I know this particular speech has been floating around the internet for a couple of weeks (also available here if the previous link is behind a firewall). I feel that it is important to raise it once again in light of my post last week on MPs not doing their jobs in favour of pandering to the public and more reminders of how we no longer have a debt ceiling, which was eliminated without even one MP batting an eyelash.
The speech in question, delivered by Senator Lowell Murray as he winds down his political career (he is due to retire days before the Senate returns in September), was given at a conference honouring prominent scholar Donald Savoie, who has literally written the book on centralized or “court” government in this country. Murray very clearly spells out how our system of government has fallen into decline over the past 40 years. He singles out a particular quote that every MP needs to memorize and one that should be emblazoned on each and every one of their office walls.
“You are not here to govern; rather you are here to hold to account those who do.” — William Ewart Gladstone
That is one of the biggest problems with MPs today – they are enamored with the concept of being “lawmakers” like their American counterparts. They no longer do the job that they are supposed to, which is to keep hold of the purse strings so that the government must prove why it deserves taxpayer funds. Instead, they spend an inordinate amount of time drafting and promoting private member's bills, which will never, ever see the light of day.
Not that there isn’t an important place for private member's bills – many good things come from them. But each MP who is not a member of cabinet gets one slot, the order determined by lottery, and that’s it. So when opposition MPs spend all of their time holding press conferences on bills that won’t see the light of day (especially once their slot has either passed or they’ve committed to bringing forward another bill), it sucks all of the time and attention away from the job they’re supposed to be doing.
MPs say that the bills are symbolic, that they’re applying pressure to the government and giving it good ideas (so that they can take credit for it, of course) and that they want to bring attention to certain issues. These are all excuses they’ve given on numerous occasions. But how much time have they spent studying budget implementation legislation or the supplementary estimates? Pretty much zero. Even though that’s the job they were actually elected to do.
As voters and citizens, we should be outraged when MPs don’t do their jobs, such as when they pass a 900-page omnibus bill with cursory rubber stamps and leave it up to the Senate to actually to the work of scrutinizing it. Which is one more reason why people who think that MPs can effectively do the jobs of senators are hopelessly naïve. If MPs actually did their jobs, I might feel differently, but they don’t. That is precisely why an appointed body that isn’t bound to the whim of the electorate has an important place in our system.
We should be demanding that our MPs actually hold the government to account and scrutinize just what they’re passing, particularily when it comes to budget bills and estimates. It may not be sexy, it may not seem like the obvious way to grab media attention (totally for the cause they’re trying to promote with this private member’s bill – really!), but actual accountability can be compelling viewing. I’ve sat in on many a Senate hearing where ministers were grilled over specifics and left scrambling to answer (usually ineffectively, as the current crop of Conservative ministers tend to simply rely on the recitation of talking points). There are fewer speeches from MPs trying to score political points and virtually no six-and-a-half minute speeches with a rhetorical question appended to the end in a seven minute round. Instead, there is substantive questioning. And those exchanges are the stuff that good political journalism should be made of.