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Appears we get the Parliament we deserve

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OTTAWA -- Hang around Parliament long enough and you come to the vivid conclusion that the institution is falling apart.

Let me count the ways.

In days of yore, the early parliamentarians felt it was critical to scrutinize the king's demands for funds. Last year, Parliament approved the government's request for more than $250 billion in spending after taking only a few hours to analyze and question the numbers.

"At some point in time, we'll have to review the process -- the way parliamentarians carry out their primary responsibility," says Parliament Budget Officer Kevin Page. "We're falling down on this process."

Joachim Wehner, a professor of public policy at the London School of Economics, says Parliament usually gets spending plans about March 1, a month before the start of the fiscal year on April 1.

The U.S. Congress gets the presidential spending proposals eight months before the beginning of the fiscal year; the German parliament gets them about five months ahead.

We're all familiar with how the Republicans in Congress last year fought the President's spending requests. That can't happen in Canada. If Parliament delays approval of the estimates in an attempt to get changes beyond May 31, they are simply "deemed" to have been passed.

Seven parliamentary agents, meanwhile, sent a letter to the institution's committees last year asking for more guidance. No reply. They re-sent the letter. Still no reply. The agents feel they are reporting to committees that pay scant attention to them. The agents, one parliamentary authority says, are working "in the Wild West."

The agents included former Auditor General Sheila Fraser; Lobbying Commissioner Karen Shepherd; Chief Electoral Officer Marc Meyrand; Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault; Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart; Official Languages Commissioner Graham Fraser and the acting head of the Public Sector Inquiry Commission.

Of course, much of Parliament's work is done in committees. But opposition MPs are worried the Harper government wants them to do more of their work in secret. "Parliament is moving further and further away from the notion that the 308 people elected by the people of Canada are supposed to be the voice of this country," says Liberal House Leader Marc Garneau.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez are among the few leaders who can shut down a legislature when they want. Harper has done it twice: in December 2008 to avoid a non-confidence vote that was sure to defeat his government and in December 2009 to avoid questions about the treatment of Afghan prisoners.

"We live in a country where a prime minister can shut down the House, the pre-eminent institution of our parliamentary democracy, on a whim, for no particular reason," Lori Turnbull, associate professor of political science at Dalhousie University, told the Globe and Mail.

Too many debates are being cut short. In the old days, it was called closure and MPs made a fuss about it. Now, it's called "time allocation." The Harper government used it an unprecedented seven times before Parliament took a Christmas break. The government's argument is that its bills have been around "like forever" and there's no point in further discussion.

Despite many promises, it seems that question period is getting worse, not better.

Ditto Partisanship. Samara Canada, a public policy group, last year asked a group of former MPs from all parties and all positions about Parliament's problems. Most of them agreed Parliament is in trouble because it has become hyper-partisan.

They blamed the political parties who bossed them around. Many said they had voted for legislation they had never read. In question period, they were expected to be "potted plants" or "trained seals."

Parliamentary reform is something parties talk about when they're in opposition. Once in government, they lose interest. That doesn't seem to bother a lot of Canadians, who don't vote and don't take an interest in politics. Sickened by the excesses of question period, they really don't give a damn about Parliament.

And so what's supposed to be the centre of our democratic society is slowly but steadily falling apart.


Tom Ford is editor of The Issues Network.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 9, 2012 A10

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