Social philosophy
3 min

Our parliamentary democracy is undermined

The budget implementation bill is now law, and our institutions of Parliamentary democracy are all the weaker for it. In fact, it fills me with a particular bit of rage at the moment.

You see, the Conservatives put in a little provision in the bill that said that the provisions for EI (providing for five extra weeks of benefits) would become effective two weeks prior to Royal Ascent. Now, if you listen to Ralph Goodale, who was once finance minister of this country, in a budget bill spending happens when the new fiscal year begins (April 1st) or on a specified date – to backdate something to the date of Royal Ascent is unheard of. And yet the Conservatives did it. (They also like to say that they’re going above and beyond the opposition demands by adding five weeks of benefits instead of two, completely missing the point of the desire to eliminate the two-week waiting period for benefits to kick in).

And so, as the story goes, when the Senate learned of this little provision in their hearings on the bill, the Liberal senators voted unanimously to pass the rest of the budget, other odious provisions be damned, in order to get those EI benefits rolled out. And by about 3.30 in the afternoon, the bill was returned to the Upper Chamber for report stage, and soon after passed third reading, with Royal Ascent taking place soon after.

Like I said, as the story goes. There are versions of the tale floating around the Hill that it was the Liberals realising they’d fallen into a trap, or others that it was an incredible display of spinelessness that now makes it look like they were just stalling the bill for the sake of gamesmanship.

But for as much as the government says the opposition is playing games with the budget, their hypocrisy is rampant, and their own particular gamesmanship has had a deleterious effect on the way responsible government works in this country.

The way it’s supposed to work is that the House of Commons – government and opposition members – holds the executive to account by controlling supply (being the purse strings). In the years past, this has been weakened by government backbenchers going with the Prime Minister’s wishes in the hopes of getting a cabinet seat. But now, this has been further weakened – under the pretence of the urgency of this economic crisis, the government badgered and hectored the opposition into not only passing it, but passing it in record time – mere days, with inadequate debate and study when they knew full well that it contained a number of poison pills, from the provisions on pay equity, to attempts to alter the environmental assessment process, to putting through changes to the Competition Act. It was possibly the lack of study that had them overlook this EI clause (though they try to explain it away in a press release). And every time someone raised a hand to ask about it, the response was “why are you playing games with the lives of Canadians?” Even when they knew full well that the spending in this budget couldn’t happen by law until April 1st at the earliest, and more realistically until probably June. It was a false crisis.

To add this final insult – a time bomb of a clause on the EI provisions shows complete contempt for Parliament in my opinion. They didn’t have to do it. They could simply have said that it is retroactive to March 1st, or even January 1st, and it would have been more than fine. They didn’t have to pack in all these extraneous – and likely ideologically driven – provisions into this omnibus bill where it couldn’t be properly studied. But they did because it’s cheap politics and doing things through the back door.

And the Liberals let them get away with it.

The saving grace – small comfort that it is – is that it looks like the Senate National Finance committee is going to continue their study of the non-stimulus portions of that bill, even though it’s passed. It won’t do much more than put on the record the real effects of those measures, but the optimist in me says that such a report can later be used to reverse the damage when the Conservatives are out of office.

Meanwhile, Question Period revolved around this “revelation” and the Liberal retreat, wrapped in more questions about the economy, with more non-sense non-responses given in return. But all that political theatre just seems to pale in comparison to the shenanigans that went down over this sham budget.

Sartorial snaps go out to Bloc MP Johanne Deschamps for her long black jacket with its striking floral embroidery. But then again, Deschamps is very nearly a sartorial star. The style citation goes out to Conservative backbencher Gary Schellenberger, whose rather ample frame was clothed in a jacket the colour of mint ice cream. WTF?

After today, the House goes on break for a week, where hopefully tempers can cool off again (mine included), and hopefully we can come back without having to hear more admonishments about holding up the stimulus spending in the budget.