Thursday, January 3, 2013

A New Year's wish for renewed parliamentary democracy

A New Year brings a promise of renewal, something sorely needed in our democracy.
First, a review of Canada’s democratic foundation. Voters in each riding elect one Member to Parliament to serve their interests in Ottawa. Although MPs are also members of political parties, responsibility to their constituents and their nation is supposed to come before loyalty to party.
And our parliamentary system is not winner-take-all. Despite one party having a majority of House seats, all MPs (including the Prime Minister and Cabinet) sit as equals. This is crucial, because no one party, much less one leader, has all the right ideas, especially not for a diverse, continent-spanning nation of 34 million. 308 equal MPs can ensure a variety of views are brought forward, considered, evaluated, and democratically incorporated into our nation’s laws.
Bills are to be introduced in the House, discussed and improved in committees, returned to the House for further discussion and improvement before they are passed, followed by the Senate having a second look. Traditionally, even majority governments accepted good suggestions from the opposition.
But no longer. In 2012, we saw this system’s demise. Two omnibus bills of nearly a thousand pages changing over a hundred laws were pushed through without allowing any improvements or meaningful debate. That means our local MPs were shut out, even if they are in the ruling party. Instead, laws were written in back rooms and rubber-stamped by a one-party majority representing fewer than half of Canadian voters. This isn’t representative democracy; it’s not really democracy at all.
The government House Leader even tried to introduce a motion to disallow MP Elizabeth May from introducing amendments, arguing it would be a waste of his time since he was going to vote them all down anyway. If we’re going to treat House votes as a foregone conclusion, why even elect MPs? Luckily, the Conservative Speaker ruled against this travesty, yet the intent speaks volumes.
Our elected MPs are also being left out of important decisions on international treaties, like the FIPA investment agreement to let Chinese companies secretly sue our municipal or provincial governments for billions of dollars for enacting laws to protect us. Or the American Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA, more on that next week) to force Canada’s banks to break our privacy laws and disclose confidential information about Canadian citizens or residents to the IRS if the IRS declares them to be “US persons”. Neither of these far-reaching agreements have been debated in the House by our elected MPs, even though that’s why we elect them.
My wish for 2013: that our government re-commit to democratic principles and allow elected MPs from all parties to fulfill their constitutional role of discussing, debating, and improving, not just approving, the laws and treaties that will govern us.
A version of this was published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner under the title "Let's hope MPs re-commit to democratic principles"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation 

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