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Canadian democracy: There might be a pulse after all

The essence of Westminster Parliamentary democracy is that all MPs, including the Prime Minister, are equal, all are elected to represent their constituents, and that, even though a Prime Minister with a majority government can gather up all the levers of power, the Parliament is ultimately supreme. All of this relates to Canada's other distinguishing feature -- that we are a constitutional monarchy. None of this applies to the US system of government, in which checks and balances prevail and the Executive is directly elected.

Parliamentary democracy in Canada has been on the ropes for a while. The Prime Minister does not act as "first among equals," but increasingly like a Roman Emperor. The Prime Minister and his cabinet do not respect principles of the supremacy of Parliament, but act in arrogant and unaccountable ways -- denying Parliament key information, even information as essential to good government as basic background to fiscal decisions.

Fundamental to these dangerous trends is the rise in control of MPs by political parties. The political party overlay on Westminster parliamentary democracy is a relatively new and growing phenomenon. Not until the late 1960s did the name of the candidates' political party appear on the ballot. Simultaneous with that development, the Elections Act was amended to require the leader's signature to verify that a candidate was properly from the party claimed. A seemingly innocuous change has led to the ability of leaders of political parties to use the threat, that nomination papers will not be signed, to keep their MPs in line.

And the role of leaders of parties has started to ape the US system to such an extent that federal (and provincial) election campaigns are run as though the ballot choice was the election of a Prime Minister (or Premier). We do not elect Prime Ministers in Canada, but this confusion is undermining the essence of representative democracy.

Compounding these trends, which to greater or lesser degree pre-date Stephen Harper's administration, we now have the political arm of the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) reaching into previously off-limit areas. The PMO operatives are bullying the civil service into corrupting the policy making process with blatant spin and doctoring of evidence.

When Kevin Page, Canada's first Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO), spoke on April 4 at a Green Party sponsored lecture at UVic (well worth watching in its entirety on Youtube), he noted that "every Parliamentary institution is under assault." His two take-away messages: that the control of the public purse must return to the House, and that decisions must be based on evidence.

The Court Ruling

For a while, knowledgeable commentators have taken to pondering if Canadian democracy has a pulse. Then on April 22 and 23, two unrelated events took place, quickening the pulse of Canadian democracy.

The first was the ruling of the Federal Court of Canada on the lawsuit launched by the PBO. Kevin Page refused to accept the refusal of the Clerk of Privy Council, shamefully telling the PBO that none of what he wanted was available; accepting commands from the PMO and denying that the impacts of the falling of the axe must be transparent to MPs and to Canadians.

And so Kevin Page went to court. The court ruled that the PBO was within its mandate to request information about the impact of the cuts in the 2012 budget. The Federal Court confirmed the supremacy of Parliament, the right of each MP to have access to information: about where the budget cuts landed and what effect they have on government programs. In fact, the court ruled this information should be available to any back-bencher.

Thanks to Kevin Page, the right of any MP, and the PBO itself, to access documentation about government finances has been confirmed. The court went on to find that Page had not fully demanded the information after the clerk said he couldn't have the information. So, on that technicality, it might appear Page lost. But the right to access that information has led the acting PBO to demand the information.

The SO31 "Game"

The very next day, the Speaker ruled on a recent complaint by Mark Warawa, Conservative MP from Langley, BC. To understand his complaint, you need to know that for 15 minutes every day in the House of Commons, there is something called Members statements (under Standing Order 31, so sometimes called "SO31s"). An SO31 allows a member 60 seconds to make an uninterrupted statement. They are usually about events in the riding, or eulogies for recently departed local heroes. Lately, the Conservatives have mis-used the opportunity for prepared attacks on the NDP claiming they want a $21-billion carbon tax.

Each party whip coordinates which MPs are going to make their SO31s. Apparently, the Conservative whip also vets (and censors) the statements. One day, Mark Warawa was told his statement was unacceptable and his chance to speak was withdrawn. He did something unprecedented in the life of Mr. Harper's reign. He complained to the Speaker.

Over a few weeks, many MPs supported the complaint, making the case that MPs have the right of free speech. Of course, I spoke in support of Warawa's complaint, but so did about 7 other Conservative MPs.

The Chief Government Whip argued that the Speaker was a mere "referee" and that the party leader and his operatives were like the coach with the right to decide which players to play.

On April 23, Speaker Scheer's ruling supported the right of free speech. He completely rejected the sports metaphor and confirmed that only the Speaker has the right to recognize MPs. The convention of the party whips in giving the Speaker a list of MPs to call on was only adopted to assist a previous speaker who had difficulty remembering names (or so goes the story).

The Speaker's ruling confirmed the absolute right of Members of Parliament to free speech. And it is the duty of the Speaker to maximize that right of free speech. The Speaker, similar to the PBO court ruling, went on to find that Mark Warawa had not tried to speak, by catching the speaker's eye and trying to get the floor. As such, the Speaker found his rights had not been infringed.

Nevertheless,

We have a pulse!

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