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Fixing what Harper broke, part two: The toxic culture in our House of Commons must end

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The first "to-do" list focussed on changes to policy and legislation brought in under the Harper administration. But the damage was not confined to omnibus laws and brutal ideologically motivated cuts. More subtle damage was done to the principles that underpin Westminster parliamentary democracy. Our system of government has limitations on abuse of power, but they are not codified. 

Unlike the United States, with its Constitution riddled with checks and balances against those who would misuse their power, our system of government has largely depended on self-restraint of those in power. Previous prime ministers had not prorogued parliament to avoid a confidence vote they knew they would lose because it was simply not done.

For example, Prime Minister Paul Martin knew the NDP, Conservatives and Bloc planned to bring down his government on November 28, 2005. He never would have imagined going to the Governor General to shut down Parliament. It was not illegal; it was unthinkable. Into this very vulnerable system, the rule of Stephen Harper has been typified by unprecedented abuse of power.  As the Rt. Hon Joe Clark said in January 2015 in a speech in Sidney B.C., "Stephen Harper is violating Magna Carta."

Under Stephen Harper, debate was shut down one hundred times in the 42nd Parliament -- breaking all historical records by nearly 100 per cent. Under Stephen Harper, we have had two quite illegitimate prorogations, unprecedented not only in Canada but in the entire Commonwealth. We have had the prime minister and his government found guilty of contempt -- again unprecedented.

The PMO has extended its reach to demand evidence be prepared by civil servants to buttress government policy. This abuse of the federal civil service is also unprecedented. I know of justice department lawyers that have been asked for their legal opinion with the added instruction "and this is what we want you to say."

Parliamentary committees have been controlled by PMO with every vote on every amendment a whipped vote. That is how a bill like C-38, the omnibus budget bill of spring 2012, could move from First Reading to Royal Assent -- all 440 pages of it, changing or repealing 70 different laws -- without a single alteration. Witnesses before committee have been subjected to personal inquisitions if their testimony did not align with Conservative dogma. Again -- unprecedented.

The result is that we now need to take steps to ensure such abuses of power never happen again.

There is a good list of suggested fixes in the Liberal platform (more detail than anything on their platform on climate change, for comparison).

The scale of the damage done must be understood by Canadians. Should we hold a hearing into abuse of power over the last 10 years? Demand that the investigation into robo-calls and voter fraud be re-opened? Insist that we have an inquiry into the security failures in protecting the House while the prime minister bolstered his personal security, but not that of the House of Commons?

We need to scale back the budget of the Prime Minister's Office. Greens suggest cutting it in half, but that's only a good start. The dividing line between PMO and Privy Council Office (PCO) needs to be repaired. Civil servants must never again be told to fabricate or hide evidence. Scientists must not be muzzled. The position of Science Advisor to the Prime Minister must be restored.

The role of members of Cabinet as Ministers of the Crown must be honoured. Ministers are not sock-puppets, the chief public relations spokespersons for policies about which they know only what they are told by PMO. Ministers should actually know what is going on in their departments. There should be actual Cabinet meetings where ministers put forward their departmental plans and requests. Central control by PMO must be slashed.  

Here's more of the to-do list:

  1. Prorogations must now require a vote in the House constituting more than a majority vote. It must be based on a formula to ensure the majority party is not running roughshod over smaller parties to avoid accountability.
  2. Omnibus bills must be curtailed and only allowed when the subject matter of the bill meets one central purpose. We must never again allow unrelated pieces of legislation to be bundled together to avoid adequate study or review.
  3. Parliamentary Committees must be free of whipped votes. The parliamentary secretaries should not sit on committees. Committee chairs should be elected by committee members. Witnesses should be given adequate time to testify. The Conservative practice of throwing four or five unrelated witnesses on the same panel, given an insultingly brief time to speak, to be abused by government MPs must stop. Forcing unrealistic and abbreviated time for hearings must stop.    
  4. We need to revise the Elections Act. We need to create rules for leaders’ debates and have them under Elections Canada supervision. We need to undo the damage to Elections Act since 2006. C-23 was the second major change. We need to enhance the investigative powers of Elections Canada into election fraud.
  5. The House proceedings should return to the standing rules. The use of separate motions in every committee to deprive MPs in smaller parties of the right to present amendments at Report Stage must end.
  6. Heckling in the House should be controlled by the next Speaker. It is a deliberate technique to discourage public interest in parliamentary affairs.
  7. We must restore transparency. Access to Information laws need to be overhauled (see Democracy Watch recommendations).
  8. Documents required by MPs must not be hidden. Fundamental principles of the Supremacy of Parliament must be restored.
  9. Budgetary information must be available to Parliament prior to budget votes. "Deemed" review of billions of dollars in supplementary estimates must end. The PBO must be strengthened and the Parliamentary Budget Officer be made an Officer of Parliament.
  10. Whipped votes on other than confidence motions must end. We need to restore the link between members and their constituencies.
  11. We must legislate to control abuse of power. The above is a first cut and inadequate. Ideally, a parliamentary committee will be mandated to review the abuses of the last ten years and recommend a full suite of measures to ensure it never happens again.

Post script:

The first to-do list should have mentioned the cuts to Veterans Affairs and the changes in the treatment of our veterans. Those must be reversed. The first list also omitted the end of the Canada Wheat Board. I don't know how we can repair that damage since the Conservatives sold the Wheat Board assets to a Saudi Arabian company. But if farmers can see a way to restore the Wheat Board, it should be considered.   

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