Disrespecting the Process

The Decline of Parliament in Federal & Provincial Governments

Photo Michael Wrobel

For people elected through a democratic process, our federal and provincial governments certainly have an odd and profound dislike for our democratic institutions.

Over the past few years, we have seen an unparalleled assault on Canadian parliamentary democracy. Legislatures across the country have been reduced to ceremonial status by successive governments that have sought to stifle debate and centralize power in the offices of the prime minister and the premiers.

In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper prorogued Parliament in order to avoid a vote of non-confidence brought forward by opposition members of Parliament. If the vote had proceeded, his government would have been defeated and either a coalition of other parties would have risen to power or an election would have been called.

In 2009, Harper again prorogued Parliament, this time for three months. While the government claimed that it wanted to focus attention on the Vancouver Olympics, opposition MPs said Harper prorogued in order to avoid criticism over the Canadian Forces’ treatment of Afghan detainees.

The decline in the importance of Canadian legislatures has only accelerated since then, unfortunately, thanks to the use of tactics like prorogation, closure and omnibus budget bills, which stifle debate and curtail the opposition’s ability to question the government’s legislative agenda.

Prorogation does so by literally padlocking the doors of Parliament. Closure does so by speeding bills through the legislature. An omnibus budget bill does so by hiding changes to existing laws within a bill that can be hundreds of pages long, meaning legislators don’t get the chance to adequately debate its contents.

The federal Conservatives have tabled not one, but two omnibus budget bills this year. The first omnibus “budget bill” last spring made sweeping changes to non-budgetary legislation, from environmental laws to employment insurance.

The second omnibus budget bill, which is before Parliament right now, affects everything from the Navigable Waters Act to the building of a bridge between Windsor, ON and Detroit.

This federal government has also invoked closure to put an end to a debate on a bill and proceed to a vote, speeding legislation through Parliament without adequate debate.

Stephen Harper, Christy Clark and Dalton McGuinty have led us down a very slippery, previously unexplored path by pushing the boundaries of what were supposed to be procedural devices to be used only in exceptional circumstances.

The assault on democracy isn’t limited to the federal level, however. Premier of British Columbia Christy Clark announced there will be no fall legislative session in that province this year; the legislature will not meet to pass laws or debate current events.

Rather than answering for her policies in Question Period, the B.C. premier will instead be consulting with voters this fall, in advance of a spring provincial election. The opposition is understandably angry that their voices in the legislature are essentially being silenced.

This is not to say that closure and prorogation are new tricks—they’ve been used before. Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, for instance, controversially used prorogation in 2002 and again in 2003.

Some have alleged that he did so to avoid scathing reports on the sponsorship scandal. Others have said he prorogued to allow his successor, Paul Martin, to assume office more easily.

The tactic is almost as old as the country itself, in fact. Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald prorogued Parliament in 1873 to avoid criticism over his involvement in the Pacific Scandal, a controversy involving bribes accepted by members of his government.

Closure and omnibus budget bills are also not new, but the frightening new trend uses these tactics more frequently and indiscriminately.

Stephen Harper, Christy Clark and Dalton McGuinty have led us down a very slippery, previously unexplored path by pushing the boundaries of what were supposed to be procedural devices to be used only in exceptional circumstances.

The solution to these concerning problems is twofold.

Firstly, governing legislators need to develop a newfound respect for our parliamentary system. We need to put to rest this prevalent belief among the political class that this assault on democracy is an acceptable form of political maneuvering.

Secondly, our governments need to enact legislation that reverses this decline of parliamentary powers and controls how the invocation of closure, the prorogation of Parliament and the bundling of unrelated pieces of legislation into excessively large omnibus budget bills may be used by power-hungry governments.

Quebec seems to be leading the country by example. When Jean Charest prorogued the Quebec National Assembly in 2011, he did so for only one day. The parliamentary session ended on Feb. 22 and a new parliamentary session began the following day.

Charest prorogued to reset his government’s agenda with a new session and a new inaugural speech. He did not prorogue to avoid criticism or stifle debate.

The rest of the country needs to take a hint. Frequent use of prorogation, closure and omnibus bills is an abuse of power and an affront on democracy that needs to end.