Photo: flickr/Canada 2020

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Elbowgate is over, almost forgotten.

It is, to quote Monty Python, a dead parrot. Dead and buried.

So why keep writing about it?

Well, one reason is that it reveals much about many Canadians’ attitude toward Parliament and our democratic system of government.

How so?

Let’s step back a moment and consider the previous government, that of Stephen Harper.

The Conservatives are having their convention this week, where they’ll say goodbye to Harper, who is off to make real money in the private sector, and examine their legacy.

While he was PM, there was lots of chatter about how Harper wanted to transform Canada, in an enduring and irreversible way.

The Trudeau Liberals are now rolling back a good deal of that irreversible Harper agenda.

They are hiring more scientists and respecting what they have to say, raising taxes on wealthy people, signing climate change agreements, negotiating in good faith with First Nations, setting up an inquiry on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, providing health care to refugees, and much more.

Harper’s legacy, six months into a new government’s mandate, does not look too enduring.

Should Parliament be a mere electoral college?

But the Harper era does seems to have changed Canada in at least one, and perhaps permanent, way. It has fundamentally changed how we view our democratic process.

Harper openly scoffed at the idea that Parliament was a meaningful institution.

In 2008, the majority of members of Parliament announced that they would vote non-confidence in the recently re-elected Conservative minority government, and then form a new government, which could gain the support of that majority of MPs.

Harper’s reaction was that the losers were trying to snatch victory from the winners.

To him, Parliament was not a truly legislative and deliberative body.

Members of Parliament were not elected to represent their constituents and seriously consider legislation.

Their only role was to function as a kind of electoral college. MPs’ job was to anoint an all-powerful prime minister, who would then rule as a virtual dictator until the next election.

Harper’s government drove home this point by: cramming disparate pieces of legislation into monstrous omnibus bills; putting parliamentary secretaries (ministers’ understudies) on House committees, where they would stage manage and orchestrate all deliberations; and using closure to cut off debate a record number of times, well over 100.

When he was leader of the third party, Justin Trudeau solemnly promised to vigorously roll back this anti-democratic part of the Harper legacy.

But as of the beginning of last week, it looked like Trudeau and his party had forgotten about that pledge, or, at least, a good part of it.

The new government had slipped all too quickly into the habit of ending legitimate debate and discussion through closure. They invoked it five times in six months. Green Party Leader Elizabeth May warned against using the Harper record as a benchmark for use of closure, or, as it is sometimes called, time allocation.

May pointed out that while Harper resorted to time allocation constantly, other governments used it only infrequently. One previous government, May said, invoked closure a mere seven times over a four-year period. If the Trudeau government were to continue imposing time allocation at the current rate, they will have used it about 40 times by 2019.

In addition to their all-too-enthusiastic use of closure, the Liberals stacked the special committee charged with recommending a new electoral system with a majority of their own members. That is quite contrary to Trudeau’s promise to create an all-party committee. Giving themselves the exclusive power to determine electoral reform all on their own, with a parliamentary majority based on 39 per cent of the vote, is not what Trudeau led voters to believe he and his party would do.

And then there was the notorious Motion 6, which would have taken away a great many of the rights of MPs for the duration of the current session.

The government has wisely withdrawn that.

Government backing down, but not its vociferous supporters

All of this shows that if it is easy to promise an open, democratic government when you are in opposition, it is even easier to ignore that promise once you are in power, especially with a majority.

Elbowgate seems to have given Trudeau and his party pause, and they are showing some signs of a readiness to back down. It cannot be comfortable to see themselves adopting some of Stephen Harper’s bad habits.

Those who watch Parliament and report on it tend to see things that way, too.

From the National Post to Le Devoir to the Toronto Star to CBC to iPolitics to Vice and even to rabble, there is a unanimous view that the Liberals have grown too quickly arrogant and impatient with the exigencies of parliamentary democracy.

This government seems to have forgotten, if it ever learned, former senator and political apparatchik Hugh Segal’s advice that “anything worth doing is worth doing slowly.”

And if the Liberals are in a hurry — and do legitimately have to balance respect for democratic process with their weighty legislative agenda — how about increasing the number of sitting days? Not too long ago, the House used to sit for 180 days a year; now it is only 120.

The Liberals will not be too concerned about all this democracy business, however, if they pay heed to the kind of over-the-top support the prime minister has received on social media.

There, he is a virtual hero, while opposition MPs are, at best, obstructionist scoundrels for not recognizing that the PM has a majority and, ergo, the right to get on with business unimpeded.

Out in the social media stratosphere, they believe the prime minister is, somehow, the “boss” of Parliament and is entitled to — yea, is obliged to — make sure the House does his bidding, and pronto.

In truth, if there were a boss of the House, which there isn’t, it would be the Speaker. It is the Speaker who is supposed to uphold the rules and, more important, carry out the will of the House as a whole.

That is why the English Speaker, in 1642, did not yield to King Charles l. “I serve the House, my Lord,” the Speaker told the King, “Not you.”

Social media commentators’ mindless fury

One wonders if the folks commenting online are even aware that there is a Speaker — let alone what his role is.

Sadly, it appears that a good many of those who chose Trudeau over Harper last election were not overly concerned about the recent Conservative PM’s tendency to autocracy.

They didn’t mind, it seems, being ruled by autocrats; they just wanted a new autocrat.

Here’s how one blogger, who describes himself as progressive and uses the pseudonym “Montreal Simon,” sees it.

Simon says that the Conservative Party and the NDP (which he calls the Loser Party) “still don’t understand that they lost the last election. What happened  … will only make Trudeau more popular … And nobody really gives a damn what the Loser Party says or does … Justin needs to remember what my old boxing coach told me … Stay cool, yes even if they attack you and your family, for they are scumbags, so you know they will. Dodge and duck the low blows. Let your opponents exhaust themselves …  And then, at precisely the right moment, wipe the smile off their brutish faces…”

We have to hope Trudeau is not reading this kind of aggressive and ignorant drivel and letting it go to his head.

This writer very much doubts he is.

I am ready to accept the sincerity of the prime minister’s multiple apologies, and to give him and his party the benefit of the doubt on their commitment to respect Parliament. We’ll see what happens next week when the House returns.

After the American revolutionaries made George Washington their president, many wanted to then make him king. Washington had the good sense to tell them to get lost.

I suspect Trudeau will have equal good sense when it comes to the entreaties of Mr. ‘Montreal Simon’ and his ilk.

With friends like that, he really does not need enemies.


Photo: flickr/Canada 2020

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...