Is Canadian democracy in real danger?

November 21, 2010

Susan Delacourt

{{GA_Article.Images.Alttext$}}A group of climate change activists chant on the front steps of Centre Block after being removed by security personnel from the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa October 26, 2009.–is-canadian-democracy-in-real-danger

OTTAWA—What does Canada’s Parliament have in common with the Toronto Maple Leafs?

Both still have their true believers, according to political scientist David Docherty. But around this time of year, annually it seems, Leaf fans and fans of Parliament are coming to the same, sinking conclusion.

“Every season starts out with so much promise,” Docherty told a roomful of political-science experts on Friday in Ottawa.

“And then, ’round about November,” they’re out of the playoff picture. “And around about November, after a few weeks of the House being in session, you think: ‘Nah, this isn’t the year either.’ ”

It has been a bad month for people like Docherty, who believe that the House of Commons should be the centrepiece of Canada’s democracy.

This past week, it was the unelected Conservative senators audaciously killing a climate-change bill passed by a clear majority of elected MPs in the House of Commons.

The week before, it was Prime Minister Stephen Harper, with tacit agreement from the Liberals, deciding to bypass the Commons in any debate over extending Canada’s troop commitment in Afghanistan — a decision that itself flew in the face of a Commons vote to end the mission in 2011.

“This Senate should be abolished,” New Democratic Party Leader Jack Layton thundered in the Senate foyer last week after the climate-change bill was defeated.

Parliamentary experts might argue over whether Senate abolition would be a wise move in the future. Their more pressing concern, however, might be whether the elected House of Commons — the one that’s supposed to be the real, working half of Parliament — is already being abolished, bit by bit, day by day, in Harper’s Ottawa.

The slaps to the Commons’ authority are, after all, merely the latest in a series of direct challenges to the chamber in recent years.

This time last year, for instance, the Harper government decided to disregard a Commons resolution, duly passed by a majority of MPs, to produce all documents pertaining to the treatment of Afghan detainees handled by Canadian troops.

Then, on New Year’s Eve, with only a cursory phone call to the governor general, Harper shut down Parliament until March.

That decision appeared to wake up Canadians to something amiss. Demonstrations were held in cities across Canada to protest against the prorogation — a word that probably wasn’t in most Canadians’ vocabulary until the past two years.

But the Commons’ problems aren’t just a case of open and closed doors. Nor can they simply be reduced to the now-familiar, though very real, worries about decorum and partisan antics in question period. If it’s true that the Commons’ actual power and authority are eroding, then all this bad behaviour looks more like the band playing while the Titanic goes down.

Docherty, a professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, says successive prime ministers, culminating now with Harper, have been increasingly treating the Commons as an inconvenient impediment to their rule.

“It’s seen as an obstacle,” says Docherty. “I think Canadians should be alarmed.”

Interestingly, Harper doesn’t seem to see the Senate as an obstacle any longer, now that he’s put 35 of his own appointees in the Upper Chamber and it is able to carry out his wishes — killing the climate-change bill last week, for instance.

Equally alarming to some is the way that the Commons is being treated as a safe venue to take cheap shots at political rivals — since statements in the chamber are protected from libel or slander rules. All political parties have played fast and loose with this privilege in recent decades, but the Conservatives have particularly exploited the time reserved for members’ statements to read out party-written condemnations of Liberal rivals.

This past week, Conservative MP Shelley Glover and others took this to new lows with allegations Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff had made racist remarks, citing a fact-twisted editorial in the Winnipeg Free Press. Even after the Free Press retracted and apologized for the article the MPs were using to back their claims, the Conservative statements in the chamber continued.

Liberals have formally complained to the Commons Speaker, but Peter Milliken has seemed powerless to stop the misstatements.

Docherty, who has studied the long-time use of these members’ statements, notes that they once were ways to put issues and people on the parliamentary agenda that may be left out in the day-to-day business of politics. The statements often mentioned women or other underrepresented groups.

Now, however, Docherty says that the party machines seem to have wrested control of this part of the Commons’ business as well, forcing MPs to act as megaphones for dubious political charges that couldn’t be thrown at anyone outside the privileged walls of the chamber.

Commons committees have fallen victim as well to the same forces, with the Tories actually writing a handbook to MPs on how to frustrate the workings of the committees and use procedure to thwart opponents.

The gamble, of course, is that Canadians don’t really care what happens to the House of Commons — that a few metres away from Parliament Hill, it all seems like an arcane, political museum. Harper himself may regard it that way.

And that’s where Docherty’s comparison falls short in similarities — between Parliament and the Leafs. Harper still has lots of time for hockey.