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Reflections on a ‘sham’ House

The current issue of Maclean’s has a fantastic, long-form look at the current state of the House of Commons. Not the building itself, but the institution. Journalist Aaron Wherry spent a day in the chamber observing what takes place there, how it is virtually abandoned during the day (minus the hubbub of question period) and what that means for our democracy.

If I haven’t indicated strongly enough that you should read it, then let me reiterate – you need to read this piece! The biggest question that Wherry raises is that of the role of our MPs: they’re virtually never in the House to actually debate issues, so what exactly are we electing them to do? It’s a question that many academics have been grappling with for a while. Reading certain scholars, such as David E Smith, has exposed me to some of that thought: our MPs were once elected to debate policy, but these days they’ve ended up acting in more of an ombudsman's role as they spend more time dealing with constituent issues than with the Grand Inquest of the Nation. The reasons for this are long and varied (I could probably come up with a number of reasons off the top of my head), but it boils down to a few basic things. If we really question the decline of our democracy (or at least the state of Parliament), then we need to ask ourselves what we expect of our MPs. Think back to that Samara survey from a couple of months ago: most MPs didn’t even list “holding the government to account” as being part of their job description, even though it's the fundamental basis of our parliamentary democracy. That signals a problem right there. How can we expect our MPs to hold the government to account when we expect them to spend weekends in their constituency offices helping people with their tax returns and immigration forms? It certainly should give one pause.

Speaking of the House, the designs for the new “temporary” chamber in the West Block have been unveiled. They’re quite pretty. But seriously people, enough with sounding aghast at the price tag. It’s our House of Commons. You can’t just use a bunch of portables or a ballroom in the Chateau Laurier for the duration of the renovations to the Centre Block. (When they say five to seven years, you should read 10. Just saying.) With the demands of technology (cameras, lights, microphones and simultaneous translation) and the need to have a proper, dignified chamber that reflects the neo-Gothic character of the existing heritage building, there’s going to be a price tag attached. It needs to be done. Besides, the figure (a $42-million estimate that will likely be more than $100 million by the end) is just a figure out of context. What other project could you possibly compare it to? Really? Get over it. Concentrate on ensuring that accountability mechanisms are in place, and stop pretending like we’re too cheap to ensure that the centre of our democracy can’t be a dignified space.

(Speaking of those accountability mechanisms, check out this story about possibly altered documents that approved the renovations back when Michael Fortier was minister.)

During Friday’s question period, Libby Davies made a note of Baird’s use of the term “courage” when referring to Oda. After QP, the government gave its long-awaited response to the question of privilege in the Oda case. Seems they’re going to split hairs over the whole thing, because that’s going to answer the fundamental questions about accountability and a minister misleading Parliament.

Late Friday afternoon, Harper and Jack Layton met to talk about the budget; both made some bland statements afterwards. Liberal MP Scott Brison responded by saying, “The mating ritual of Stephen Harper and Jack Layton has been quite flamboyant on the floor of the House. It’s got a certain awkwardness to it, but there’s still something vaguely romantic in a sophomoric way.” Ah, bless.

The Toronto Star savages Jason Kenney’s good-news claims about our immigration figures (complete with charts) and shows just how the system has changed between 2006 and 2010. Of note, the increase in the number of temporary foreign workers is huge. I’m quite looking forward to this coming up in QP once the House comes back.

And it looks like the CRTC is going to withdraw its amendment that would water down the “false and misleading news” regulations.
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