Undermining democracy, one procedural point at a time.

A fair shake

Remember Stephen Harper’s May 2 victory speech? His face beaming, he declared: “we are intensely aware that we are and we must be the government of all Canadians, including those who did not vote for us.”

Deferring to experienced political analysts, I gave him the benefit of the doubt. I wanted to believe that Mr. Harper’s new majority would soften his partisan edge, that he’d reveal a more conciliatory side. I proclaimed on-air that the Conservatives would work to bring the country together, not because of some new openness of spirit, but because it would help them win the support of centrist voters.

Sadly, recent events have proven me wrong. With Mr. Harper’s Senate appointments and his decision to cancel the traditional debate following the Speech from the Throne, I’m now eating my words faster that I can chew. It’s all too clear this government will continue to make a mockery of our public institutions in its pursuit of partisan interests. The so-called “new era of civility and respect” has been put on hold.

The speech from the throne and the debate

The government’s decision on the use of time in the House of Commons passed almost unnoticed, but it should have raised alarm bells. The throne speech is a big part of the Canadian political process. Since the beginning of our democracy, this speech has opened every new parliamentary session, and each successive government has used it to lay out its priorities for the coming term.

The throne speech has always been followed by a debate lasting several days, in which members of Parliament had the chance to respond, offer policy alternatives and present the concerns of their constituents. In this way, the opposition was able to counter, if only for a few days, the power of the ministerial majority.

But not this time. This venerated tradition — a custom that precedes Confederation and is rooted in the long history of the Westminster system — was summarily overturned by the Prime Minister, despite the astonished protest of the four opposition parties.

An attack on democracy

Our current Prime Minister has never been accused of kowtowing to the House of Commons. Under Mr. Harper, Canadians endured two untimely prorogations. We witnessed the Speaker of the House force the government to release reports on the torture of Afghan detainees. And we watched our government fall during an unprecedented motion of contempt of Parliament. Even the most cynical among us thought we’d seen it all. But in dismissing the debate on the throne speech, Mr. Harper is not just breaching customs and procedures, he’s attacking our very democracy.

By depriving opposition members of their right to speak, the Prime Minister is effectively gagging the 60% of the electorate that voted them in. What good is an elected Parliament if our MPs are muzzled? If our Prime Minister is behaving like an autocrat, why bother keeping up the appearance of representative democracy at all? Let’s just hang out a “gone fishing” sign and let Mr. Harper govern by decree.

The importance of public debate

The Leader of the Government in the House, the Honourable Peter Van Loan, informs us that the debate is merely optional and that it should be canceled this time around due to the shortened parliamentary session. This is a weak excuse for a cynical political manoeuvre. There is no need to rush this session to its close — members have only just taken their seats.

There’s certainly no shortage of topics for them to discuss. Recent reports have uncovered instances of government negligence, porkbarelling and human rights violations during the G8 and G20 summits.  Our troops in Afghanistan and Libya are risking their lives over a muddled foreign policy. The government is preparing to gut the public service to the tune of 1.8 billion dollars per year. It just scrapped public funding of political parties. And it also wants to modify the Canadian Senate, essentially altering the terms of the federal pact without the agreement of the provinces. With so much at stake, a debate on the Speech from the Throne is not a luxury, it is a necessity.

Throughout the history of parliamentary governments, first ministers have always submitted their political priorities to criticism by the opposition. If this principle was sacrosanct for the likes of Walpole and Churchill, for MacDonald and Laurier, who is Mr. Harper to brush it aside?

Translation from the original French by Jamie McLennan, © 2011 Gaston Murdock Translation.

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