or not it is sufficient.

Have tomatoes in January always tasted like cardboard? Do they taste more or less like cardboard than they did for previous generations? Should we consider ourselves lucky to have the tomatoes we have? Are we basically surviving as a nation with these tomatoes? Maybe. But maybe we should settle for nothing less than delicious-tasting tomatoes of only the finest flavour and texture.

And so maybe 2013 was the year it became fair to wonder about the quality of our tomatoes—or at least rather difficult to avoid the questions some have been asking about our tomatoes for years.

Even if the Reform Act fails to accomplish anything else, it at least makes necessary that conversation. It requires a discussion about how things work and how things should work. (And to that discussion you can add Conservative MP Brad Trost’s bill on the election of committee chairs and NDP MP Kennedy Stewart’s bill on e-petitions.)

As dispiriting as the team sport can be—the behaviour in Question Period that tribalism inspires, the competing pep rallies and scripted promos—it still basically serves us well. As dehumanizing as the talking point is, message discipline might simply be necessary, at least so long as the vast majority of us are not actively engaged in our politics. Nuance might not ultimately be as useful as the battle of entrenched points of view.

But maybe the commissioner of this sport would have been fired years ago amid declining ratings, fan disenchantment and great questions about the game’s ethics.

In the interests of saving the game, we might start with some tangible thing we should have and work backwards from that functional ideal. Something like true and complete accountability and transparency for the spending of public funds. How far are we from that? What would that ideal look like? What would need to change to make it possible? And how could that change be made?

All we might have to figure out is everything. But in that there is great potential.

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Jack Layton’s second question as the 42nd leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition concerned heckling. He wondered if the government side might join his side in vowing to keep quiet.

The NDP had campaigned on the ideas that “Ottawa is broken” and the NDP would “fix” it—perhaps not all that far removed from the Conservative campaign of 2006, perhaps not all that different from what the Liberals and NDP will campaign on in 2015—and as a token effort in this regard, a ban on heckling had some merit, even if it is perhaps not now as rigorously enforced. There is something to be said for civility. Or at least not needlessly acting like a jerk. But politics will always, and should always, involve conflict and disagreement and there will be fights, though preferably withouts the use of actual fisticuffs. (Both parts of the “happy warrior” tag are what made Mr. Layton an effective and exceptional politician.) And if you accept the theory that a lack of civility is a result of everything else that ails our Parliament, then to attack it is to target the symptom, not the system. In that way, maybe 2013 was the year we had to think seriously about whether we were dealing with a disease, not a cough.

Civility is but the most visceral of qualities by which our Parliament might be judged. It is the easiest thing to point to and lament and, seemingly, the easiest thing to fix. Our politicians just need to be nicer to each other. That’s all.

But then they could be nicer—they could be the nicest, daintiest, politest group of people ever assembled in a room—and we still might not have that Parliament of our dreams, we still might not know how the government is returning the federal budget to surplus. We might still not be maximizing the potential of what should be possible when 308 of our representatives are brought together, by us, to help us improve upon what is.

Mr. Layton’s first question had been to wonder whether the government side was interested in working with others. This was closer to something more foundational. Compromise and cooperation are the vague ideas that we might all agree with—the sorts of things we would tell a polling company we would like to see practiced by our politicians. Perhaps, in a more perfect Parliament, such practices would even be more prevalent.

But if Ottawa is “broken,” it is now for much bigger and more specific and more complicated reasons that niceties and goodwill. It is now because it is unclear whether Parliament is working, whether our politics is broken, whether we have a system that works for us and for the 308 individuals we elect to represent us. It was a difficult year. And if 2013 is to be remembered for anything it might be for making it necessary that we figure out how our Parliament is and isn’t working.

And then we can get better.