Please unshackle our MPs

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February 2, 2020

Please unshackle our MPs

Written by Robin V. Sears for The Star. Click here to read the original.

In the last Parliament, Canada hit a record only perhaps exceeded by North Korea. Our MPs voted their party line 99.6 per cent of the time! This and many other headsnappers are contained in the latest work of the Samara Centre for Democracy, whose mission is ongoing scrutiny of our parliamentary democracy, its deficiencies and areas for improvement.

The level of partisanship in Ottawa is now at comic levels of childishness. One retiring MP in Samara’s “Real House Lives” study of the last Parliament is simply breathtaking: “There was a typographical mistake…that the NDP pointed out. We didn’t vote in favour of their amendment [to correct it.] The rationale I got from our people…was ‘We don’t want to give them the win.’ I thought, ‘Yes I can see the press release now: NDP adds comma to legislation’.”

The demands imposed on MPs by the ever-tighter shackles of “the Centre” would also laughable if they were not so sad. Another departing MP was told he must not eat alone with any opposition MPs while they were on an international delegation.

Parliament’s effectiveness is veering toward irretrievably dysfunctional, as a pillar of democracy. The House sits for less than a third of a year, almost half of what it did 75 years ago. Debate is cut off by governments now nearly eight times more often than in the 1970s. Though the Trudeau government did dial back from the Harper regime’s gold medal; it imposed closure nearly ten times more often.

It’s not because MPs are unaware of these failings that the trend lines continue to drift down. Two-thirds of retiring MPs, for example, said they were unsatisfied or very unsatisfied with the level of debate. Then there’s the curse of casework. Some MPs say they are drowning in running a small social agency in their constituency.

The bigger policy questions raised by Samara’s work touch on the very foundation of parliamentary democracy. We don’t spend billions annually on a Parliament and its members and staff to be amateur social workers, except when they are being treated as legislative poodles by their own party leadership. We elect them and make that investment in them to help them make Canada a better, fairer and more prosperous nation.

One arena where members can, and have been, more effective is in the committee stage examination of issues and legislation. Typically, this has been even more true in minorities when “the Centre” cannot so easily whip the poodles into compliance. Let’s hope that history continues in this Parliament.

The problem of executive power overwhelming both the legislature and even the legal system has reached its apogee in the United States as the impeachment process so painfully revealed. But there is surely an important lesson for Canadians in Trump’s attacks on the foundations of their democracy.

It is that a popular prime minister with malign intent could even more easily breakthrough the guardrails of our democracy. If she had whipped her caucus into the kind of submissive paralysis that Trump has forced on the GOP, the consequences would hit harder and faster in our system of much weaker checks on executive power.

There are three hardly radical parliamentary reforms that could make a great difference in the balance of power.

The first is to grant only to opposition members the right to chair the powerful public accounts, government operations and ethics committees. Second would be to require a super-majority in the House to forcibly end debate.

Finally, forbid 900-page omnibus bills, designed to hide a great number of unsavoury ingredients being tucked into the legislative sausage-making. Closure and monster bills were not required to run a government 75 years ago; why are they today? Finding a prime minister willing to accept such limits would be the most challenging part.

But at the highest level, building effective curbs on the ever-burgeoning power of the prime minister and his senior advisers will require an irresistible demand from Canadians at the ballot box. Again, the hardest part will be to find a party leader willing to campaign on, and then actually deliver, such a transformation.