The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Hon. Carolyn Bennett Headshot

What's the Difference Between Parliament and Government? Democracy.

Posted: Updated:
PARLIAMENT
alamy

Last month Quebec's Minister of Justice, Jean-Marc Fournier, came to Ottawa to plead with the Conservative government to look at the evidence-based approaches to crime his province has pioneered. These approaches lead to safer communities. He explained that the C-10 "tough on crime" approach doesn't actually work. When accused by the Conservatives of being "soft on crime," the minister responded that this government was actually "tough on democracy."

From controlling which witnesses appear before parliamentary committees, to repeatedly cutting off debate, the Conservatives are using their majority status to silence the voices of the 60 per cent of Canadians that didn't vote for them and their elected representatives. It's a bad strategy. The government has the arithmetic on its side. They can afford to be generous and let the debate take place. Their bills will pass anyway. They should not be seen to be compounding bad legislation by shutting down the parliamentary process.

The late James Travers observed in a column in the Toronto Star that it has taken 500 years to wrestle power from the king and only 50 years to get the power back in one man's office. Historians and political scientists like the late Tom Kent and Donald Savoie and Thomas Axworthy have documented the steady decline in the role of parliamentarians and the rise in power of the prime minister and the Prime Minister's Office.

As a Liberal, I know that the centralization of power began in the late '60s with Trudeau's PMO. His observation that MPs were nobodies within 50 yards from Parliament Hill was unfortunately made during a Conservative filibuster requesting rule changes in the House of Commons. David Collenette once observed that ministers who have never been backbenchers have trouble understanding that those pesky MPs are not trying to wreck the government's legislation -- they are really trying to improve it after listening to the thoughtful witnesses who come before their committees.

In 1992, near the end of the Mulroney era, an all-party committee chaired by Conservative MP James McGrath laid out important course corrections that were meant to restore the ability of Parliament to hold government to account. Jeffrey Simpson entitled his book on Jean Chr├ętien The Friendly Dictator, albeit he depicted his rule as benevolent, and he acknowledged Chretien's expectation that ministers would run their own departments. Paul Martin, the son of a parliamentarian, spoke eloquently about the need for democratic reform. The question, "Who do you know in the PMO?" was becoming far too common, and telegraphed the message that the unelected posse around the prime minister was superseding the role of parliamentarians. Unfortunately, his PMO did not reverse the trend.

In 2002, Deb Gray, Yves Morin and I authored a study with the Library of Parliament which researched MP's views on parliamentary reform. The recommendations in our report, The Parliament We Want, are even more poignant now. This government has refused to govern and refused to abide by the will of Parliament. The Stephen Harper administration and perpetual campaign communication machine have replaced our parliamentary democracy.

The PMO directs the messages from ministers, ambassadors and even the sacred Statements by Members that precede Question Period every day. The House has passed motions and bills that the government has ignored. Votes taken on Kyoto, the Kelowna Accord, child care, war resisters, and gun control have passed in the House and then been treated by the government as nuisance suggestions they can ignore. Their handbook of dirty tricks -- yes, there actually is a handbook -- has been successfully used by Conservative members to degrade what was once the best of Parliament: the Standing Committees that in the past have often tabled unanimous reports giving guidance to government in areas of national importance. Conservative MPs seem to be prepared to just suit up in the team jerseys and spew the talking points. I am filled with nostalgia for my days as a backbencher in a Liberal majority -- fighting for tobacco control, victims of hepatitis C and changes to the Disability Tax Credit to help people with mental health problems. We were trying to help our government make better public policy.

Enough already. We need to spend the next four years building up the civic literacy of Canadians so that they too will understand that Stephen Harper is actively dismantling our democratic processes. Many Canadians haven't really understood how they are governed. Close to 90 per cent of us live within 100 miles of the American border and we are inundated with CNN and Fox News. It has been hard to convince Canadians that in a parliamentary democracy we don't directly elect our prime minister. Often, the party the prime minister leads has received less than 40 per cent of the vote -- the majority of voters voted for the other parties. The prime minister is only able to govern because he can muster a majority in the House of Commons. He is not a president who has a direct mandate from voters.

Understanding the difference between government and Parliament is the bedrock of our democracy. Government (or the Executive) is made up of the prime minister, the cabinet ministers and the public service. The Commons was put in place to "control the purse." It was so frustrating during the past election trying to explain "contempt of Parliament." The government was thwarting the ability of Parliament to hold it to account by misleading the House and refusing to provide documents or the costing of bills. It is virtually impossible to make the case of contempt of Parliament when Canadians think government and Parliament are one and the same.

We have four years to ensure that Canadians better understand how a parliamentary democracy is supposed to work. Their voices are being silenced as Stephen Harper rules with his divine paternalism. Power to the people and to the MPs elected to represent them.

Around the Web

Canada's PM suggest politics behind pipeline delay

Canadian professor mistakenly named Italian minister

Are Chinese golf plans in Iceland a water hazard for Canada?