When it comes to respect for Parliament, Trudeau is uncomfortably like Harper

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Photo: Adam Scotti/PMO

Karl Nerenberg is your reporter on the Hill. Please consider supporting his work with a monthly donation. Support Karl on Patreon today for as little as $1 per month!

A year ago, the Trudeau Liberals were still new to power, and yet they seemed to be slipping into the arrogant habits for which they had fervently criticized their Conservative predecessors.

In Opposition, the Liberals had castigated the Harper government for its contempt for parliamentary democracy. Liberals pointed to the Conservatives' use of voluminous omnibus bills, which bundled all kinds of disparate and often unrelated new laws together, and frequent resort to closure to cut off debate. Then, less than a year into their own majority mandate, they were resorting to similar tactics.

Late last spring, Justin Trudeau's government introduced a draconian measure to force-feed its legislative program through Parliament, with scant chance for Opposition input. Liberals argued that, unlike Conservative tactics, their measure wasn't really so bad, because it was only temporary.

Even on such a sensitive matter as a proposed new law on assisted dying -- which would be subject to a non-partisan, free vote -- the Liberals seemed to lack the patience to allow Parliament to do its job. They wanted to rush the assisted dying legislation to a quick passage, indifferent to numerous MPs' pleas for a chance to put on the record their and their constituents' views on what is, quite literally, a matter of life and death.  

Elbowgate gave the Liberals pause -- for a while

The Conservatives did not have much ground to complain about any of this, given their own record. But New Democrats were livid, even if the country, at large, appeared to take little notice of what many evidently consider to be the arcane workings of Parliament.

Matters came to a head when, in a fit of pique at a minor NDP stalling tactic, the prime minister stormed across the floor of the House to play schoolteacher and sheriff all at once. In the process, he elbowed a New Democratic colleague in the chest.

The incident became, briefly, a cause celebre. Trudeau apologized for his behaviour, profusely and often. In the U.S., where apology is for losers, late night comedians had a field day with the incident and the multiple apologies. And the majority of Canadians, blithely indifferent to how Parliament should function, actually cheered the popular, young prime minister for having the gumption to teach a handful of parliamentary miscreants a much-needed lesson.

Trudeau's own caucus colleagues, however, were less forgiving. They know something about how Parliament should work. And so, despite public indifference or even applause, elbowgate had a chastening effect on the government and its leader. They pulled back their guillotine measure, and allowed more fulsome debate on assisted dying.

It is now a year later, and when it comes to respect for parliamentary democracy the Liberals look a lot more like the Harper Conservatives than the party of openness and transparency they once claimed to be.

To start with, the Liberal government persists in its efforts to change the rules of Parliament in such a way as to give MPs, especially on the Opposition benches, less say and less power. So far they have not succeeded, but there is still time.

Anyone who has not been living under a rock will know about Trudeau's brazen and flagrant broken promise on electoral reform. Less well known are the still unrealized promises to make parliamentary committees more independent. During the last election campaign the Liberals promised:

We will strengthen parliamentary committees so that they can better scrutinize legislation. We will ensure that parliamentary committees are properly resourced to bring in expert witnesses, and are sufficiently staffed to continue to provide reliable, non-partisan research. To increase accountability, we will strengthen the role of parliamentary committee chairs, including elections by secret ballot. We will also change the rules so that ministers and parliamentary secretaries no longer have a vote on committees.

Some committees, in this new era, have done solid, and even groundbreaking work.

Just days ago, one committee recommended a series of measures to address the malaise in Canada's media landscape. One of its many recommendations was to change the definition of a registered charity to include not-for-profit media.

That same committee also suggested that foreign news aggregators that publish Canadian news, and sell advertising directed to Canadians, be subject to the same tax obligations as their Canadian competitors. In addition, it recommended what has been called the "Netflix" tax. It proposed that the existing five per cent levy to support Canadian production, which all traditional broadcasters must pay, be extended to online broadcasters, such as Netflix.

The prime minister quickly rejected the "Netflix tax." We do not want to raise taxes on the middle class, he said, ignoring the fact that the tax would be imposed on highly profitable, foreign corporations. As for the many other recommendations of this committee, the government has made no comment, as yet. Nor has it expressed any view on what to do about the fact that a significant number of Canada's newspapers might be on the verge of disappearing. That matter, it seems, is under consideration.

Committee reports that languish in obscurity

Other committees that did salutary work include the special committee on electoral reform. The government not only rejected that committee's recommendations, its initial reaction was to mock them. A number of House committees laboured mightily, but far from the limelight. One of those is the human resources committee, which, in May, produced a long list of policy suggestions aimed at reducing poverty.

The committee made 53 recommendations, which deal with housing, Indigenous Canadians, new immigrants, youth, precarious work, training, income support and taxes, and many other policy areas. They include:

  • A recommendation that the government review coverage, eligibility and duration of employment insurance benefits to address the reality of Canadians who are in precarious, part-time and temporary work situations.
  • An increase in the Guaranteed Income Supplement for low-income seniors.
  • A review of social assistance rates for First Nations peoples on reserve in light of higher costs of living and limited employment opportunities.
  • A new system of food security programs to complement or enhance Nutrition North to address the extremely high cost of nutritious foods in remote, northern and Indigenous communities.
  • Enabling skilled immigrants to continue to access income support programs at the same time as grants and lending programs for training to acquire Canadian credentials.
  • Reviewing the changing nature of work, including the "gig economy," precarious employment, and taking action to ensure employment standards, and in particular employment insurance and related benefits, are modernized.
  • A new requirement that "community benefit/social benefit clauses" be included within federal public tender agreements, where possible, with the objective of encouraging the engagement of social enterprises.
  • A long-term (10-year) housing construction and repair program, with a focus on social housing.

If you have never heard about this committee's work it's not your fault. It has received almost no media coverage. Nor has the government publicly indicated whether it has noted any of the recommendations.

Corporate committee has more influence than any elected MPs

The 18th-century philosopher and historian David Hume said of his book A Treatise of Human Nature that "it fell dead-born from the press, without reaching such distinction as even to excite a murmur among the zealots …" Such seems to be the fate of a good many parliamentary committee reports -- despite the solemn Liberal promise to strengthen and properly resource committees. And, by the way, parliamentary secretaries -- ministers' understudies -- continue to sit on committees, as they have in the past, and continue to orchestrate the proceedings on orders from the Prime Minister's Office, as they have for decades.

One committee has garnered its fair share of media, and the attentive ear of the government, but it is not composed of MPs; it is made up, for the most part, of senior business executives. This is Finance Minister Bill Morneau's Advisory Council on Economic Growth, headed by the minister's good friend Dominic Barton, global managing partner of the massive worldwide consulting firm McKinsey.

The Advisory Committee has issued two reports so far, and they are definitely not gathering dust. The government is proceeding enthusiastically with its signature recommendation, to create an Infrastructure Bank. Morneau and Trudeau even chose to follow the Harper government lead by inserting the legislation creating the bank into a budget bill.

New Democrats consider the whole idea to be a kind of stealth privatization scheme; and even the Conservatives worry that the bank could be subject to political influence. The Senate, now stacked with Trudeau's non-party affiliated independents, is giving the Infrastructure Bank a rough ride. Senators are particularly affronted by the fact the government did not seek to create this new and costly institution through a distinct piece of legislation. In the end, the government might be forced to go back to the drawing board, but is not likely to abandon the pet project of its chief corporate adviser.

The Trudeau government seems far less seized with the advice it receives from elected members of Parliament.

Photo: Adam Scotti/PMO

Karl Nerenberg is your reporter on the Hill. Please consider supporting his work with a monthly donation. Support Karl on Patreon today for as little as $1 per month!

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