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Ibbitson Gets Some of it Right and Some of it Wrong

May 15, 2010

I have to respond to the Globe and Mail’s article today by John Ibbitson “Parliament takes another step toward being a true arm of government”. It has a lots of good facts, a couple good points and a few misleading and incorrect conclusions.

Friday’s accord on releasing Afghan detainee documents… marks the rise of Parliament as a genuine power within government, which is the best thing that has happened in Ottawa for a very long time. For 24 years, from 1980 to 2004, majority governments ruled at the federal level. Successive prime ministers used those majorities to expand their own powers at the expense of their party caucus and Parliament itself. Cabinet ministers were turned into ciphers; parliamentary committees became rubber stamps; the opposition was demonized or ignored.

Stephen Harper is no less determined than his predecessors to personally control the agenda. But we’ve had six years now of minority government, and during those years Parliament has become an increasingly powerful counterweight to the administration of the day. Parliamentary committees have started exercising their power to compel individuals to appear before them and to explain their actions. Private member’s bills have actually become the law of the land.

Very true, all great stuff.

And in an ultimate test and exercise of power, the opposition parties combined to force the government to show them the uncensored documents relating to the treatment of detainees in Afghanistan.

I don’t see why ‘ultimate’ is the right word here, the ultimate test would seem to be one that ends up removing the government because they disagree with parliament.  Luckily we didn’t have to go there this time but it’s not clear that the Liberals were really committed to going there even if Harper et al. weren’t going to give in a bit.

There have been mistakes. The attempt in 2008 to force a coalition government on the Canadian people was an adolescent effort by the opposition to wield its newfound power. As coalition negotiations in London this week demonstrated, voters expect the party with the most seats to be part of the government.

This is when I decided a response was needed.  John might want to read a bit more widely, not everyone agrees the British people got what they voted for.  This idea that getting the most seats is justification for forming government is toxic and needs to be slapped down.  The only justification for forming government is representing the largest number of voters.  Our voting system makes this difficult since the horsetrading is done with seats rather than votes which don’t add up to the same thing.  But if a coalition of parties can achieve more seats than any other single party, even if it’s not a majority, that would still be more democratic than a single smaller party ruling.  Now in the UK a coalition with a majority of seat did indeed happen, and I’m hopeful about its results.  But it was possible to cobble together a coalition that represented much more of the popular vote.  Even though a Lib-Dem coalition without any further parties would have been unstable in terms of seats, they would have had commanding support from voters in terms of the national popular vote.  Which should count for something.  Of course, it doesn’t right now, and that’s the problem.

Back to Mr. Ibbitson:

And Mr. Harper, fighting back against this new threat to his hegemony, has used the power of prorogation so cavalierly that Parliament may have to take that power away from him.

Here’s hoping.

But mostly there has been growth. This new combination of a committee of MPs and an adjudicatory panel, charged with deciding what information on detainees can be released without jeopardizing national security, balances competing interests in the public interest.

There may be further growth to come. With the British precedent in mind, voters in the next election will want to know whether the Liberals and NDP would be willing to form a coalition, should the Liberals win the most seats in a hung Parliament. Whether you would approve of such a coalition may be the biggest factor in how you vote.

Here we go…definitely John.  This should be something that is at least aired as a possibility so that insane accusations of stealing the election can’t be leveled later.  But the Libs and NDP don’t need to hammer out a solution or promise to work together, they merely need to admit publicly that coalitions are perfectly valid results of minority elections and whatever happens, happens. They would however, need to address Quebec directly in this and somehow split the discussion on whether the Bloc could be part of a coalition, even in theory, or not.  This is why I’m glad I’m not a politician. I don’t know the right answer.  Well, the right answer would be to say very clearly to Quebeckers that there could a progressive coalition after the election and if Quebec wants to be part of it they need to vote for a federalist party like the NDP, Libs or Green.  But this probably isn’t actually good advice given the way votes work and the actuall behaviour of the Bloc.  The stated principles of the Bloc are separatist but they rarely act in that way these days.  They are simply vociferous champions of their region who are progressive and generally very open to cooperation in parliament.  But ya, its a minefield that one.

Of course, the next election could produce a majority government. If so, Parliament would quickly revert to its former, supine self. Maybe more would get done, legislatively, maybe not. But it would be a loss for democracy.

Wow, its official, John Ibbitson supports continued minority government.  I’ll hold you to that next time the Conservative polls go up.

Yes, we have had too many elections; yes, legislation that should have been passed has died on the order paper; yes, the environment in the House has been toxic at times.

Well, a toxic environment in general is one of the central planks of the Conservative party… And as already pointed out, those bills didn’t have to die since prorogation was used recklessly.

But Canada remains in better fiscal health than any other major developed nation, even after six years of minority government. All the parties in the House deserve credit for that.

I’m not sure they do. They’ve hardly done anything.  They haven’t wrecked the country yet, so that’s good I suppose.  But we’re in good condition partly because the Liberals under Chretien with Paul Martin’s hand on the till put it there  and partly because our stable and hard working bureaucracy and sensible regulation built up over decades have maintained that stability through thick and thin.

Conservative MP Michael Chong has put forward a motion that would reform Question Period, bringing greater civility to that raucous session and encouraging more sensible questions and more forthright answers. All parties should embrace the proposal. It would be another step along the road to truly responsible, truly parliamentary, government.

No, a rule saying MPs should be nice to each other either

  • a) isn’t going to make any difference or
  • b) will be used to muzzle debate.

In the meantime it will make the Conservatives look like they are doing something constructive for democracy when in fact they are trying to take it apart to cement a permanent Conservative shift to our country.  This solution is like any other proposed by the Conservatives from mandatory sentencing to drug laws to handing out tax rebates to families with children.  It puts a band-aid directly onto a symptom instead of attacking the cause of the problem.  Parliament will be more polite when the government answers questions and stops trying to circumvent parliamentary rule. It will probably me more polite if there is a majority party or majority coalition getting stuff done. But why does it matter fundamentally if they are polite?

Improving the ‘atmosphere’ in parliament is a Conservative smokescreen. It’s an unimportant issue in a time when we have pressing issues about the economy, healthcare, childcare, equality and the legitimacy of our democracy.  The people we send to parliament are adults, they can all handle a bit of rude talk.  What we need to do, as Mr. Ibbitson points out, is let them know that none of them are getting that majority any time soon unless they make real changes and start listening to the voices of voters rather than the sounds of their own.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 15, 2010 7:29 am

    One thing consistently bugs me in most discussions and articles on coalition governments. It is that they are minority governments.

    Hogwash. Only rarely are coalition governments minority governments. Yet despite that fact, Canadian pundits, politicians, political junkies, and every Canadian political journalist I’ve read on the subject, refer to coalition governments as minority governments.


    Because no single political party holds the majority of the seats in the lower house. These people keep thinking in terms of parties, not in terms of representation in government of the people. They are thinking from the points of view of politicians, not voters.

    This is a distinction that must be addressed and hammered home by proponents of change, over and over and over again. Unless this is consistently done, then the people who oppose reform will continue to decry the purported instability of minority governments – as though that has anything to do with the matter.

    • May 15, 2010 3:33 pm

      I totally agree

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