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Federal Politics

Can Canada’s Toxic Parliament Be Fixed?

New essays by parliamentarians offer ‘practical ideas’ for improving our sorry state of affairs. But it still seems like a stretch.

Crawford Kilian 21 Jun

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

Plenty of Canadians complain about the state of Canadian politics in general and the state of Parliament in particular. Plenty of Canadian members of Parliament complain also, and a fat lot of good it has done them or their constituents.

Some of the rot set in almost 50 years ago, with Pierre Elliott Trudeau and his concentration of power in the Prime Minister’s Office. It was done discreetly, Trudeau was charming (or at least distracting), and his successors followed his example. Each prime minister since then has added more staff to the PMO while reducing the power of cabinet ministers and especially backbenchers.

Meanwhile (and partly in self defence), opposition parties have mimicked the PMO, concentrating power in their leaders at the expense of their MPs.

We are a long way from the late 1860s, when MPs were known as “loose fish” who might or might not dance with the party that brought them to Ottawa. The loose fish are now trained seals, nodding like bobbleheads behind their leaders when not rising in yet another standing ovation.

A new book, Turning Parliament Inside Out: Practical Ideas for Reforming Canada’s Democracy, offers “practical ideas” for improving our sorry state of affairs, and they’re generally worth discussing. But they’re not especially new, and without major popular pressure they’re not practical at all.

Perhaps the authors don’t realize it, but they’re describing a profoundly toxic workplace in which the workers do their bosses’ bidding in a state of almost Marxist alienation. Come to think of it, they’re almost as alienated as the voters who put them there, not to mention the voters who don’t bother voting. This does not bode well for our collective mental and physical health.

Green Party leader Elizabeth May sets the theme with an introductory essay on Parliament’s early days, when MPs were far more independent of their party leaders. Winning their support involved the leaders in a lot of haggling, especially for the party currently in power. While the Parliament she describes sounds a little too much like Eden, her key point is sound: MPs originally represented the people in their ridings, who expected to see their interests promoted. Now, as many Canadians complain, MPs are promoting their party’s interests to the people in their ridings.

Incoherent without a cheat sheet

Conservative MP Michael Cooper has suggestions for improving question period. But as a method of holding governments accountable, QP was finished when TV was allowed into the Commons. That turned it into highly stylized theatre, with most MPs ignoring the show while catching up on their email between standing ovations.

Each party allots its daily questions to suitable team players, and government members recite their non-answers. Both sides read their stuff off cards — presumably because no one can be trusted to speak coherently without a cheat sheet.

Meaningless though it is, QP is what most of us see of Parliament at work, and no primary teacher would allow a mob of grade one pupils to behave so badly. For the sake of such embarrassing reality-TV exposure, MPs seem willing to lose the respect of their constituents.

New Democrat Niki Ashton describes the impact of social media on modern campaigns (especially her own), but doesn’t make it clear how this could improve Parliament. She soft-pedals the abusive email and tweets that help make politicians’ lives as toxic as those of asbestos-removal workers.

As Liberal Anita Vandenbeld shows, women politicians suffer more from the toxic workplace (including social-media assaults) than their male counterparts — who are largely responsible for making it so toxic. Women rarely win nominations, and are too often sacrificial lambs in no-hope ridings. If elected, the best they can often hope for is a “soft” cabinet job.

Especially toxic for women

After 150 years we seem stuck with a Parliament whose members’ privileges have been steadily eroded by a system giving party leaders (and especially the prime minister) far too much power. So that’s what we stick with, despite its obvious flaws. Even a party that campaigned and won on promises to restore power to individual MPs would face a hazard: the voters wouldn’t believe it.

After all, Justin Trudeau promised to end first-past-the-post elections and then reneged when the system won him a tidy majority. Who would trust Andrew Scheer or the next NDP leader to deliver on an even more radical new order?

The present order is based on administrative convenience for the party in power, and especially for its leader. It saves the government from endless tedious bargaining with its own backbenchers. The American system shows where that can lead — to members of Congress and senators whose loyalty to their nominal party depends on the next bribe to their district or state.

But that’s also like the British Parliament, whose members can exercise impressive power when they see the need. British Tories sacked Margaret Thatcher when she was no longer useful, and may well sack Theresa May. Imagine Stephen Harper’s Tories kicking their boss out of office, or Trudeau’s Liberals.

It just might be possible, if MPs frame their arguments right. It’s not a matter of redistributing parliamentary power, or ditching question period. It’s a matter of occupational health and safety for MPs, their staff members, and the voters themselves. Put more control in the hands of MPs, and in the hands of voters, and their stress levels will decline. That will lead to happier families, less stress-related disease, and more happiness all around.

Except, perhaps, for the poor wretches who’ll lose their jobs in a much-reduced Prime Minister’s Office.  [Tyee]

Read more: Federal Politics

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