Our shared parliamentary dysfunction

LONDON, England - The symptoms of parliamentary decline are by now unpleasantly familiar. I don’t just mean the way Question Period, regardless of the subject or authenticity of the outrage, often prompts the reflection that brawling alley cats do have a certain dignity. Consider this list of symptoms from a recent report: the rise of parties and partisanship, the concentration of power in the PMO and the way government business has taken over the Commons, the rise of special interest groups, sensationalist media hungry for sound bites not substance, constitutional changes that sideline Parliament and a habit of entrusting important issues to non-political arms’-length bodies instead of elected MPs. Depressing. But what can you do?

Well, you can start by raising an eyebrow or two on hearing that my list is from a July, 2000, report on the British Parliament by a panel chaired by Lord Norton of Louth. Possibly it does not encourage you to hear your neighbour’s ornate and venerable roof seems to be caving in as well. But if we have these problems in common, it offers a way to get some perspective on their causes and possible cures.

I say problems rather than crisis in deference to those who say parliamentary self-government has caromed from one difficulty to another for centuries, so “there is room for improvement” is not, and need not prompt, a call to man the barricades. But that there are problems would be fatuous to deny.

There are also solutions. Trust me. I could drop a very large pile of them on your desk if I weren’t obsessively taking notes from the various British studies that contain them. Incidentally, while here in England I have learned a charming term for those with weird hobbies, “anoraks,” taken from the garments habitually worn by those obsessed with train-spotting rather than the repair of governmental institutions. Arguably I qualify. But I cling to sufficient normalcy to insist that when proposing remedies, ingenuity is no substitute for practicality.

Until you are clear on what government is meant to be doing, and why it is having trouble doing it, your solutions are liable to be eccentric rather than sensible. For instance, those in Britain tempted by a written constitution ought certainly, in my view, to study our own recent Canadian history to grasp the dangers of rushing into such a thing with more zeal than understanding, and with more self-conceit than either.

Thus, in an attempt to exchange my anorak for one of the togas or frock coats habitually worn by the statues that surround me as I write, in a pub just west of Westminster Palace, I declare that government is meant to protect the lives and liberties of citizens from other threats without itself menacing them. I further insist that the best way ever found of approximating that outcome, indeed the only way, is to have a strong executive held firmly in check by a strong elected legislature.

Our system is manifestly in disrepair in this regard. Our executive seems strong in a clumsy kind of way, although there is some question whether it can really achieve much beyond securing re-election by spending irresponsible quantities of money on programs of dubious merit. But our legislature is clearly not strong; whatever the reason, it does not exert an effective check on the executive. These days, on the crucial budget vote, the Official Opposition seems to abstain as a matter of course. You would have trouble explaining why to William Gladstone or Pitt the Elder.

Of course you might protest that you have no intention of attempting to explain the matter to either of these august gentlemen, who are not merely dead, but dead foreigners. What have they to do with me?

Well, go back to my list from the Norton Report. If the problems painfully familiar to us are also painfully familiar to anoraks in Britain, it suggests that we should not focus unduly on those things that supposedly make Canada distinctive. A similar institutional structure and history, including the recent dramatic expansion of government’s expenditures and its ambitions, have given us not merely architecturally similar parliament buildings but similar symptoms of decay behind the beautiful neo-Gothic facades. It stands to reason for the most part the causes of our problems are likely to lie in those things we share. Thus to find solutions we should take a broad and comparative view, geographically and historically, rather than a narrow and parochial one.

Plus I’d rather talk to a dead William Pitt than watch a live modern Question Period that some British observers have told me is, even to them, positively shocking.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]