The article you just read was brought to you by a few thousand dedicated readers. Will you join them?

Thanks for coming by The Tyee and reading one of many original articles we’ll post today. Our team works hard to publish in-depth stories on topics that matter on a daily basis. Our motto is: No junk. Just good journalism.

Just as we care about the quality of our reporting, we care about making our stories accessible to all who want to read them and provide a pleasant reading experience. No intrusive ads to distract you. No paywall locking you out of an article you want to read. No clickbait to trick you into reading a sensational article.

There’s a reason why our site is unique and why we don’t have to rely on those tactics — our Tyee Builders program. Tyee Builders are readers who chip in a bit of money each month (or one-time) to our editorial budget. This amazing program allows us to pay our writers fairly, keep our focus on quality over quantity of articles, and provide a pleasant reading experience for those who visit our site.

In the past year, we’ve been able to double our staff team and boost our reporting. We invest all of the revenue we receive into producing more and better journalism. We want to keep growing, but we need your support to do it.

Fewer than 1 in 100 of our average monthly readers are signed up to Tyee Builders. If we reach 1% of our readers signing up to be Tyee Builders, we could continue to grow and do even more.

If you appreciate what The Tyee publishes and want to help us do more, please sign up to be a Tyee Builder today. You pick the amount, and you can cancel any time.

Support our growing independent newsroom and join Tyee Builders today.
Before you click away, we have something to ask you…

Do you value independent journalism that focuses on the issues that matter? Do you think Canada needs more in-depth, fact-based reporting? So do we. If you’d like to be part of the solution, we’d love it if you joined us in working on it.

The Tyee is an independent, paywall-free, reader-funded publication. While many other newsrooms are getting smaller or shutting down altogether, we’re bucking the trend and growing, while still keeping our articles free and open for everyone to read.

The reason why we’re able to grow and do more, and focus on quality reporting, is because our readers support us in doing that. Over 5,000 Tyee readers chip in to fund our newsroom on a monthly basis, and that supports our rockstar team of dedicated journalists.

Join a community of people who are helping to build a better journalism ecosystem. You pick the amount you’d like to contribute on a monthly basis, and you can cancel any time.

Help us make Canadian media better by joining Tyee Builders today.
We value: Our readers.
Our independence. Our region.
The power of real journalism.
We're reader supported.
Get our newsletter free.
Help pay for our reporting.
Opinion

View from the Reichstag

In Berlin, I was told German history offers a lesson for Canadian democracy.

By Michael Byers 26 Jan 2012 | TheTyee.ca

Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia and serves on the board of the Salt Spring Forum.

image atom
Inside the Reichstag, seat of Germany's parliament.

The glass dome above the Reichstag provides spectacular views of Germany's capital city. But British architect Norman Foster designed the structure to highlight another view: looking down from the edge of the spectator platform, one can see directly into the Bundestag -- the German Parliament.

The symbolism is powerful: the people are above the politicians, and the workings of Parliament are transparent to them.

After the unification of East and West Germany in 1990, a grandiose new parliamentary building could have been constructed. But returning to the Reichstag provided a unique opportunity for psychological closure on six decades of dictatorship, war and division.

Adolf Hitler was elected and sworn in as chancellor of the Weimar Republic in 1933. Four weeks later, after the Reichstag was set on fire, Hitler blamed the opposition Communist Party, declared an emergency and seized absolute power. New laws eliminated opposition parties, trade unions, and the freedoms of speech, association, assembly and habeas corpus. The death of German democracy was sealed by the "Enabling Act," which gave Hitler's cabinet the power to legislate without parliamentary or presidential approval. The Act even allowed explicitly for the enactment of laws that were contrary to the constitution.

Nothing on this scale has ever happened in Canada, and this country is free of the institutionalised racism and violence that dominated and defined the Nazi regime.

But as I discovered at a workshop at Berlin's Humboldt University earlier this month, the dismantling of the Weimar Republic has made Germans unusually attentive to undemocratic developments -- including overseas.

Who's accountable to whom?

During a coffee break, a constitutional law professor quizzed me about Canada: "Is it true that your government has been shutting down Parliament?"

"Only temporarily," I replied, explaining that Canadian prime ministers are entitled to ask the Governor General to prorogue Parliament. Stephen Harper first did so in Dec. 2008, in order to avoid losing a fiscal vote and thus his government. He did so again in Dec. 2009, in order to avoid parliamentary scrutiny of documents relating to the practice of transferring detainees to possible torture in Afghanistan. In both instances, the Governor General granted his request.

Nevertheless, Harper's actions caused concern at home and abroad. As The Economist magazine observed on the second occasion, "The danger in allowing the prime minister to end discussion any time he chooses is that it makes Parliament accountable to him rather than the other way around."

My German colleague seemed to share that view: "Didn't the Canadian Parliament respond by declaring the government in contempt?"

"Not exactly," I replied. The contempt of parliament ruling came later, in March 2011, after the government refused to provide MPs with detailed cost estimates for its crime bills. And while no other government in the Commonwealth had ever been found in contempt, Harper cavalierly downplayed the importance of the ruling, saying: "You win some, you lose some."

Indeed, his Conservatives won a majority in the election that followed, which suggests that most Canadians were not particularly bothered by the finding of contempt.

"The real surprise," I explained, "is that Harper does not appear satisfied with the extensive powers that are normally available to a majority government."

I tell my German colleague about the government's practice of invoking closure, with a frequency never before seen in Canada, to prevent elected MPs from debating major legislation such as the omnibus crime bill and a bill that will add dozens of new seats to the Commons.

About how, increasingly, the government moves the business of parliamentary committees behind closed doors, so that it can conceal embarrassing documents and reject witnesses proposed by opposition parties without fear of public censure.

Warning, with a smile

Finally, I explain how the Federal Court ruled in Dec. 2011 that a bill to abolish the Canadian Wheat Board was illegal because it violated a statutory requirement to poll wheat farmers first. No matter: the government adopted the bill anyway.

This led Peter Russell, the doyen of Canadian constitutional law, to warn: "Canadians should understand that at stake here is not just a technical point of law, but the integrity of parliamentary government."

At this point, a wry smile crosses the German professor's face.

"Professor Russell is right," he says. "It's all about understanding. Here in Germany, we sometimes learn our lessons too late."  [Tyee]

Share this article

The Tyee is supported by readers like you

Join us and grow independent media in Canada

Facts matter. Get The Tyee's in-depth journalism delivered to your inbox for free

LATEST STORIES

The Barometer

Tyee Poll: What Coverage Would You Like to See More of This Year?

Take this week's poll