Liberals need a reminder about the role of Parliament

It is good to hear that Canadians are wise and selfless while Americans are dumb jerks. Especially watching U.S. politics move from one large issue to another, such as structural repairs to Social Security to forestall catastrophe in 2037, while we bicker endlessly about how every province can get more money from the federal government than it contributes. Or our Kyoto Plan, which was due Wednesday but it seems the dog ate our homework. Don't worry. The Jan. 17 Maclean's informed me that "New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell is one of North America's most influential hipster-intellectuals" then quoted him that Canadians and Americans are "profoundly and unalterably different" in the way they think: "Americans can't make a distinction between a larger sense of what's right and their own personal feelings."

I see his point. For instance, our own government has deftly separated its own feelings of smugness over its Kyoto plan from any larger sense of whether it's right to claim it has one. Of course the American plan is simpler (don't ratify, don't implement) but at least they're pulling it off. Whereas here we, um, yes, well, a plan you say. How about hosting a big United Nations conference nine months from now and talk about how great we all are instead?

Here I get to do another "I told you so" dance. Back when the government announced it would ratify Kyoto, I emitted a mighty yawn ("Ratifying Kyoto makes me yawn," Sept. 4, 2002) because "Kyoto won't have any effects, economic or political, until you find a way to try to implement it" and it never would because the government didn't even know how much of each greenhouse gas Canada was emitting. News stories blithely tell us India emits 5.5 per cent of world GHGs, Britain 2.3 and Australia 1.4. Those decimal points give a lovely sense of precision. But might I ask who measured India's output and, more importantly, how? And how does our government know how much methane is burbling out of hydro dams, how much CO2 badly tuned lawnmowers emit and so on? It doesn't; newspaper estimates of Canada's current emissions routinely vary by tens of millions of tons.

To be fair, there's a lot else our government doesn't know about global warming. Including the inescapable fact that governing is about "how" as well as "what." And here our Kyoto face-plant is part of a far larger crisis of governance.

For instance, how does the government spend money? Some people were bored by the Gomery hearings, except for the golf-ball act. But a detailed examination of how government spends is crucial to understanding how it went wrong. Or consider the auditor general's unhappiness about allocating billions of dollars to arms-length foundations to spend in future years. Paul Martin gave a classic liberal response, that their intentions were good so their methods must be above reproach morally and practically. Wrong: All spending must be authorized by Parliament each year if it is to function as guardian of the public purse.

(As for the argument by politicians that arms-length entities take the politics out of public affairs, I think you'd be worried if doctors proposed to take health care out of medical affairs or if politicians did it by accident. But that's a subject for another day).

Like a certain portly theologian, I'd feel much better if the people currently disregarding established procedures were a bit clearer about why they existed in the first place. Instead, International Trade Minister Jim Peterson just grandly waved aside Parliament's refusal to authorize the division of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade into two separate departments as meaning "absolutely nothing in the way we continue our work."

Never mind that silly old Parliament, then. But such an attitude is almost inevitable given our failure to understand how it works. To repeat: A minority government exists when no one party commands a majority of votes in the Commons but a coalition does. The coalition may be internally unstable but, as long as it holds together, it can pass bills and the business of government can continue.

When no such coalition exists, the business of government grinds to a halt and, as a bonus, the public doesn't know who to praise for policies it likes, blame for policies it doesn't, or turn to for alternatives. On spending, or health care or on Kyoto.

Mind you, these dreary "how" questions are the sort of thing those silly Americans would worry about. We're too busy saving the planet.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson