Government stifles opposition

SINCE FIRST elected an MP 50 years ago former prime minister John Napier Turner has fumed over parliamentary abuses.

SINCE FIRST elected an MP 50 years ago former prime minister John Napier Turner has fumed over parliamentary abuses. Yet those abuses grow and we voters accept them.

Turner was speaking  May 3  at the 25th Annual Public Policy Forum Testimonial Dinner honouring the six living former prime ministers. Chretien was absent;  the other five each gave a 15-minute talk.

Turner listed a number of faults with how parliament works today.

First, the government presents far too many omnibus bills. Bills that should deal only with one topic instead include everything but the kitchen sink. For instance, a  budget  bill introduced recently, which in the old days dealt only with finance, repeals the Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act and outlines major changes to the environmental assessment process, gives cabinet authority over resource projects,   changes the Fisheries Act to apply only to major waterways, and lumps in immigration.

Turner argues a budget bill should deal only with budget, not bundle in every pet project dear to the heart of the prime minister. How can MPs intelligently  discuss or vote for a bill that includes so many varying subjects? Suppose you support one, but not the others? Currently Ottawa is facing an omnibus finance bill which the NDP would like divided into at least five separate bills.

Gone are the rousing debates when Diefenbaker would stand in the House of Commons, arguing extemporaneously, jowls jiggling. Debates had drama and import. Turner says no one watches parliamentary debates or reads Hansard any more. Little wonder we are less engaged with the daily doings in parliament. There are no debates worth watching.  Often the camera fixes on a lone MP backed by an empty chamber echoing like an unused warehouse.

The modern parliament performs for TV cameras during question period, Turner says,  each MP jostling for the best camera angle and sound bite.

Both Turner and Kim Campbell decry the impotence of government backbenchers who are whipped into voting the government line even on matters where the government has no definite position staked out. Voting in favour of the government’s position is legitimate, Campbell says, but she sees no reason why MPs aren’t allowed to vote to suit their constituents on  matters less crucial to the government.

Turner says 50 years ago the elected MP had sole authority over his constituency and what his voters wanted. Now, MPs can’t vote independently on these smaller or more local issues. They are expected to toe the government line regardless of whether or not the MP is living up to the personal platform that got him elected.

Turner says far too much authority rests with the prime minister’s office. MPs are largely irrelevant. Campbell remembers dissenters could speak up only in caucus; outside of caucus they had to zip their lips and publicly support the government regardless

Victoria’s Liberal government has adopted Ottawa’s ways with gusto.  Besides curtailing debate, with only 11 days remaining before the B.C. legislature rises for the summer, Clark’s government has introduced 14 pieces of legislation, including the bill to return to the PST. This single bill took four months to draft and contains over 40 clauses, each deserving of individual and unlimited discussion by all 83 MLAs.

One Victoria legislative reporter explained it is only through discussion by elected members before the bill is passed into law that we can know the intent of the law. Should the bill be at the heart of a future lawsuit, the court would be at a loss to know the legislators’ intention.

If only Turner had the power to revise Ottawa’s behaviour.