Muted Voices

Holding governments accountable is getting a whole lot harder

I teach hundreds of students about Canadian government and politics every year. They are young and bright, and when I ask for a show of hands from those who might one day consider running for election, there is always an eager handful. One of the best parts of my job is to encourage them toward public service, to think about their families, neighbours, their hometowns and provinces, and what they can do to help keep Canada great. But when we get to the part of the course where we discuss the role of Parliament, the ability of members of Parliament to hold government accountable and the power that party leaders—especially the prime minister—have over their caucuses and the policy agenda, I see disappointment. The YouTube video of Paul Calandra’s embarrassing response in Question Period to NDP leader Thomas Mulcair’s pointed question on Canada’s decision to become reinvolved in Iraq horrified them. The small number of students who originally wanted to set off for Ottawa diminishes by the end of the term. I cannot blame them; the role of an MP is just not what it used to be.

Brent Rathgeber’s Irresponsible Government: The Decline of Parliamentary Democracy in Canada is another addition to a series of excellent analyses of the sorry state of parliamentary politics in Canada. His tale as an MP in the Conservative government confirms what other journalists (Lawrence Martin, Michael Harris), academics (Tom Flanagan, David Smith) and MPs themselves (through exit interviews conducted by Samara) have been noting for years: members of Parliament are disempowered, disenchanted and hamstrung to do anything that even resembles their role in a system of responsible government. Because of his frustration with the impotence of Parliament in general, and as a Conservative caucus member in particular, last year Rathgeber made the courageous decision to leave the Conservative caucus and sit as an independent. The result of doing so means his career as a federal MP will likely not extend beyond the 2015 general election.

While Rathgeber insists he left the Conservatives for a variety of reasons, a critical episode was the deliberate hollowing out of his own private member’s bill by his own Conservative colleagues. Rathgeber’s legislation demanded the disclosure of federal public sector salaries over $100,000. It was a quintessentially conservative bill; the provincial government in Ontario has followed a similar sunshine law for almost 20 years. The Harper government decided $444,000 was a more appropriate limit and, through amendments, Conservative members of the Standing Committee on Ethics, Access to Information and Privacy ensured that Rathgeber’s bill reflected the will of the centre. While protesting to the contrary, it is clear that this experience left a deep wound and drives much of the author’s fury within these pages.

Rathgeber’s book begins typically for someone who is a true conservative. Fervent in his belief that less government is better government, he embarks on a lecture-style rant on the requirement of governments to live within their means, to constrain “bureaucratic social engineers,” and to reduce the burden of taxation on Canadians. The tirade sets up his thesis: Rathgeber is a guardian of the public purse, but perversion within the system prevents him from effectively fulfilling this role. A reader could, in fact, come to the early conclusion that Canadian taxpayers are Rathgeber’s only concern. He notes (incorrectly) that “every four years or so, the taxpayers elect a group of peers to represent them at the respective levels of government.” That sentence is enough to make any student of democracy cringe. Taxpayers do not elect representatives; citizens have that role, and not every citizen is a taxpayer. But privileging those Canadians who do pay the bulk of taxes comes honestly to Rathgeber, since his chief concern is the inability of MPs to keep government spending in check since the political executive does not want, or need, to listen to Parliament.

The argument that MPs cannot effectively hold the government to account for its decisions is usually one we hear from the perspective of the opposition parties, and this is where Rathgeber’s book is unique: he reminds his readers of the clear distinction between the government (that is, the prime minister and Cabinet) and the MPs who are not the government (everyone else in Parliament). This, of course, includes backbench Conservative MPs. Their role, like that of the opposition MPs, is to check the government: to question the PM and Cabinet on their decisions, to demand information and to ensure that legislation is meaningfully debated, amended and approved by Parliament. Rathgeber’s sharpest criticism is aimed at his former Conservative MP colleagues who see themselves as part of the government and thus unwilling to act as any kind of safeguard. He concedes that Conservative MPs can certainly support the government, but that support should not come at the price of giving up their duty to be on guard on behalf of Canadians.

Rathgeber details the elaborate system of incentives and penalties available to the party leader to promote or demote MPs who behave in particular ways. His account reaffirms the picture of a school bully with a few scary buddies who ably terrify their classmates—a perpetual replay, if you will, of most of our experiences in grades four and five. Rathgeber’s remedies to the problem are mostly oriented toward process, which, for many readers, may seem terribly unglamorous (as expected, the author also advocates for an elected senate, citizen initiatives, representative recall and electoral reform). Sometimes the process arguments are the critical ones. What kind of behavioural change could we foresee if chairs of parliamentary committees were elected and that position also came with security of tenure for the duration of the Parliament? What if committee members were also permanent? What if the Speaker alone decided on whether time allocation or closure on debates could be invoked? What if omnibus bills were disallowed? Parliament could be the beneficiary of these subtle but important shifts in the process.

Rathgeber peppers his book with insightful experiences, anecdotes and examples of MPs following the directives of staffers in the Prime Minister’s Office in order to increase their chances of receiving plum appointments, such as reading scripted questions, voting in favour of inappropriate time allocations, taking down or heavily editing personal blogs, and gutting bills in committee that the government does not favour. He is appalled by what he witnessed and, in some instances, by his own minion-like behaviour as a Conservative MP. Caucuses are not entirely weak, however, and Rathgeber does not draw much attention to caucuses that did rise up and say enough to their leaders, such as what happened to Stockwell Day in 2001, Jean Chrétien in 2002, British Columbia’s Premier Gordon Campbell in 2010, Alberta’s Premier Alison Redford in early 2014 and Manitoba’s Greg Selinger today. But if we are to compile the growing number of books on the power of first ministers, these are obvious exceptions to the rule.

Rathgeber’s insider account is a reminder that something must soon give if citizens are to have confidence that the Parliament they elect will do its job. Perhaps my job is to convince young students that politics can be done differently if there are enough of them who want change. This will certainly involve removing the YouTube video of Paul Calandra from the course outline.