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Legion Magazine – May/June 2004 « Douglas Fisher



Legion Magazine – May/June 2004

Confusion! There has been a mix-up in my mind in just getting at this particular task because its deadline came at the high point of the noisiest political scandal in many years.
My confusion has had two aspects. Should the piece centre on the partisan politics of this scandal? Or, should my column stay outside this swirl even though it may presage a huge transition in fortune and misfortune for particular political parties, even for the parliamentary system itself?
Past responses over many years have let me know that a goodly minority of readers prefer Between Ourselves to deal largely with Canadian experiences in military service or with the history and shifts of national defence policies, rather than centering on parliamentary politics and the ebb and flow in electoral fortunes with its adversarial hyperbole.

A common-sense defence policy and a higher-funded, well-equipped military promised by Paul Martin is arguably a more appropriate topic for me than the national scandal which was sparked by the auditor general’s review of a federal sponsorship program Jean Chrétien’s government created to further national unity in Quebec after the 1995 referendum. It is near certain that finding the villains and how their scam worked will delay and perhaps destroy for years any progress on an even grander undertaking Paul Martin promised us early in Chrétien’s long goodbye.

This promise is on a matter which has concerned me for a long time. I rate its significance even above the pressing necessity of a competent, equipped military. The new prime minister raised it with a catchy phrase, high-minded general intentions, and not much detail.

The phrase—“erasing our democratic deficit”—jumped forth with so much vitality because of the immense credit so many of us had given Martin as the finance minister who ended a quarter century of huge, annual, federal deficits in the financial year 1997-98.

Martin put forward what has become rather obvious but had not been widely taken as a crisis in governance. This is that we have a populace increasingly disinterested in parliament and parliamentarians. Clearly, this indicates the ways of parliament and its members should be more open and better understood.

Too much is decided out of sight and sound of the House in what has become the over-riding centre of national politics—the Prime Minister’s Office!

Ministers have lost authority over their portfolios to the masters and mandarins of the central agencies—i.e., to the PMO, the Privy Council Office and Treasury Board.
The control of government MPs through the House leader and the whips of the Liberal caucus has become omniscient, omnipresent, and tough-minded. An excess of attention, so evident in the broadcast media, has developed for the prime minister, at all times, and, in Parliament during session. Some notice in House time does go to the leaders of opposition parties but not much to just plain backbenchers, of which there are usually many on the government side.

Cabinet ministers, aside from the minister of finance, are comparatively ignored when compared to the public stature of ministers like Jimmy Gardiner, C.D. Howe, Mike Pearson, and Doug Abbott in the Louis St. Laurent era.

For some years the media’s most featured minutes from a lengthy House day, i.e., the 45 minutes, five days a week of the oral Question Period, has become a stylized, often farcical, exercise often bellicose with juvenile ridicule. Presence in the House of MPs is sparse once Question Period is over. The proceedings as televised nationally have very low viewer ratings. As for readers of the daily Hansard record they no longer number in thousands, there’s just a few hundred.

Martin excited me as a reformer of the system because I remember his father well as a splendid parliamentarian who spent hours in the House each week it was sitting. The son seemed to be taking up a family legacy with his prime ministerial crusade for a truly magnetic and effective House of Commons. He didn’t mouth as Jean Chrétien, Brian Mulroney, and John Turner have how much they “loved the cut and thrust of the House” while spending as little time as possible. Instead Paul Martin underlined the relative indifference of Canadians to the stuff of parliamentary centred governance. And so he would take the lead in reducing and eventually erasing “the democratic deficit” by changing the way parliament and our MPs and ministers function and relate to each other.
This Martin aim to invigorate the central institution of the nation has to buck both the deeply ingrained partisanship of our politics and the fact that mere MPs of the opposition or the government backbench are constitutionally limited from putting forward legislation which needs an expenditure of federal funds. That is, they haven’t “the power of the purse” as American congressmen do in their system.

As with many other would-be reformers of our system, my own suggestions have been far from synoptic and fruitful. I have, however, diagnosed two imperatives for progress. The first pivots on the prime minister, the second on the opposition parties’ leaders and MPs.

The support of reform by the parliamentary kingpin our prime ministers have become is vital because he or she is the political actor who must cede much of the emphasis on how those in this office have functioned and give more of centre stage back to cabinet ministers, opposition MPs and chairs of significant committees.
During the institution and trial runs of such reforms the prime minister has to be seen playing a role of advocate, supporter, and cajoler. Along with this, there has to be a readiness to join and work on the enterprise by the parties in opposition, each schooled over decades that an opposition’s prime task is taking apart and contesting government propositions.

What seem to be the particulars in Martin’s undertaking to address the democratic deficit? More free votes in the House; i.e., less dictation on how its MPs vote. More scope and resources for committees and their chairs to take more initiatives in subjects, witnesses, and reports. Committees to examine thoroughly people being considered for positions or who have been appointed to major posts in the government or its Crown agencies. More exposure of ministers to questioning, both in the House and by its committees.

Would-be parliamentary reformers, especially those like me who have never been a member of a governing ministry or caucus, are often jeered by those who have as ignoring the onus to govern, to run affairs, and the corollary that a government must have its way so long as it retains the confidence of the House. So-called free votes for government MPs on most major bills would make a nightmare of the responsibility to govern that was gained at a general election.

Letting government MPs freelance beyond the cabinet’s intentions within a House committee concerned with a bill or an estimate of program spending would need some restraint from excessive combativeness. The limits might develop through trial usage, with which would come acceptance there should not be incalculable delays, unacceptable repetition of amendments to government bills.

Without question real reforms to shift responsibility and many initiatives to plain MPs, government and opposition, particularly in committee work, mean certainties and powers now centred with and around the prime minister will be reduced, and no longer be organized and directed largely within the PMO aided by the Privy Council Office.
Martin grants such effects will mean major adjustments in the functions and role of the prime minister, some of which will be shifted to each cabinet minister with the responsibility for both legislation and spending under his or her wings. He and Government House Leader Jacques Saada, the minister responsible for leading parliament to a more sensible use of backbenchers, have conceded more tacitly than outright, that the opposition caucuses will have to co-operate if reform is to work and take more joint responsibility in expediting discussion, hearings, legislating, and scrutinizing. In short, there will be an end to what has been almost a blanket of adversarial attitudes and practice.

All right! Martin emerged with a proposition not fully set out or scripted but obviously of radical import to democracy and political interest if followed through and made to work. Further, the early broad discussion responding to the Martin proposition expanded into arguments for the following:
a) fixed electoral terms (say on a fixed date every four years, not whenever in five years a prime minister chooses to have one);
b) abolishing the Senate or democratizing it by making its members elected, not appointed by a prime minister;
c) developing much more use of computer-based services for receiving, exchanging, and weighing discussion and propositions regarding bills, programs, and governmental appointments with both the so-called stakeholders in the various field of legislation and ordinary citizens intent in abetting or opposing a proposition or a practice.

To repeat, the Martin proposition leads into complexities of process rarely pursued in Canada, such as a calculated sharing of power with those who’ve never had much as plain MPs, except perhaps in their own constituencies. And in its very first launch with House speeches and a rather general government paper on the intentions and possibilities, the speakers for the three opposition parties—Conservative, Bloc Québécois and NDP—were skeptical and harsh rather than welcoming and positive.

There were intimations to me from several veteran Liberal backbenchers that the project would not be pushed hard during the period leading up to a federal general election. After this date with the electorate, Martin, returned as most people expect, would really get the wheels of parliamentary reform rolling and a new way of doing our politics would begin to take shape.

Although the first House reaction to Martin’s democratizing initiative was discouraging, shortly the prospect worsened sharply. This came when the scale of the sponsorship scandal seized the nation and the new prime minister responded to it with an outraged determination the culpable would be searched out and punished. Immediately courteous inter-party relations on the Hill were subsumed by bitter criticisms and nasty replies, much of it swinging around much doubt, even wonderment, that a long-running minister of finance like Martin could have been ignorant of such an elaborate rip-off of money for a federal program in his own province. The opinion polls showed Liberal standing suffering a major decline and the opposition, notably the Conservatives and the BQ, swinging upwards from deep lows.

What magnet is House reform to opposition MPs at last seeing a storm of
public anger against what had seemed an unbeatable foe? Further, the ruling party’s caucus, famed for its disciplined loyalty, seemed somewhat split along a fault line between Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin.

The stridency and nastiness from the scandal has doomed the current House to fractiousness as long as it lasts. Just as surely it has wiped out or postponed for many months the altruistic, high-minded campaign for a better, fairer parliament by a new prime minister. Who knows if he will want to tackle it again even if he should be returned in a mighty sweep?

In brief, the scandal which I hesitated to deal with extensively has almost certainly euchred parliamentary reform, probably for a generation. Reformation is hard to institute, prove up, and then sustain when politics is formed and acted out by snarky, slurring camps of adversaries warring along a very familiar way.