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It was the classic curse of the commentator. No sooner was Monday’s oeuvre published, commending Justin Trudeau for ditching wedge politics, than word started to leak about a Liberal plan to effectively neuter Parliament for 21 months.
The draft bill that magically found its way into the hands of reporters, after the government shared it with the opposition, was sweeping in discretion and duration. It allowed the finance minister to tax, spend and borrow with impunity, but without parliamentary approval, until the end of next year.
The furor was immediate. Scott Reid, the Ontario Conservative MP, said the bill was so outlandish it provoked spontaneous outrage in every opposition MP who read it. “I think the key offense is the ridiculously long time-line. Extreme measures may be warranted in the short-run. But the de facto suspension of our system of government for nearly two years is way, way too much,” he said in an email.
Like Captain Renault entering Rick’s Café in Casablanca to discover illicit gambling, Liberals pronounced themselves shocked, shocked that anyone could suggest they were taking advantage of a crisis for partisan gain. One senior Liberal said the government needs flexibility to increase benefits or cut taxes without returning for parliamentary approval, although even he conceded a 21-month period with no spending oversight was probably excessive.
The hue and cry prompted the government to rethink, with Trudeau saying that the taxation clause would be removed.
“We’ve been in discussion with the opposition parties to find a way to both get flexibility to be able to get measures out the door and keep in place our democratic institutions and values,” he told reporters.
But the discretionary power of the finance minister to spend “all money required” during a health emergency, not to mention the leeway to borrow any amount of money were not removed, prompting Conservative leader Andrew Scheer to issue a statement saying several aspects of the legislation were still undemocratic.
The House was adjourned for most of the afternoon, with the bill left in limbo.
As the nation grinds to a halt it is reassuring that there is one place where it is business as usual – a bickering House of Commons.
The de facto suspension of our system of government for nearly two years is way, way too much
But the Opposition has a point. There was already unanimous agreement to pass the legislation to get much needed funds to people who have been left with no income by COVID-19. If more money is required, the House can be recalled within 48 hours.
The Parliamentary Budget Officer Yves Giroux appeared to agree, saying that draft legislation “seeks to circumvent Parliament”.
Conservatives said they had negotiated in good faith to expedite the COVID relief measures announced last week. “We had been assured over and over – no surprises,” said one senior member of Scheer’s staff. “Then we got the bill which was full of surprises. Taxes increased by the signature of the minister. Unlimited spending authority for more than a year, in a minority. No opposition party could agree to it. They blew it and blew it massively.”
Why then did the Liberals feel the need to risk the unanimous support it had already been guaranteed? Probably because politicians are by nature opportunistic, impatient and contemptuous of their opponents.
In 2008, Stephen Harper used the financial crisis as cover to attempt to remove the per-voter subsidy for political parties. It nearly cost him his government.
The Liberals have been no better.
The Trudeau government was first elected, in part, on a promise to “make Parliament relevant again”. In practice, this has meant a policy of executive unilateralism that has sought to run roughshod over the opposition.
In May 2016, Trudeau was accused of manhandling the late Conservative whip, Gord Brown, and elbowing NDP MP, Ruth Ellen Brosseau, in frustration at opposition tactics to slow the Liberal legislative agenda. The immediate casus belli was a government motion that would have imposed its will on procedure in the House, in Scheer’s words “unilaterally disarming” the opposition parties.
A year later, the Liberals again tried to change the way the House operates – ending Friday sittings and restricting the ability of the opposition to block bills. The opposition parties responded by exhibiting their capacity to obstruct, even in a majority parliament. A five-day filibuster forced a rethink in the Government House Leader’s office.
As former British prime minister Henry Pelham noted, the House of Commons is “a great unwieldy body that requires great art and some cordials to keep it loyal”. It is never a good idea to unite all your opponents against you at once.
Ian Brodie, Harper’s first chief of staff, is now back in Ottawa advising Scheer. He knows better than most the limits of power in Canadian democracy, since he wrote an excellent book on the subject, At the Centre of Government.
Politicians are by nature opportunistic, impatient and contemptuous of their opponents
“If Parliament is truly dead, a majority government will simply ram through its legislation,” he said. Yet by his calculation, governments in the past 20 years have only received Royal Assent on 60 per cent of the legislation introduced in the House of Commons (excluding appropriation bills that always pass).
“Parliament seems to be alive,” he concluded.
Both the Harper majority and the Trudeau majority passed around 77 per cent of their legislation. But Harper’s minority governments saw just 46 per cent of bills passed.
The opposition parties have already flexed their muscles in this minority parliament, combining to defeat the government to create a new committee on Canada and China, and to award themselves new days when they control the parliamentary agenda.
Could it be that the Liberals saw in the current health crisis the means of saving themselves the exasperation of having to horse-trade with their opponents?
Was it as simple as them not being able to resist the temptation to bypass the country’s principal democratic institution, which they appear to see as little more than an inconvenience?
Few better explanations present themselves.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020