Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A new legislative reality

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So, Canadians will not go to the polls this summer. There can't be many, inside Parliament or out, who will be unhappy with that. Given the polls, the Conservatives faced an election with the prospect of not enough votes and the Liberals with the prospect of not enough money. Happily, neither was required to admit that their polls or their finances were problematic. Fortunately for both, polls showing 78 per cent of Canadians opposed to a summer election, provided an opportunity to seem sensitive to public opinion.

That, however, would have been insufficient -- or at least insufficiently plausible -- to still the drums of electoral warfare. Both needed a substantive basis upon which to call a truce, however temporary. To that end they agreed on a bi-partisan panel to examine Conservative claims and Liberal concerns as to the adequacy of our existing unemployment insurance coverage which, in this deep recession, has become more and more urgent for more and more Canadians.

Maybe the panel will discover and recommend some substantive improvements to EI -- which would be a good thing -- and maybe they won't, in which case the exercise will have served only to buy both parties time in which to better prepare themselves for another election, possibly in the autumn.

Since there are urgent partisan considerations in the Harper-Ignatieff agreement they are subject to partisan criticisms, and those came immediately, abundantly and predictably from the NDP. That's what Jack Layton is best at.

A more serious reservation, perhaps, suggests that Ignatieff should have no truck with Harper. Those who feel this may well believe that the role of government is to govern and that of the opposition -- as Benjamin Disraeli once prescribed it -- is to oppose. In principle -- and in many instances, in practice -- such a clear division of functions is desirable and appropriate. But as a general principle it is a much more difficult proposition to maintain in the face of developments which have re-shaped and redefined Canadian parliamentary government.

One of these is the re-emergence of minority governments, of which we've now had three in a row. Though minority governments have occurred before, a compelling case can be made that the situation now is different: the emergence of the Bloc Quebecois, as the dominant party in Quebec, has taken out of play half to two-thirds of Quebec's 75 seats in the House of Commons, an arithmetical fact which makes it much more difficult for a national party to win an overall majority.

This, however, may not be entirely problematic. In the last 40 years, changes in the rules of Parliament, and substantial growth in the powers of the prime minister, have made it infinitely easier for a majority government to run roughshod over the parliamentary opposition. Once upon a time the House of Commons rules allowed opposition MPs to delay unwise or unpopular government legislation long enough for the media and the public to sit up, take notice and -- if they agreed with the opposition -- exact a political price on the government. The infamous Pipeline Debate of 1956 was a classic instance in which the opposition was to able to demonstrate the arrogance of a government long in office; and that debate contributed to the defeat of the government in the election of 1957.

As a result of later changes to "streamline" Parliament in the name of efficiency, it is largely meaningless to suggest that Parliament can now exercise its historic role of holding government to account -- unless it is a minority government. Is it such a bad thing that a Parliament with a minority government -- typically elected by a minority of the electorate -- should legislate in ways that reflect more than just the views of that minority?

What we saw this week -- whether ultimately successful or not -- represents an attempt to recognize a new political and legislative reality and it may yet founder on Harper's unbridled partisanship. But if the government had been defeated this week with an election to follow, we would be entering our fourth general election since June 2004, or an average of roughly one every 16 months. Does anyone seriously suppose this can go on indefinitely?

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 19, 2009 A14

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