Parliamentary system in doubt

Apparently it’s time to stick a fork in our system of parliamentary self-government. MPs just passed an Opposition money bill and no one cares that there’s no such thing. Last week the three Opposition parties teamed up to pass Dan McTeague’s private members’ Bill C-253, letting parents contribute $5,000 per child per year to a Registered Education Savings Plan and deduct it from taxable income. It flatly contradicts Section 54 of our Constitution: “It shall not be lawful for the House of Commons to adopt or pass any Vote, Resolution, Address or Bill for the Appropriation of any Part of the Public Revenue, or of any Tax or Impost, to any Purpose that has not been first recommended to that House by Message of the Governor General in the Session in which such Vote, Resolution, Address or Bill is proposed.”

Is there anything unclear about this wording, repeated essentially verbatim in Standing Order 79 (1) of the House of Commons? Apparently so, if you’re an MP or the Speaker of the House. Soon after being introduced in 2006, C-253 was challenged because of 79 (1), but that Nov. 1 the Speaker ruled, “It is permissible for a private member’s bill to introduce a tax exemption, or to propose a delay in the reporting of income. Therefore, I find that Bill C-253 is properly before the House.”

How can this be? The annotated Standing Orders of the House of Commons, published under the same Speaker’s authority in 2005, begin their explanation of 79 (1) with “In our system of parliamentary government, the Sovereign, as represented by the Governor General, and acting on the advice of His or Her responsible ministers, is charged with the management of all revenues of the State and the payment of all public expenditures.”

Individual tax relief is one thing. But a measure that for reasons of broad public policy reallocates what could well be billions of dollars a year is definitely “management of all revenues of the State.” If private members’ bills can do what Mr. McTeague’s does, what can they not do under 79 (1) and Section 54?

Especially as C-253 is not really a tax bill. When the tax code is fiddled to convey specific benefits to people who do specific things at the expense of the overall balance sheet, it constitutes spending no matter how it is disguised. For years Canadian governments pretended otherwise, not least so they could report considerably lower total taxation and spending in their budgets than were recorded in the definitive Public Accounts. But finally in 2003 the government gave in to pressure from Auditors General and others and started correctly treating so-called tax expenditures as expenditures, not taxation.

Mr. McTeague’s bill clearly fits that category. So even given the Speaker’s ruling on taxation, C-253 remains profoundly constitutionally obnoxious.

The resulting debate has been too obnoxious to quote, from squabbles over who was giving the middle class more money to bizarre jibes about ethnicity to the Liberal finance critic saying his party would not topple the government over C-253 because it wasn’t yet Easter. But I will cite Mr. McTeague’s outburst that Tory opposition to his bill “really lays bare for all to see what kind of government we’re dealing with. Can you imagine if they had a majority?”

Utter bosh. The whole problem here is that the three “opposition” social democratic parties do have a majority, and are willing to use it to spend public money in large amounts, but won’t take responsibility for keeping spending in line with revenue. What do any of them think the “responsible” in “responsible government” used to mean?

History confirms that, as you’d expect, the problem of government is not getting it to spend. It is keeping it from spending too much, or spending a reasonable amount so foolishly that it nevertheless neglects its core duties. Thus Parliament evolved not to force cheapskate monarchs to loosen the purse strings, but to prevent them from having to pawn the crown (Edward III once did). And here the purpose of Section 54 becomes as clear as its wording: a parliamentary legislature exists not to govern but to scrutinize government. It can’t do both, and if it tries it will end up doing neither.

The Tory government seems to be killing C-253 with a counter-measure attached to a confidence vote. But Mr. Flaherty told the Commons: “We are presented with a private member’s bill that risks plunging the federal government back into deficit” when the real objection is that C-253 abdicates the key role of Parliament, usurps that of the Crown and smashes the Constitution to do it.

If no one knows or cares, it’s done, folks. Carve it up.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]