The House of Commons wrapped up for the summer last week, ending a short but fractious Parliamentary session. While a few major stories have dominated the headlines since March – the Afghan detainee issue, the Jaffer-Guergis affair, and the dispute over political staffers testifying at parliamentary committees – the reality has been a session that accomplished little while revealing a worrisome pattern of dysfunction and acrimony.
Legislatively, little was achieved with only two bills adopted by the House and Senate. In comparison, last year 24 bills were adopted by the summer break. Two Private Member’s Bills were defeated in the House of Commons this session.
Much more attention was focused on the role of Parliament in a democracy. After points of privilege were raised by opposition members of Parliament, Speaker Peter Milliken ruled that Members of Parliament have the right to demand documents from the government regarding the treatment of Afghan detainees. Milliken gave the parties two weeks to work out an agreement on how the documents would be released and to whom. It took the parties three weeks to reach an agreement in principle. It took them seven weeks to reach a detailed agreement, but with the support of only three parties in the end.
Meanwhile, the right of parliamentary committees to summon witnesses was being challenged by a new government policy forbidding political staffers to testify. Committees attempting to examine the role staffers played in determining Access to Information and unreported lobbying by former parliamentarian Rahim Jaffer were stymied when cabinet ministers showed up instead of their staff or witnesses refused to respond to summons.
The tone became increasingly rancorous with shouted confrontations occurring at committees, and hyperbole reaching new levels in the House of Commons. Little effort was made to govern collaboratively for the common good.
In the midst of this general malaise, however, two examples demonstrated how Parliament could work. First, the parties managed to work together to reach a compromise on a refugee bill. The Conservative government had introduced a bill which made some much needed changes to Canada’s refugee system, including the creation of a Refugee Appeal Division, but the bill had a number of provisions which greatly concerned refugee advocates, such as limiting the right of appeal for refugees from so-called safe third countries. After an initial face-off over the bill, opposition parties worked with the government to propose amendments dealing with these concerns. The result was a greatly strengthened bill, which now has the support of all parties in parliament (although not all of the concerns of refugee advocates have been addressed).
Second, last week New Democratic MP Tony Martin introduced a Private Member’s bill mandating the creation of a poverty elimination strategy. The bill was seconded by Mike Savage of the Liberal Party and Yves Lessard of the Bloc Québécois. Conservative Senator Hugh Segal has spoken supportively, saying he endorses the purpose and intent. The government has not yet said whether or not it will support the bill. If passed, this bill will provide urgently needed federal government action to eliminate poverty.
These two examples of cross-partisan cooperation demonstrate that even in a minority situation, political parties can work together to represent the needs of all Canadians and effectively promote the common good. The key lessons from these situations were that the opposition parties were prepared to propose ideas, amendments and legislation, and not simply oppose, while the governing party was willing to listen to feedback and accept modifications to its agenda.
This kind of cooperation requires that political parties put aside their own agendas and desire for power or electoral gain, and focus on collaboration, consultation and compromise in the public interest. In addition to increasing the legislative output of parliament, such an approach would go a long way to restoring public faith in our elected representatives, and promote a more vibrant, engaged democracy.
Many challenges confront Canada as we exit the recession with increased poverty and economic insecurity, struggle to come to grasp with climate change, prepare to tackle the deficit, and consider the future of our workforce as our population ages. In facing these challenges, we would all benefit from a collaborative, democratic, consultative approach that emphasizes the need for solutions in the best interest of all Canadians.
MPs now have a cooling off period of 12 weeks. While there are no reasons at the moment to expect that things will be different when Parliament resumes in the fall, there is the chance that MPs will hear the message from Canadians across the country over the summer: we want Parliament that works. We know it’s possible – all that we need is for parliamentarians to demonstrate the will to deliver.