Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The birth of a banana republic

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In most parliamentary democracies, the government answers to Parliament. In Canada, Parliament answers to the government.

Many trace Parliament's decline back to 1969, when then-Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau declared MPs became "nobodies" once they were "50 yards from Parliament Hill."

Parliament itself is now the "nobody."

Parliamentary committees do the bulk of parliamentary governance. Away from the partisan clashes of question period and major debates, MPs are expected to work collegially for the public good.

Under Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives, committees have become highly polarized and hyper-partisan. Shockingly for a democracy, they now operate mostly in secret, away from the electorate's prying eyes.

A secret democracy isn't a democracy.

Last week, the Conservative majority on Parliament's standing committee on the status of women not only defeated an opposition motion to hear testimony on the sexual harassment of female members of the RCMP -- a motion new RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson welcomed -- but moved the committee behind closed doors where they voted not to hear further testimony from female members of the force.

Now, RCMP female officers and the wider Canadian public will never know how, or even if, the government MPs provided justification for that action.

A year after the election giving the Conservatives their majority, Canadians are measuring the extent of the slide of their democratic institution into irrelevance. Thanks to the auditor general, they have now learned the cost of the F-35 jets is $10 billion higher than the price the prime minister repeatedly touted on the hustings and that other military purchases have been similarly lowballed.

It's becoming Orwellian. Former industry minister Tony Clement, dubbed the "minister of pork" for his 2010 appropriation of some $40 million in border infrastructure money to spruce up his Parry Sound-Muskoka riding with gazebos, sidewalks and public toilets, is now, as Treasury Board president, the government's point man on eliminating government "waste and mismanagement."

He is also busy cutting the federal public service so deeply it may allow the government to achieve another long-term goal: crippling public-service unions.

Suspicious of scientific discovery and inquiry dating to their Reform party days, the Conservatives recently decreed federal scientists must have government "minders" whenever they talk to the public. These "minders" record the scientists' every word to report back to their political masters in Ottawa.

There isn't one parliamentary precedent or institution safe from this government's situational ethics. Might the National Energy Board take too long to approve -- or worse, actually nix -- the construction of the Northern Gateway Pipeline carrying tarsands bitumen to the Pacific Coast? (Incidentally, it's a pipeline that will cross three mountain ranges and countless rivers and streams, many containing salmon runs, plus pass through the last untouched temperate rainforest on the planet as well as an earthquake zone.) Give the cabinet the right to overturn NEB decisions at will.

Then there's the issue of contempt of Parliament, the prime minister's propensity to shutter Parliament whenever his power and authority is threatened. It happened first in 2008 to avoid the government's parliamentary, and then possibly electoral, defeat. It happened again in 2009, to shut down a parliamentary inquiry into allegations of torture of Afghan detainees.

And who can forget International Development Minister Bev Oda and the mysterious "not" insertion in a Canadian International Development Agency memorandum recommending a $7-million grant to non-denominational religious aid group Kairos in early 2011. Despite a rebuke from then-Commons speaker Peter Milliken, Oda refused to answer questions about who altered the document, arguing it didn't matter.

"It's like we're on CSI or an investigative forensic thing -- who's put the 'not' in," Oda lectured her critics. "I'd like to know what your issue is. What is your issue?"

This year she topped even that. Attending an international conference in London, she charged the taxpayers for an upgrade to the Savoy Hotel, one of the world's priciest, a $3,000 limo and driver and a $16 glass of orange juice. She only paid taxpayers back after sustained public outcry.

Two major polls by Nanos Research and Forum Research have Conservatives and New Democrats statistically tied. Nanos reports Harper's leadership score has dropped 36.6 points to its lowest ever.

Add Canada's dysfunctional first-past-the-post voting system to wholesale adoption of American political tactics including voter suppression, the permanent campaign and continuous attack ads and you have a banana republic in the making.

Young and middle-aged voters have disengaged, Frank Graves of Ekos Research says. That's good news for the government. The median voter age in the 2011 federal election was 60 years -- the core of the Conservative base.

 

Frances Russell is a Winnipeg author and political commentator.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 2, 2012 A10

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