Sunday, May 02, 2010

Michael Ignatieff: the "cave" man?

Is Michael Ignatieff planning to fold in the wake of Speaker Peter Milliken's historic affirmation of the supremacy of Parliament? My friend Skippy Stalin thinks so, and he's worth quoting at length:

If Michael Ignatieff refuses to put his own political viability before the constitutional future of this country, he will have failed not only as a leader, but as a citizen. Time and time again, he has put political expediency before principle, and where has it gotten him? More Canadian now prefer Jack Layton as prime minister than they do Ignatieff, which hasn't happened to a Liberal leader in nearly thirty years.

I would prefer an election, but even that isn't necessary. Parliament could vote no confidence in the government, and then the Liberals, NDP and Bloc Quebecois could present themselves to the Governor General as a coalition majority government. I don't think that would be granted, but it's at least worth trying.

I loathed that when it was tried after the 2008 election, but this different. This is about protecting Parliament itself, as opposed to being displeased with the results of an election. While I'm certain that I would despise everything that such a government would do in power, at least the principle of Parliament would be preserved. Better yet, if the Liberals started wandering into Harperland, the NDP and Bloc could withdraw their support and force an election.

...[W]hat Stephen Harper wants is the worst of both systems; executive powers without checks and balances, within a toothless Parliament that resembles something like the one that governed Romania for four decades. And Michael Ignatieff seems to be fine with that, if only because he thinks that he himself will inherit those powers someday.

Obviously I hope he's wrong. But take a look at this. And note the way the story is being spun:

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said this week he would consider relying on Mr. [Frank] Iacobucci if the former judge’s mandate could be changed to make him report to Parliament instead of the Tories. Some Liberals are leery of committing senior MPs to reading mountains of documents – a process that because of the need to swear an oath of secrecy would neuter their ability to speak publicly on the treatment of detainees after Canadian soldiers hand them over to Afghan officials.

Let's get this straight, once again. Parliament, as Milliken's ruling affirmed, has unfettered access to the documents.
No oath of secrecy must be administered. There is no "balance" to be struck between Parliamentary supremacy and what the government claims are the interests of "national security" (more likely, the interests of its own security). Andrew Coyne crushes that persistent red herring to fishmeal here.

And let's put the spectre of Frank Iacobucci to rest. Ignatieff's suggestion is simply ill-informed. As legal expert Amir Attiran points out,

[T]he option of letting the Honourable Frank Iacobucci choose the documents Parliament can see is daft. Iacobucci is not a judge, but an ex-judge turned lawyer. As the Speaker noted, like all lawyers, when his client gives instructions, he must obey, and "his client is the government."

Nor can Iacobucci's reporting relationship be expanded to the whole House. The Law Society's rules of professional conduct read that "A lawyer shall not advise or represent more than one side of a dispute." Thus Iacobucci cannot be lawyer for the government, and with a change of clothing in a phone booth, turn lawyer for the opposition parties where the situation remains disputatious (which is always the case in the House). Anyway, Iacobucci would never accept this, as it would lead to a professional misconduct complaint.

The NDP's Jack Harris puts the whole matter squarely: "We want Parliamentary oversight, not a proxy." Attaran suggests a public inquiry as a preferred solution, or an in-camera session of Parliament in which decisions about the documents are made by the whole House about what is, or is not, a matter of "national security."

But what if Harper decides to dig in?

Will the Opposition parties stand united against what would be a spectacular defiance, not only of Parliament, but of its representative in the Speaker's chair? Will it stand up for the democratic system of governance upon which Parliament is founded--and fight an election
, if need be, to defend responsible government?

Or will a timorous Ignatieff pull the plug on democracy and weasel up a "compromise" with no basis in law or Parliamentary tradition?

Am I the only one getting a sinking feeling?

1 comment:

Dr.Dawg said...

Only a fool would permit the election to be about the detainees. It would, or should, be about Harper's attempt to subvert Parliament.

Canadians care deeply about democracy, as the prorogation controversy clearly demonstrated. Problem is, if Harper wants to rule like a king--so does Iggy.