Parliament should take its responsibility to review the actions of the government and the Crown more seriously

 “The saving grace for the Conservatives is that Gordon O’Connor and Mr. MacKay, the defence ministers on whose watch these procedural abuses occurred, were made to look like stooges, rather than complicit.”

  • John Ivison: Auditor-General’s report shows flaw in Tories’ reflex to never retreat or apologize; John Ivison; Apr 3, 2012; Apr 3, 2012 6:42 PM ET

In 1867, when the Dominion of Canada came to be, our forefathers understood the precepts of the English Constitution. They understood that the ‘Glorious Revolution’ was one of the most important events in the long evolution of English Parliamentary power. For that phrase recounts the overthrow of the last Catholic Monarch in England. Depending on the Royal Line, he is known as James II – King of England and King of Ireland or as James VII, the King of Scotland. This act was important because the new King, William of Orange acceded to a number of demands of Parliament. Known as the Bill of Rights 1689, these demands affirmed Parliamentary Supremacy, and declared that the English people held certain rights, including the freedom from taxes imposed without Parliamentary Consent.

This act in 1689 followed a great tradition of the House of Commons: acquire of powers from House of Lords or the Crown itself. For example, under the Magna Carta of 1215, Barons coerced King John into providing a few rights and liberties to Noblemen. While, King Charles was forced into accepting the Petition of Right in 1628. That reaffirmed two rights and added two more. For, it noted that:

  • No taxation could be collected without the consent of Parliament;
  • There should be no imprisonment without cause shown;
  • There should be no billeting of soldiers or sailors upon householders against their will;
  • There should be no martial law to punish ordinary offences by sailors or soldiers.

Therefore, our system was not just established by divine will. It evolved over centuries due to a strong Parliament that was willing to accept death before acceding to the demands of the Crown. Those men created a system of review that is still followed in England today. In fact, a plurality of countries on this planet, including Canada, operate under the same system. Therefore, it is important that is respected as it has stood the test of time.

However, increasingly, Canadian Parliamentarians have been more than willing to ignore the history of the institution for the temporary favour of their party. If you doubt, my words please listen to John Ivison’s opinion of the Auditor-General’s report:

“Mr. Ferguson concluded that National Defence did not exercise due diligence in managing the process to replace the ageing CF18 jets – and neglected to fully inform ministers and parliamentarians about the full costs and risks involved in the government’s commitment to buy the F-35 Lightning 11 aircraft as a replacement.”

Now let us think about this statement. For the last three years, the Liberals and New Democrats have argued that the government has been keeping information about the F-35 Project from Parliament. In fact, they have been using numbers that have been produced by the Parliamentary Budget Officer in Ottawa, the Congressional Budget Office and the Pentagon in Washington or the British Government to make their point. The Government fell over this issue and we fought and election over the question because the Government was not willing to provide the information to Parliament. Yet, only now, more than six months after the election, Canadians are finding out the truth from an unelected official.

Which gets me to my point: the Canadian Parliament must take its power of review seriously. If they had they would have simply asked one question, why is every other partner government claiming that the F-35 fighter gets costs have increased, while our bureaucracy and government are claiming otherwise.

No other legislature in Britain, America or Australia would stand for this foolishness. In Britain and Australia, Prime Ministers have been replaced by their own Members of Parliament for just being unpopular. Margaret Thatcher was allowed to leave gracefully; while Kevin Rudd found himself replaced overnight by Julia Gillard. Even the former Speaker of the American House of Representatives – the best American Example – found himself out of a job at the height of his power. For in each case, the Legislative Body was able to hold Executive and/or Legislative Officers to account. This does not happen in Canada.

In Canada, the Prime Minister Harper and his Cabinet have been allowed to get away with any just about anything. The Auditor General has indicated that Parliamentary Budget Officer was correct in his assertion that the F-35 Project was off of the rails. Or put differently, the Harper Government was scheduled to go over budget by more than $10 billion dollars. Given the size of the federal government budget, let us provide examples to give everyone scale. In the recent federal budget, presented by Jim Flaherty, the Government is estimated to cut between $4 and $5 billion dollars. Those types of cuts would continue until the Federal Government Balanced its Budget.

Or let us look at the Gun Registry. Proposed by a Liberal Government, it went over budget by less than $900 million. That was due to the Chretien’s Government’s attempt to both reduce fees and appease the Gun Lobby. However, the Auditor General indicates that the F-35’s are more than $10 billion dollars more than the original estimate; and the worst thing is that all the estimates were either too low or unrealistic. It is becoming clear that the Government knew this truth before the report of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, before the last election and before Opposition MP’s noticed the problem.

So the question is why did the Conservatives in the House not notice this fact? I would argue that the Majority, in this case the Conservative Party, did not want to embarrass themselves.

But this act of ignorance is a failure to perform the House of Commons most essential role. While I do admit that the quality of Parliamentarians has fallen since Pearson, Canada’s Lower House is one of the few legislatures, which I know of, that does not exercise its role of review. There are some exceptions ot the rule. NDPers like Bruce Hyer and John Rafferty did vote with the Government on the Gun Registry. In 2005, Belinda Stronach crossed the floor and Chuck Cadman voted to keep the minority Martin Government alive. Given the vociferous vitriol each faced, one could see that these people acted with honour, bravery and conscience.

However, those acts are rare today. One might have to go back to the Rat Pack, to find MPs that consistently stepped forward. Don Boudria, Sheila Copps, Brian Tobin and John Nunziata were loud and furiously independent. Sheila Copps, for example, defied Paul Martin and ran for the leadership of the Liberal Party. John Nunziata found himself kicked out of the Liberal Party for opposing the GST.

Today, this new batch of MPs – the Rat Pack’s replacements – feels that their job is to represent their Party and not their Constituents. If you question this, I have one question: why have no Conservative MP’s asked their own Government Ministers to resign? All of them have parroted the same ridiculous line: nothing bad happened because no money was spent. It’s a shame that the only adult in the room is not a senior Member of Parliament. It is a shame that we have to depend on an unelected official to reprimand the duly elected Government. Furthermore, it is a real shame that a Government that talked about accountability would either hide or ignore information even when Parliament asked to provide the information in question.

We all know that a Minister or two should lose their job over this. That is the principle of responsible government: Minister’s should take responsibility for their mistakes or for mistakes made by their department. This is even true if the Minister was not there for an issue. The tradition is there because it means that Ministers are more likely to ask hard questions of their Ministries, so that heads may roll – and Parliament can be informed – before any issue becomes a full scale scandal.

However, what is more disappointing is that MPs and, increasingly, some Senators are like sheep. They are unwilling to stand up for their constituents and against their party’s interest. This should be a basic principle of our system. In 1864, George Brown – a Liberal – worked against this party’s own interest. The formation of our country depended on him working with MacDonald and Cartier. It is a shame that modern political parties do not take a page from history. Pierre Elliott Trudeau once said that MPs were nobodies when they got 50 yards from Parliament. Maybe, they are becoming even more irrelevant than that because known of them have the courage to act. What is clear though, is that this Conservative Party has lost the spark of the ideals of Preston Manning’s Reform Party. For now, Expediency has replaced Principle as the governing feature of the Conservative Party of Canada.

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