Friday, April 11, 2008

Assuming Responsibility

In his book, 1867: How the Fathers Made a Deal, Christopher Moore reminded his readers that Canadian parliamentary democracy was based on a fundamental principle which, in the 21st century, strikes many as romantic and quaint: "In the middle of the nineteenth century, responsible government meant that the survival of the prime minister and his cabinet depended, day by day, on the verdict of a vigilant Parliament. Members of Parliament were chosen by, close to, and dependent on (for those times) a broadly based and well informed electorate. Contemplating the results of the election of 1997," Moore wrote, "I found myself wishing we lived under conditions more like these."

He is not alone. Last month, Mr. Justice John Gomery -- the man who was the bane of the Chretien and Martin governments -- turned his guns on the man and the party who roared against Liberal self dealing and obfuscation. Pointing out that, for years, power has been transferred from elected members of Parliament to the unelected advisers in the Prime Minister's Office, Gomery asserted that, instead of reversing this process, the Harperites have accelerated it. "I suggest this trend is a danger to Canadian democracy," he told the government operations committee; and it "leaves the door wide open to the kind of political interference in the day to day administration of government programs that led to what is commonly called the sponsorship scandal. We have a government where one man seems to have an ever increasing influence upon what government policy is going to be. If you look back historically at prime ministers in the past, I don't think they had the same hold over their party and Parliament that the present prime minister has."

The Harper government is notorious for keeping its elected members on a short leash. All government communication is controlled by the PMO; and policy announcements belong to the Prime Minister, not his cabinet. Moreover, whether the policy is Afghanistan or consumer protection, the same PMO routinely sits on information. Increasingly, the only way to pry that information from the government's hands is to apply for it through the Access to Information Act. Former Ontario cabinet minister Sean Conway -- who now teaches at Queens University -- has said, "It is one of the assumptions of a democratic society that its citizens are going to be provided with timely, relevant and understandable information." Mr. Harper and his minions, says Conway, "are doing something quite destructive to one of the key pillars of democratic society."

And the government is not the only body who is acting irresponsibly. Mr. Dion and the Liberal opposition have failed to hold the government's feet to the fire. As Jim Travers wrote in the Toronto Star, "An opposition leader who even temporarily abandons the core responsibility of holding the government to account needs to explain the reasons for directly or indirectly endorsing ruling party policies on war, the economy and climate change." Dion has refused to do this; but his reason is obvious: according to the polls, Canadians don't want an election now.
The result is that government policy becomes law by default.

So, ultimately, the responsibility for our situation rests with us, the electorate. We give the government -- which needs to answer for the vanishing federal surplus, for the hot air behind its environmental policy, and for the "financial considerations" it offered Chuck Cadman if he voted to bring down the previous government -- a pass.

John Kenneth Galbraith -- a man for all seasons -- wrote, "There are times in politics when you must be on the right side and lose." If we understand the concept of responsible government (and insist that it be practiced in all seasons) we will always be on the right side.


Anonymous said...

Another nice piece of writing, Mr O. But isn't your label, Harper"ites", a rather strong one? (troglodytes, termites, parasites,etc. - if you understand my meaning)What are you, a flaming "liberal"? Now there's a nasty label!

Owen Gray said...

You have uncovered my political bias -- but with a picture of John Kenneth Galbraith in the post, I guess my point of reference is pretty obvious. Still, I'd like to think I'm attracted to a set of political ideas rather than a person.

I believe the present government is more loyal to a man than than a governing philosophy. As Caesar said of Cassius, "Such men are dangerous."