Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Ignatieff: democracy if necessary, but not necessarily democracy

We had no shape
Because he never took sides,
And no sides
Because he never allowed them to take shape.

He skilfully avoided what was wrong
Without saying what was right,
And never let his on the one hand
Know what his on the other hand was doing.

Always he led us back to where we were before.

He seemed to be in the centre
Because we had no centre,
No vision
To pierce the smoke-screen of his politics.

Let us raise up a temple
To the cult of mediocrity,
Do nothing by halves
Which can be done by quarters.

--F.R. Scott

Sound familiar?

Scott was writing about Liberal Prime Minister Mackenzie King, but were he alive today, I'm pretty sure the poet would see Michael Ignatieff as gamely carrying on that slippery, ambiguous Liberal tradition.

After the requisite few days of dithering, Ignatieff appears to be on-side with the NDP's position on prorogation, which was elegant in its simplicity: Parliament, as an assembly of the people's representatives, should decide as a body if and when it will rise.

But hold on, wait one. Ignatieff's position is nuanced:

To prevent future abuses of prorogation, the Liberal Party of Canada will seek to amend the Standing Orders of the House of Commons to:

• Require at least 10 days written notice from the Prime Minister of his intention to seek to prorogue, together with his specific reasons for doing so;

• Require the Prime Minister to bring the issue of prorogation before the House of Commons for a full debate;

• Prevent a request for prorogation within the first year after a Speech from the Throne, unless the House consents;

• Prevent a prorogation longer than one calendar month without the consent of the House;

• Prevent a request for prorogation if a matter of confidence has been scheduled in the House unless the House consents; and,

• Allow Parliamentary Committees to continue to function during the period when Parliament is prorogued until the start of the new session.

"Parliament should not prevent a Prime Minister from using prorogation in proper circumstances," said Liberal House Leader Ralph Goodale. "But the Prime Minister must be held to account for why he is using it, and the rules must be clear on when shutting down Parliament would be wrong."

Instead of adopting the perfectly reasonable and principled position that Parliament should decide when Parliament sits, Ignatieff, no doubt thinking of himself occupying the PMO someday, is proposing as little as he dares. Goodale's statement should be taken very seriously:
"proper circumstances" can mean just about anything.

What are the dangers of this equivocating approach to democracy? Well, here are a couple of easy examples. The Prime Minister may sign and ratify treaties, and even declare war, all by himself. (Cabinet approval, as we have seen under this government and indeed under previous Liberal administrations, is a virtual guarantee: the powerful PM, after all, can appoint and dis-appoint Cabinet members at will.)

Until prorogation, the Liberals were in full support of a government move to sign a free trade treaty with the genocidal Colombian regime of Álvaro Uribe. (I've posted rather angrily about this before.)

Imagine a hypothetical minority Parliament where the opposition were actually opposed to this sort of thing, and were threatening to make noise about it during Question Period. It's not unthinkable that a one-month-less-a-day prorogation could be called to silence Parliament, while Ignatieff went about signing a bloody treaty with Colombia to help out our mining companies. Parliamentary approval of treaties is not mandatory: it's simply a courtesy extended to Parliament by the government.

Nor is it inconceivable that Prime Minister Ignatieff could decide, all on his own, and without a sitting Parliament to ask impertinent questions, to declare war on some country or other, perhaps as a member of a fresh new "coalition of the willing" led by the US.

And one can imagine many other circumstances under which a four-week break from the Opposition could stand a PM in good stead.

There's another problem, too, and one of more immediate consequence. With the current groundswell of public concern about Canadian democracy, this is precisely the time when fundamental democratic reform as a whole should be up for review: the electoral system, the question of the Senate (elected or abolished), checks and balances to offset the
entire range of the Prime Minister's considerable powers, and so on. Call it a democratic recalibration.

But the Liberal piecemeal approach will change very little about our cobbled-together, historical pastiche of a democracy, that odd and increasingly dysfunctional amalgam of elected representation and Royal Prerogative. This is, of course, exactly the way the Liberals want it. Just as Jean Chrétien, concentrating vast power in the Prime Minister's Office, paved the way for even more egregious abuses of power by the present Prime Minister, so too has Harper established precedents undreamed of even a decade ago.

Ignatieff's weak prorogation proposals will be a minor impediment indeed if he manages to leapfrog Stephen Harper to exercise for himself the ever-expanding powers of the Executive over an ever-more-weakened Parliament. His current shallow pro-democracy stance falls lamentably short of defending the fundamental notion of Parliamentary supremacy. And if we have learned anything from recent Canadian history, we know that's no accident.

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