Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Play's the thing to catch conscience of Parliament

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It's time for opposition brinksmanship in Ottawa; time for real drama to highlight Parliament's degradation. For inspiration, the opposition could look to a seminal event in the Manitoba legislature in November 1996.

Conservative House Leader Peter Van Loan routinely uses the word "orderly" as an adjective to modify "Parliament." Here he is on Valentine's Day: "Our effort is to ensure that Parliament is run in an orderly, productive and hard-working fashion with ample debate." On March 15: "We will conclude this hard-working, productive and orderly week in Parliament." On April 26: "Canadians want to see a productive, hard-working and orderly Parliament."

Van Loan's focus on an "orderly (read obedient) Parliament" and the Conservatives' unprecedented 425-page omnibus budget bill containing 752 clauses and amending 70 statutes -- including almost all Canada's federal environmental laws -- is not just contemptuous of Parliament, but turns it into a false front, a Potemkin Village.

Parliament's long slide from the centre of national political power to a faßade has taken a quantum leap due to another Conservative innovation -- secret parliamentary committees.

Committees are mini-parliaments governed by the same rules as Parliament itself and, like Parliament, are public forums to discuss the public's business in public. There are only two narrow exceptions, to guarantee the safety and privacy of witnesses and protect the public interest.

Under the Harper Conservatives, however, parliamentary committees, like Parliament itself, are mere toys of the party in power, routinely gagged the moment an opposition MP moves a motion.

The gagging of parliamentary committees is reinforced by the current government's perversion of yet another parliamentary tradition -- that what is said behind committee closed doors stays behind closed doors on pain of a MP being held in contempt of Parliament.

A rule designed to protect witnesses and the public interest has been corrupted to protect the image of the party in power by controlling and silencing opposition.

This omnibus budget bill, unprecedented in its scope and coupled with a laughably short window for parliamentary scrutiny by gagged committees, should finally compel the opposition to abandon their internecine warfare and co-operate.

Instead, the NDP is contemplating moving multiple motions to break up the behemoth bill while the Liberals are considering moving multiple amendments.

This could derail Van Loan's passion for an "orderly" Parliament and ruin the prime minister's plans to prorogue Parliament for the summer. But it could also work at cross purposes and collapse.

Instead, to highlight to Canadians the seriousness of this audacious attack on Canadian democracy, the opposition parties could conduct some genuine parliamentary theatre.

They could look to that memorable day in the Manitoba Legislature in November 1996 during the deeply unpopular privatization of the Manitoba Telephone System by Gary Filmon's Progressive Conservative government.

Fuelled by public anger -- two-thirds of Manitobans opposed privatization -- the Opposition New Democrats, led by Gary Doer, were using every procedural tactic in the book to slow down and frustrate the government.

The government concocted an ingenious plan to use Speaker Louise Dacquay, a loyal Progressive Conservative, to do its dirty work.

For several days, the speaker simply ignored the official Opposition and all its questions, points of order and points of privilege. Finally, she effectively invoked closure and used her office to move the government's motions from the Speaker's chair.

No one present in the chamber on that final day of "debate" will ever forget it.

The NDP began by refusing to participate in the recorded vote on one of their own final amendments to the privatization legislation.

Then two NDP MLAs crossed the floor of the chamber to stand in front of the premier's desk in a joint appeal to have their points of order and privilege finally recognized. Their appeal was ignored.

When the final vote was called, only five NDP MLAs -- including Opposition leader Doer, House leader Steve Ashton and Gord Mackintosh, a former deputy clerk of the House -- entered the chamber.

They refused to take their seats and instead stood in a "row of reproach" behind the opposition benches to protest the proceedings with chants of "Shame, shame, shame" as the vote on privatization passed, 30 Conservatives in favour and two Liberals against.

At a time when a near majority of Canadians have turned off politics, using real drama to focus public attention on the debasement of Canada's fundamental democratic institution may be its last hope.

A cautionary note to the federal Conservatives who are three years away from an election. In 1996, the Filmon Conservatives also had three years left in their mandate. They not only lost the 1999 provincial election, they have not regained power since.

Frances Russell is a Winnipeg

author and political commentator.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 16, 2012 A10

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