The suspension of Parliament: What’s at stake, and an announcement

It’s been heartening to see the beginnings of some grassroots opposition to Stephen Harper’s decision to suspend Parliament rather than face tough questions about Afghan detainees from the opposition. Hopefully, the 185,000-plus people signed up for the Facebook page Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament (disclosure: I’ve joined the group) will put the lie to the claim that Canadians don’t care about prorogation.

The most common criticism of these Facebook groups is that they’re all talk, no action, so it’ll be interesting to see what effect, if any, the protests scheduled for this Sunday have on the political process.

But, as Susan Delacourt asks: where will this influence have an effect?

To accomplish anything worthwhile, you have to go through the political parties. However, at the moment they don’t really see any problem with the current electoral system – and it’s important to remember that, as Donald Savoie points out in Lawrence Martin’s column this morning, this is a systemic problem, not a partisan one. Even if the opposition parties get on board with the protests – and dramatic shifts in public opinion have a way of focusing politicians’ minds – and the Conservatives “get back to work,” that will do nothing to fix the underlying problem that got us into this mess.

The key point is this: convention, respect for tradition and commonly held views of what is acceptable behavour are the only things that have ever kept any Prime Minister who commands support from his caucus (and his tools for maintaining this control are themselves quite vast) from attempting what this Prime Minister is well on his way toward getting away with. Unlike the U.S. system, the Canadian system of government is relatively unconstrained by formal checks and balances.

Heat v. Light

It’s very easy for debates like these to degenerate into fact-free partisan name-calling à la Globe and Mail comments sections. This is why I think it is important to stress that while Stephen Harper bears full responsibility for thumbing his nose at Parliament, which in our system represents the will of Canadians, I’m under no illusions that Michael Ignatieff or Jack Layton (were the NDP to become a credible alternative to form a government) would have acted much differently.

As my tiny contribution to the debate, rather than go on about how fascist the Conservatives are, how we should just throw the bums out or how all politicians are dishonest liars, I’m going to try something a little different. Since the problem is not with our politicians (surprise! They’re humans), but with what our parliamentary system permits them to do, I’m going to try to generate a bit of light by talking about Parliamentary committees.

Still awake? Great.

Committees are an absolutely crucial, if poorly understood, part of our political system. They provide the only way for our elected representatives to evaluate publicly laws and regulations that would otherwise be set exclusively by the governing party and the bureaucracy. Absent good faith, the committee process cannot function. This was a problem (though less so) under the Liberals and will only get worse over time, unless checked at the ballot box or through electoral or parliamentary reform.

As it has with Parliament itself, Harper’s Conservative government has worked to undermine parliamentary committee work, through Conservative MPs’ refusal to show up at key meetings and by working actively and systematically to thwart committee hearings. Examining how committees work will, I hope, shed some light on the larger problem of the increasing lack of accountability to parliament. Over the next few months I’ll discuss the reality that while the Conservatives’ actions are deplorable and, in some cases, more extreme than we have seen before, they are not without precedent.

As an economist with the Library of Parliament, I was a (non-partisan) staff member for several parliamentary committees, including the House Finance Committee and Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, from 1999-2005 (I was on an unpaid educational leave from the Library from 2005 to last March). It was a great job that gave me had a front-row seat to this key part of our lawmaking process.

I also hope that my discussion of the ins and outs of how parliamentary committees work, while not the most exciting topic in the blogosphere (Go Coco!), will be useful to anyone who wants to understand how our parliamentary system works, its benefits and drawbacks. Most of all, I hope that it will help contribute to a rational, respectful dialogue on how to reform our current political system.

This will be an irregular series, since I want to finish my dissertation before the end of the century. That said, how Canadian copyright policy is made is not completely unrelated to the quality of our parliamentary democracy.

First substantive post coming soon. Let’s see how this goes.

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