When heading a minority government, Prime Minister Stephen Harper prorogued parliament on two occasions to avoid defeat.
When his government was found in contempt of parliament for failing to reveal costs of new fighter bombers the transgression did not hurt his political fortunes. Shortly thereafter, in 2011, his minority government was re-elected with a majority.
With a majority, the Harper Conservatives invoked “time allocation” over 100 times to cut off debate in parliament. Harper used so-called omnibus bills to hide what was intended to happen as a consequence of their adoption.
In 2013, the concentration of power in the prime minister’s hands provoked Conservative back bench MP Michael Chong (now a leadership candidate) to propose a reform of parliament act that was adopted in a watered down version.
In campaigning against the Harper Conservatives, the Trudeau Liberals pledged to make government open and fair. Importantly the Liberals would ensure that parliament reflected the voices of Canadians.
The best way to make the Liberal pledge to give Canadians a voice a reality is through opening the parliamentary committee system to the public.
Imagine a parliamentary committee charged with ending homelessness that traveled the country, media in tow, visiting down and out sites, interviewing social workers, and the homeless themselves, before bringing forward an anti-poverty, homes-for-all strategy.
Under current practices, such direct action by parliamentarians is impossible. Controversial subjects are treated with great care, if addressed at all.
Partisan squabbling has transformed committee work. Witnesses are vetted for their support before being invited to appear before committees. Independent research is downplayed or ignored.
Open government has a better chance of working when the party in power has been fairly elected.
Meaningful changes to parliament are unlikely so long as a party with the support of only 40 per cent of voters can form a majority government, and carry on without seeking support across party lines.
As part of open and fair government, the Liberals pledged to reform the electoral system.
Proportional representation would eliminate phony parliamentary “majorities” elected with far less than majority support from Canadian voters.
Scottish parliamentary committees function harmoniously when compared to the U.K. parliament. The Scots elect Holyrood by proportional representation, while first-past-the-post elects MPs to Westminster.
The Liberals convened a parliamentary committee on electoral reform. When it refused to play along with the Liberal “ranked ballot” approach, Justin Trudeau abandoned his promise to deliver reform in the first 18 months of his mandate.
In a discussion paper the Liberals are now proposing measures that have aroused suspicions in the committee charged with recommending Liberal amendments to the Standing Orders of Parliament.
The Liberals want MPs to have more time in their ridings. Their discussion paper suggests shortening the parliamentary week by eliminating Friday sessions. Such a move would help incumbent MPs campaign for re-election, favouring the Liberals.
The idea of having one day set aside for prime ministerial questions would allow the Liberals to showcase their popular leader once a week, while freeing him up to travel the country shoring up support, without having to prepare for question period the other four days of the week.
The Liberal proposals, and their insistence on dealing with procedural reform before the end of June, have angered the opposition parties who are filibustering the procedural affairs proceedings in committee.
Unlikely allies, the Conservatives and New Democrats are working together to shed some light on a power grab by the Liberals.
Betrayal of parliamentary government has a history. In 1956, the Louis St. Laurent Liberals invoked closure on the pipeline debate, and the Progressive Conservatives were able to turn the issue to their advantage. John Diefenbaker led the PC party to victory in the 1957 election pointing to the arrogant treatment of parliament.
Since that time, parliament has been routinely ignored, or given short shrift, by governments without it producing enough public anger to make for democratic reforms.
Parliamentary business receives little media coverage, particularly at the committee level.
The real business of governments is carried out behind closed doors in meetings between lobby groups and Liberal (or Conservative) ministers and/or officials of the PMO.
Like electoral reform, open and fair government would be more likely to result from a coalition government where power was shared between two or more parties.
Centralized power in the hands of a prime minister — with decisions taken in consultation with the closest of associates — provides too much security and too many rewards to the first-among-equals to expect more than betrayal of promises to share power more democratically with parliamentarians.
Duncan Cameron is former president of rabble.ca and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.
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