Update: The Barrie Examiner yesterday ran an editorial agreeing with the main point of my column: that the Harper government is closing debate too often.
On Remembrance Day as we show our respect for our veterans, we owe it to them to reflect upon what they won for us, and what they defeated.
Ceremonial speeches from high officials (a big "thank you" to MP Brown for providing today a perfect and timely example of what I mean) remind us our vets fought and died for freedom and democracy, opposing the spread of single-party fascist state corporatism. Our cherished democratic freedoms include free speech, exemplified in the famous dictum “I may not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” Unlike our enemies, we are free to vote for any political choice, and diverse parties represent Canadians in our Parliament.
Unfortunately, our current government denigrates these ideals. Our parliamentary system gives majority government the right to outvote the opposition, but only after each motion has been properly discussed and debated. The Loyal Opposition, actually representing the majority of Canadian voters, can’t stop the government agenda or mandate. Their duty is to examine it, in the hopes of improving legislation being passed. Sadly, even this is becoming less possible.
The governing party can ask the Speaker to limit debate on urgent issues, to act in a timely manner. Debates were only limited 10 times in the 43 years between 1913 and 1956, a time of many urgencies including the Great War, the Great Depression, WW2, and the Korean conflict. But not they have been limited 7 times in the last 43 days! The current government is rapidly setting new records for stifling democratic debate – has there truly been that much urgent business in the past 2 months, eclipsing three major world wars and Canada's time of greatest prolonged deprivation?
What do they fear in allowing our elected MPs to speak, to question, to suggest amendments? In particular, time limits keep smaller parties out of debate altogether. House precedence gives Government and Opposition leaders the first chances to speak. The other parties are further down the line – so under limited debate time, they fall below the cutoff. Yet each MP is equal to each other in representing a riding, and even the smaller parties each represent hundreds of thousands of votes.
Perhaps the greatest irony was the unwillingness of Conservatives last week to allow the Bloc and Green Party leaders a chance to speak on the topic of Remembrance Day. The Minister of Veterans Affairs spoke for 10 minutes, followed by 10 minutes each from the NDP and Liberal VA critics. Yet two days of Liberal and NDP motions to allow the Bloc and Greens a mere 5 minutes each were blocked by Conservative MPs.
In this way, the very freedoms our veterans died to protect, Democracy and Free Speech, are being pushed aside by the Conservative government in the House our proud nation built. One would think that, for the day we honour those freedoms paid for with blood and treasure, we’d respect these hard-won prizes. Sadly, one would be wrong.
A version of this was published in my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner.
For more on this topic from an outsider MP inside the House, read Silencing debate: a government in a hurry
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of the Ontario School of Economic Science and Earthsharing Canada.