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Hill Dispatches: Setting records for time allocation

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"We don't govern based on statistics."

That mind-boggling admission from Justice Minister Nicholson is on its way to becoming the trademark statement of this Conservative government.

Neither statistics, nor evidence nor expert analysis will move these Conservatives. When their collective gut tells them they're right, that's all the encouragement they need.

Given that, it is unlikely this government will be much interested in a few statistics the Liberal Party revealed on Tuesday morning.

The Liberals did a review of the first 66 days of the current Parliament, the 41st.

They call their review "Stephen Harper's Conservative Majority: Abuses of Process; Abuses of Power."

As part of this review, the Liberals did an analysis of this government's use of time allocation to limit debate, comparing this government to the last majority (Chrétien/Martin) Parliament, the 37th (2001-2004).

They found that the current government has, so far, used time allocation for nearly a quarter of government bills (5 out of 21), while the last majority government used it for only five per cent of government bills (8 out of 153).

The Liberal review also provided figures comparing the current Conservative government to previous Liberal and Conservative governments, going back to the late '60s, and found the current ruling Conervatives to be the reigning champions of time allocation.

The analysis compared the ratio of time allocations to sitting days for the nine majority governments since 1968.

It found that the ratio for the current government is 14 per cent while the next highest, Jean Chrétien's second majority Parliament, was only 8 per cent.

Most other governments' use of time allocation was much lower (often not exceeding four per cent). That includes the governments of the Liberal Trudeau and Progressive Conservative Mulroney.

To interim Liberal leader Bob Rae and his House Leader Marc Garneau, these figures tell the tale of a government that has scant respect for democracy.

When you add in the government's frequent use of in-camera committee meetings and equally frequent refusal to allow time for consideration of opposition amendments -- plus the Conservative leadership's nonchalant response to the phone calls to Irwin Cotler's constituents, which announced (falsely) that the Liberal MP was planning to retire -- you get what Rae calls a scary picture.

Reporters pointed out to the Liberal leader that prior to the last election the Conservatives had happily run rough-shod over Parliament, proroguing twice to get out of sticky situations, and yet the people, nonetheless, rewarded them with a majority.

It seems, some observed, that voters don't care much about the "parliamentary democracy" issue. What happens on the Hill is just too remote from most people's lives.

Rae's response was that "a government that treats Parliament this way will treat its citizens in the same way."

The Liberal leader then went on to say that he thought this wasn't really a Conservative government, at all, based on the long record of Canada's Progressive Conservative Party.

For instance, Rae argued, Mulroney would never have considered walking away from the Kyoto Treaty.

This government is really the Reform party, Rae said, dressed up as Conservatives.

Maybe so.

But there is one respect in which the Harper government has actually quite radically strayed from the original philosophy of the Reform movement of the 1980s and 1990s.

In Preston Manning's time, the Reform Party was not only about small-c conservative ideology. The party also upheld populist, pro-democracy principles.

Manning and the Reformers of his day advocated more independence for individual MPs, for instance, and more free votes in the House. In fact, Manning was fond of saying that right-left was not the only divide in Canadian politics. There was also the populist-elitist divide, with those who favoured more accountable democracy on one side and those who were happy with a high degree of centralized control on the other.

To underscore that point, during one election campaign the Reform leader took a leaf from the old CCF (precursor of today's NDP) and appeared in television ads standing next to a Member of Parliament's seat. Manning's message was something on the lines of: "This seat is your seat. It belongs to you, the citizen, and you should take it back."

Had the Liberal government of the day resorted to the same tactics (prorogation; time allocation) as the Conservatives now do, Manning would have been outraged, as would most of his Reform Party colleagues.

But not all Reformers of that era would have shared that interest in accountable democracy.

Some who were part of Reform then say they had at least one colleague who was little interested in all this populist talk. His view was that the Reform party should focus much more on the classic conservative agenda items, such as tax cutting and getting "tough on crime."

That dissenting colleague was the Member for Calgary West, a restless young up-and-comer by the name of Stephen Harper.

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