Government Reform or Legislative Remedies? That's Canada eh?

Our editor Phil Saunders argues that recent attempts at accountability in Canadian government prove that if parties in power are allowed to perpetuate themselves,  positive change will never happen. As a result, the electorate will continue to be disengaged and angry. If this is the case, he says, we should brace ourselves for rioting and an increased police state system . . .


Government run amok: NEXT!

Written by: Phil Saunders
Published: February 10, 2014 11:07:51 AM EST

Canada, eh?

It's been a week of attempts at accountability while governments in Canada continue to make things worse, not better, for the people they are charged with representing and supporting as elected officials.

First, the Federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, son of the late Pierre, one of the most loved and hated politicians in Canadian history, made the unprecedented decision to completely release his Senators (normally appointed by the government of the day) from political affiliation.

For those unfamiliar with the Canadian parliamentary system, I can try to simplify things a bit. Similar to the House of Lords in the United Kingdom, the Senate is a non-elected body. The idea at its inception was to use the chamber for sober second thought on proposed legislation, while also representing those parts of the country that by virtue of low populations are effectively limited from having elected power. In this way, the Senate works similar to the US version in that it is invited to debate and discuss legislation as it proceeds through the process of becoming law.

The trouble is that over the years, new governments have been hamstrung by previous governments' political appointments to the Senate. Currently, the Conservative government has been frustrated up by Senators named by the previous Liberal government. Another issue is that new parties can't get any traction in the Senate, so Canada's current opposition party, for example, is basically hamstrung as no Senators are affiliated with the New Democratic Party.  The NDP -- Canada's socialist party -- is mostly responsible for introducing universal healthcare, multiculturalism and bilingualism and a number of other policies for which Trudeau's Liberals have since taken credit. Since the NDP has never fully held national political power, only sharing it with the Liberals under Trudeau, it has never been in a position to appoint Senators.

The Conservative leader, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has a long history of wanting to reform the Senate Chamber (affectionately called the Red Chamber for the colour of the furniture). He first rose to prominence as a political thinker as part of a Western movement that called for a triple-e Senate... Equal, Elected and Effective.  The New Democrats want it abolished completely. The Conservatives want it elected, equal and effective (in that order).

Both positions are non-starters because changing the constellation of the Chamber would require a constitutional amendment. Canada, whose French province (Quebec) has yet to approve its role in the constitution, would also need two thirds approval of all of its provinces, each of which has its own complex parliamentary political cultures. For an example of what can go wrong, The Meech Lake Accord, aimed at bringing Quebec into the constitution, failed when Member of Provincial Parliament Elijah Harper stood fast against it, saying that it would compromise Aboriginal rights within the constitution.

So the decision by Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau to allow his party's Senators to vote as independents is remarkable, especially considering the optics of his being the son of Pierre, whose role in reforming Canada's governing system, in particular by entrenching the now famous Charter of Rights and Freedoms, is undeniable.

Prime Minister Harper himself has been embroiled in his own controversy over the Red Chamber. A number of Conservative Senators have been accused of misappropriation of funds through misfiled expense claims.  Two of those Senators, Patrick Brazeau, already suspended from the chamber, and Mac Harb, who retired when questions came to light about his expenses, have now been charged with Fraud and Breech of Trust. The other two famously embroiled Senators, both journalists -- Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin, have been kicked out of the Chamber, both vociferously claiming that they were only following pre-ordained guidelines.

So now, in the wake of an attenuated controversy heading into its first year anniversary, the NDP are saying they want the Chamber abolished, the Conservatives say make it elected and ironically, the only doable solution is the one posited by the third party Liberals, which is to free the Senators from party affiliation altogether. This, to me, is a masterstroke. It resolves the constitutional impasse, eliminating the fundamental problem of partisanship, a problem not exclusive to the Canadian system. I refer here to the US government shutdown by Republicans and their Tea Party political base. It means that in theory Senators will no longer be exposed to undue party pressure when reviewing legislation. It seems reasonable.

On the other side of the country is another Liberal party, in the province of British Colombia, with Premier Christy Clark. She won the leadership after disgraced Premier Gordon Campbell was forced to step aside. after a move to impose a Harmonized Sales Tax to help reduce the provincial deficit largely created by the Winter Olympics. Now his former party is embroiled in a major legal battle itself. In 2002 the BC Teacher's Federation, the union representing the province's public school teachers, had filed a complaint against the government saying it breached the country's labour laws while attempting to force the teachers to go on strike, knowing that doing so would undermine public confidence in the union's position.

Last week, after a long and probably expensive legal battle, which included an appeal, the province was found guilty of violating Canadian Labour Law and fined  $2 million. The current predicament is now the potential for the union to file grievances against the province, estimated to cost between $200 and $500 million, for retroactive labour violations, since the contract the province forced on the teachers is now effectively null and void.

The premier and her minister of education were faced with a decision: Proceed to appealing the decision and further delay any action from the teachers, or accept the now twice-decided verdict that they broke the law and must suffer the consequences. Some background is probably in order here. The current Premier Clark was the education minister when this violation occurred. The province and the union are now about to enter a new round of negotiations, and the province will clearly be bargaining from a position of weakness. And now, the education minister, presumably in concert with Premier Clark, has decided to pursue another appeal, potentially demanding that the province be allowed to violate the constitution. This is not unlike the situation in Quebec, where the language legislation strips the residents of the right to use the English language and more recently, display any religious affiliation while under what Justin's dad Pierre called the legislative remedy that renders the Charter of Rights and Freedoms null and void -- the Notwithstanding Clause.

These examples show a clear common thread; our political leaders are not always making decisions that are in the best interests of the public that elected them. Political activity is mostly coloured by personal bias, not public interest. Why would two parties who effectively hold the balance of power in Canada, argue that sending the country into a constitutional battle is better than essentially reforming a chamber through normal party policy? Why, in BC, would a decision be made to enter a third appeal on a policy decision that was clearly shown to be illegal twice?  It is a dangerous and potentially costly precedent to set and one that smacks of political expediency rather than public good.

In all three instances (NDP, Conservative and BC Liberal), our elected officials are exposing the public to increased costs and misuse of public dollars for personal and political benefit. Fixed election dates means that there is nothing the electorate can do until the next election, more than three years away in BC (May 2017) and nearly two years away federally (Oct. 19, 2015).

The negative effect is two-fold. The electorate feel powerless and remove themselves from the political process, creating a massive unengaged class of people who don't care and fundamentally don't trust the political system to work in their best interest. The extreme fallout of this can be witnessed by the recent actions of the Idlenomore movement, or the Occupy Movement across the U.S. and Canada. We can argue also that the WTO protests of the nineties were in part fueled by this same kind of discontent.

All in all, I'm arguing for another form of government. If the two Canadian parties want to revisit the constitution, I say have at it. Let's completely remodel our system. It's time. Let's move to a proportional system, let's completely overhaul our bloated government system and put the power back into the hands of political parties and provide avenues for independent thought at the highest political offices of our country. Democracy needs an overhaul and so does the incestuous government system controlled by bureaucrats and a civil service that is even more self-serving than their political masters. The time is now. NEXT!

What say you?