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Repeating a sorry legacy

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Helen Forsey, daughter of Canada's pre-eminent parliamentary scholar, the late senator Eugene Forsey, sees a parallel between the Harper Conservatives' 450-page omnibus budget bill and the St. Laurent Liberals' conduct during the infamous 1956 pipeline debate. Both demonstrated the government's scorn for Parliament -- the foundation of our democracy.

"The art of parliamentary bullying has recently reached new heights," she writes in her new book, Eugene Forsey - Canada's Maverick Sage. "Outrageous behaviour has increasingly become the norm, with Parliament being treated as a mere showcase, parliamentary debate as window-dressing."

Harper demonstrates his contempt for Parliament and democracy in his systematic sabotage of the work of all-party committees, use of orders-in-council to circumvent laws and implementation of far-reaching measures without bringing them before the House of Commons, she says.

She quotes from an article her father wrote for Forum Magazine after the St. Laurent Liberals rammed the Trans Canada Pipeline bill through Parliament in 1956 using tactics that included turning the parliamentary clock back a full day.

"The government tore up the rules, turned the Speaker into a parliamentary hack and made a mockery of parliamentary government, all at the behest of a few American millionaires. To Mr. St. Laurent... parliamentary democracy means simply voting and getting a majority."

Today's Conservatives apparently have forgotten the St. Laurent Liberals were defeated in the 1957 federal election. Sen. Forsey's condemnation applies equally to last week's three-day parliamentary battle of attrition created by the Conservatives' decision to wrap all their contentious legislation into one massive omnibus bill, shutter committee debate and ramrod it through Parliament by brute force.

This is only the latest attack on parliamentary democracy waged by a government that routinely displays disdain for the opposition, disrespect for Parliament and disregard for all Canadians outside its narrow ideological base.

The prorogation outrages of 2008 and 2009 are prominent in Canada's Maverick Sage. "Pervasive constitutional illiteracy was a major factor in enabling Stephen Harper's minority government to carry on with its continuing abuse of our parliamentary system, particularly flagrant in the prorogation fiascos," Ms. Forsey writes. "If the press and the public had understood the basic principles of our Constitution, the Harper government could never have gotten away with that shocking betrayal of parliamentary democracy."

The 2008 prorogation granted by then-Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean allowed the Conservative government to avoid parliamentary defeat when the Liberals and New Democrats formed a coalition that, with the support of the Bloc Québécois, commanded a clear parliamentary majority.

The Conservatives deliberately created a firestorm in the country by railing against the "illegitimacy" of what they falsely called the "coalition of separatists and socialists," although they were aware they were completely misrepresenting the normal workings of parliamentary democracy.

Sen. Forsey wrote the Library of Parliament's handbook How Canadians Govern Themselves. It is a testament to how far Parliament has fallen from the principles of British parliamentary democracy. "Parliamentary cabinet government is both responsible and responsive," the handbook says. "If the House of Commons votes want of confidence in a Cabinet, that Cabinet must step down and make way for a new government... or call an election right away so the people can decide."

How far Canada's Parliament has strayed! Here's Sen. Forsey again: "It is not the business of the Governor General to decide who should form the government. It is the business of the... House of Commons... (The Governor General) would have to say: Prime Minister, responsible cabinet government means government by a cabinet with a majority in the House of Commons. No one knows whether you have such a majority. The only way to find out is by summoning Parliament and letting it vote... It is not for me to decide who shall form government; it is for the House of Commons."

He called Parliament the "Ark of the Covenant of the Canadian tradition," the ultimate authority, second only to the electorate it represents.

Sadly, this can no longer be said of Canada's Parliament. Now, it is the Prime Minister's Office that is the nation's ultimate authority. Parliament is his rubber stamp.

Frances Russell is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 20, 2012 A11

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