Monday, February 1, 2010

No gold medal in democracy for our prime minister

(This is based on the text of my speech to the Barrie CAPP rally January 23, and published in my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner.)

The funny thing about Prime Minister Steven Harper's prorogation of Parliament is how many reasons he has given for it.

It's a chance to "re-calibrate" -- whatever that means.

It's so we don't get distracted from the Olympics. It's so a shuffled cabinet can bone up on its new portfolios.

It's for this, it's for that. Yet all of these shuffling reasons are just excuses. The real reason is to avoid accountability, especially for the cover-up of mistakes made about Afghanistan.

The government has been putting forward a smoke screen of excuses and accusations. It claimed it didn't know about any abuses - then respected diplomat Richard Colvin said it did.

The government denied he had warned it - he proved he had. It tarred Colvin as a Taliban sympathizer, a terrorist dupe - then he proved that other countries' officials were telling their own governments and ours the same thing as he was.

We learned the Red Cross had sent warnings as early as 2006. That Lawyers Against War had provided legal briefs to all MPs back in February 2004. The signs had all been there, the lies were running out, the truth was in danger of being revealed.

So Harper pulled the plug. The House has been prorogued, MPs sent home. Peter Tinsley, chair of the Military Police Complaints Commission, has been dropped from his job before he can finish. His desk sits empty.

We saw the same with the RCMP. Paul Kennedy, chair of the commission for public complaints, documented a number of serious problems. He too was dropped, with no permanent replacement expected anytime soon. We have lacked a permanent information commissioner since June - a role critical to transparency and accountability.

Canada plays a key role on the world stage as peacekeeper and rescuer. Countries like Afghanistan and Haiti need to trust us, and know that we play by the rules.

Nobody expects us to be perfect. But what Canadians need to know, and what other countries need to see, is that when we screw up, we 'fess up.

Yet that's something that our government isn't too good at. Oh, it can screw up - it can screw up with the best of 'em. But it doesn't know how to 'fess up. Instead, it covers up. And that's not transparency, that's not accountability, that's not democracy. That's not why we elect our MPs.

This is no partisan matter. It appears that Canada may have failed to live up to its obligations under the Geneva Convention and other human rights treaties going back as far as 2002. If any party is at fault, it was the Liberals as much as the Conservatives. But by covering this up, the Conservatives have drawn the blame to themselves.

And this isn't the fault of our troops. They do us proud, and do what we tell them. If we give them bad orders, it's not their fault. But when the going gets tough, they stay in the fight. They don't pack up and go home just because it's stressful, it's inconvenient, it's a hassle.

So how come Harper can just cut and run? This is not a drill.

We elect MPs to make wise decisions, to keep a close eye on our government, our bureaucracy, our military. But right now they're not. They must get back to work.

As our MPs kick back to watch the Olympics in paid comfort - on their home theatre, by satellite at the local sports bar, or from front row seats in Vancouver - keep one thing in mind: Democracy is not a spectator sport.

Be involved.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a teacher, father, volunteer, and politician.

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