Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Some (More) Musings on Canadian Democracy



Let me get on my soap box so you can see me better.  I ask that you hold your questions until the end… I can’t promise to answer all your questions or comments but I can assure that I will read them and consider them…

Friends and neighbours, I’d like to speak for a bit on a subject very dear to me, a subject I feel is very important to all of us, the subject of Democracy.

Now I don’t plan on going into a long winded explanation of how we got Democracy from the Greeks or how it was used throughout the ages, I’m just going to touch upon Canadian Democracy.

Our Democracy.

I came across an item while I was looking for something else about how Members of Parliament, prior to the Second World War, were required to  surrender their seat in the House of Commons and run in a by-election if they were deemed worthy to be a member of Cabinet.

This intrigued me.  Imagine, after winning an election the newly minted Prime Minister comes to you and says “I’d like you to be my Minister of …” and then you’d have to decide whether you wanted to be in Cabinet. 

Today it would be a no brainer, a pay raise, a larger staff, a title, it all sounds good doesn’t it?  But back then you’d have to decide if you wanted the headaches and hassle of running again for the seat that you had just won, and the risk that you might lose.

Why would they do such a thing? 

It was tradition, it was the convention, it was done that way because that was the way it was done.

But this wasn’t some strange idea that Canadians dreamed up to complicate running a Country, it was in fact part of the Westminster Parliamentary system.  This was and is the system we inherited from Britain when we became a Country in our own right.

At that time, the Parties didn’t have as much control over the individual or Private Members of the House of Commons.  An MP’s job was to represent their constituency and to hold the Government to account.   The Government being the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. 

Now if you’ve ever watched Question Period from the House in London, you may have seen vestiges of this.  Occasionally a Member from the Government Side of the House will rise to ask a pointed question about policy or a proposed law which would not be a good thing for their home constituency.  As a Private Member, you have the ability to challenge the Government, as a Member of Cabinet, you do not.

You see as a Minister you are required to support any policy or legislation that the Government brings forward even if you think it is a bad idea, even if it is bad for your constituency.

So there was merit in having these by elections back then.  If the people supported Bob Brown because they thought he would do a good job of representing them even if he belonged to the wrong party, the people could toss Bob out and elect someone else if they didn’t like the Party he was affiliated with, the Government he would be representing.

But things certainly have changed.  At least here they have.

It certainly is a rare event to hear an MP stand up to his or her own Party.  It’s political suicide.  At best you’d likely lose any status you have built up with the Party and be a back bencher for life, and at worst you might have your seat taken away and a new candidate parachuted in to replace you.  Today you cannot run for the Party of your choice unless the leader of the Party signs your nomination papers so it is best to keep the leader happy if you want to be an MP.

So whatever happened to this odd rule?  Well after a number of minority governments in the 1920s, it just disappeared in the 1930s.

You see this wasn’t a law that you had to run in a by-election, it wasn’t even a real rule.  It was merely a convention, like saying “Thank you” or “You’re welcome”, you don’t Have to say these things, but we generally do anyway… it’s the way things are done. 

Many of the “rules” we have in our Parliamentary system are just conventions.  It’s part of the way our Democracy works.

Have you ever wondered why when the Speaker of the House is selected, they are escorted to the Speaker’s Chair by the leaders of the Government and the Opposition?  Have you ever wondered why they pretend they don’t want the job?

It’s part of the same thing.  Traditionally the Speaker was chosen from the Opposition side to weaken the Opposition and to show that the Speaker holds no favouritism to the Government.  The Speaker also surrenders their ability to speak for their constituents in the House.

The use of the prorogue is another example.  Traditionally the prorogue was used by the Government to show that they have met the goals they set out in the Throne Speech and to provide a break with which to draw up a new set of goals and a new Throne Speech.  Often a prorogue would be called when there is a normal break scheduled for the Legislature.  This would give the Government plenty of time to set a new agenda, but there are also examples of short breaks as well, such as a prorogue in Ontario’s Provincial Parliament that lasted only a few hours.

It’s kind of handy for historians too.  A prorogue can break up a Parliament into Sessions, so if you are looking for a specific item, you wouldn’t have 4 or 5 years worth of information to go through, but only 2 or 3.  You could look for the 42nd Parliament, 2nd Session for example.

However, the prorogue has also been abused, used as a “get out of trouble card” if a Government is having a bad go of it.

Jean Chr├ętien prorogued Parliament during the Sponsorship Scandal, but he was on his way out as Liberal leader and Paul Martin could very well have used the same tool to set his agenda as he was coming in to replace Chr├ętien.

Stephen Harper has also used the prorogue to get out of trouble twice so far.  Once when the opposition parties were lining up to bring down his minority government and then again when the Afghan detainee situation was threatening to boil over.  Lately Harper has said he will prorogue again this summer, he claims it is so he can set a new agenda but the Senate Scandal that is knocking at his door suggests other motives are at play.

Listen, as a people we have seen some great changes in our electoral system.  We have gone from a show of hands at a local beer hall to the secret ballot.  We have gone from a time when only men of wealth or property were the only ones who could vote to a time where virtually all citizens have the right to vote and there are not a lot of places that can say that.

But, while our electoral system has been improved, our governance has gone the other way.  Our individual MPs , our voices in the House are for the most part muzzled.  If you want to be more than a backbencher for your political career  you pretty much have to toe the Party line and that rings true for pretty much all the parties, but even more so for some.

I would love to see at least one backbencher on the Harper side of the House stand up and say "No" to limiting debate, to say "No" to omnibus legislation.

We need our MPs to have voices again and not just parrot the party line regardless which party is handing out the talking points.

So how do we do this?  I don’t know.

I don’t even know If we can do this. 

We have seen the gradual diminishment of the MP to the point where they are little more than place markers in the House of Commons.  After we find out how many seats each party won, we don’t need ‘em any more.

The power in Ottawa appears to be getting so concentrated that we may not even need a Cabinet any more other than to reward good MPs for reading their talking points and not being an embarrassment to the Government.  It seems all they do is read their talking points anyways, and that includes the Cabinet Ministers.

Short of pointy sticks or cattle prods, how do we remind our MPs that we sent them to Ottawa to represent us and not to just send us periodic reports on what a wonderful job their leader is (or would be) doing.

Maybe we should go back through the long forgotten conventions of our Parliamentary system and make them use them again, in the ways they are supposed to be used?  Maybe 39 by-elections for Cabinet appointments would make people wonder what the devil is going on in Ottawa?

So endeth the Rant for Today,

I appreciate your time.

Cheers! BC

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Is Canadian Democracy Just School Yard Stuff?



I thought the Boss said we were some kind of a beacon of Democracy or something to that effect?

Dear Steve Harper:

Many of us thought that the hallmarks of Democracy were openness and transparency, but you’ve shown us how silly we are Steve, committees disappearing behind closed doors for in camera meetings, omnibus bills that have grown so large that we really only need to have you folk in Ottawa for a couple of weeks to vote on it then take the rest of the session off.

Does that sound familiar?  It should, it’s pretty much what you had to say after a Liberal omnibus bill a few years ago.  It seems you want everyone else to be transparent but not when it comes to government.  Or at least Your government…

Every time people try to find out what’s going on with Canada there are brick walls thrown up in their faces.  The treatment of detainees in Afghanistan, the cost of the F 35 jets that may or may not ever come to fruition, the list goes on, and on, and on…

Certainly not open or transparent by any stretch of the imagination.

But I guess the real irony is when you send your MPs to far off places to ensure they have open and fair elections, but when someone takes your people to task over Robocalls and voter suppression, well they clam up, drag their feet, and generally make asses of themselves.

From what I gather, no one in the Party speaks without clearance from the PMO.  Funny thing, we don’t get to vote on who is in the PMO do we?

And no one gets to ask questions without clearance from the PMO either?

It certainly looks like that.  You can correct me if I’m mistaken, but I heard that the Press Pool decided to give up one of their valued questions to a foreign correspondent from China, a fellow named Li Xue Jiang.  When Mr. Li stepped up to ask his question, your staff pulled the microphone away from him and when he had the temerity to try and grab the microphone back he was promptly wrestled away by four of your security detail. 

Thoughtfully, the Globe and Mail has the video here.

Way to show those commies how the leader of an open and democratic society handles inconvenient questions.  That’s sarcasm; I know it doesn’t always carry well in writing.

You want us to believe that you are in the “big leagues” internationally, but you’re not.  This is just school yard stuff being played out by someone who should know better.  Don’t like the question?  Don’t let the Chinese guy ask it.  (And have your minions drag him away) Too hot in Ottawa?  Just yell “Prorogue”!  That’s the parliamentary equivalent of picking up the ball and running away isn’t it?

We’re used to it here.  We’ve seen how you have acted for the last seven years.  Now you’ve gone and shown the world your management skills. 

By the way Steve, yelling “Prorogue” from Whitehorse, in the middle of the summer break is pretty much like yelling “I’m telling my mom” and running away.

School yard stuff, and the saddest part is how many people don’t care.

Laters, BC

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Rainbows for Sochi!



There have been a lot of things said about the upcoming Olympics scheduled for Sochi, Russia next year.

Because of the current stance that the Russian government has been taking on the rights of members of the LGBT communities there are a growing number of voices calling for the Sochi Olympics to be moved or boycotted. 

I agree a message needs to be sent to the Russians about this. 

But can we send a message and how should it be sent is where the difficulty arises.  Many are calling for the Olympics to be moved to another location, Vancouver being mentioned a lot of the time, but there is a problem here.  Even though much of the infrastructure for the Olympics still exists in Vancouver, I don’t know if there would be enough time available to make it happen.

Hosting an Olympic Games is a huge undertaking and takes years to set up and there are only 6 months until the scheduled start of the next Games.   And then there would be the incredible amount of jumping through hoops to get the Olympic Committee on side as well.  I just can’t see it happening.

The other alternative is to boycott the Games.  I can’t support that.

We’ve already seen Olympic boycotts and they really didn’t do a thing anyhow.  The only ones who really lose in a boycott are the athletes.  Imagine training all your life and at the peak of your career being told you can’t compete…

Then a thought occurred to me, a simple thing, a simple message that we could send to the people of Russia and their government.

A visual protest.

One of the images that has lasted from Olympics past is that of two athletes with their heads bowed and a fist raised in a Black Power salute.  Although these two had competed for the US and had medalled, they still made their silent protest over the treatment of Blacks in the US.

My thought for the upcoming Games in Sochi is to provide any and all athletes who want to wear them with rainbow coloured mittens.

The Rainbow Flag is well known throughout the world, there is little chance that the message would not be understood. 

Think about it, what would the message of thousands of athletes, waving rainbow mittened hands at the crowd as they enter the Olympic Stadium be?  A very polite finger for Mr. Putin, I think.

Or maybe three medalists, standing on the podium, waving their Rainbow Mitts at the world?

Look, I don’t want to step on any toes as I know there is a great deal of effort being put into protesting the Sochi Olympics by some rather important people.  I’m just putting out an idea that if their plans don’t work out, here’s a simple option.

It would simply be a sign of support to our friends around the world who are part of the LGBT community, especially those in Russia who probably could use it.

Now if some enterprising athletes manage to sneak in a huge Rainbow Flag for the Closing Ceremonies that would be something!

The Olympics of Mexico City are remembered for those two raised fists, wouldn’t it be ironic if the Sochi Olympics were remembered for open hands with rainbows on them?

Cheers! BC

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Comment of the Huff Post 01/08/2013

From Bill C-7
3. If a province or territory has enacted legislation that is substantially in accordance with the framework set out in the schedule, the Prime Minister, in recommending Senate nominees to the Governor General, must consider names from the most current list of Senate nominees selected for that province or territory.

Spot the weasel words. The Prime Minister...must consider names...

Not "shall use" merely consider. In English, if you submit your name as a candidate and you "win" the Senate election, you are not guaranteed a seat in the Senate. You are only to be considered for the position.

Even better, if only 6 people run for a Senate spot, and that province ends up needing 6 Senators, the one who came in dead last gets a Senate seat. Or at least gets considered for the Senate.

Single term? You can be the best Senator the country has ever seen or the most incompetent Senator and you still are only allowed one term. Where is the accountability here? The threat of being replaced is how we keep our other elected people accountable, no threats no accountability.

Pensions? After 9 years each of these Senators will be able to draw their pension, 27% of their best 6 years earnings in the Senate. Every 9 years we will have 105 ex Senators drawing over $35,000.00 in pensions.

Senator Jacques Demers has been in the Senate for almost 4 years now. He says that he is still learning how things are done in the Senate. Does it seem sensible to get rid of Senators when they are just getting a good handle on how to do their job?

The Senate may need to be looked at, but there is no one in Ottawa, no Senator, no MP and certainly not Stephen Harper able to do the job properly. Each and every one of them has an agenda and anything that they put forward will be to their party's advantage. This needs to be handled by outsiders with no political bias. Good luck with that.

Got a problem with the Senate? Lots of people do. But do you trust the man who has put half of the people in the Senate to fix it and fix it right? After all, he's the same guy that thought Mike Duffy would be a good Senator.

Final thought: This is the Constitution we're talking about. This is THE law that all others are measured against to determine if they are good laws to be kept or bad laws that need to be struck down. The reason the Constitution is difficult to amend is to prevent a popular government (by that I only mean a majority government) from changing the rules to suit their needs...

Consider this, some countries make their elected officials swear an oath to protect their Constitution, in Canada we do not. If we allow the government, any government to alter and amend or just remove sections of our Constitution, we don't have a Constitution any more. It would be just another law, subject to change by any government that comes to power down the road. No government deserves that kind of power.