Andrew Coyne – The National Post – June 13, 2012
The House of Commons was to begin voting Wednesday night on several hundred amendments to Bill C-38, the 425-page monster known as the omnibus budget implementation bill. The voting was expected to go on all night and all day Thursday.
Viewed one way, the whole thing is quite silly. Given the government’s majority, none of the amendments is likely to pass, nor is the bill itself in any danger of defeat. Viewed another way, however, this is an important moment. For the first time since the last election, the opposition is putting up a serious fight against the abuses this government has visited upon Parliament: not only the omnibus bill, which repeals, amends or introduces more than 60 different pieces of legislation, but the repeated, almost routine curtailing of debate by means of “time allocation”; the failures of oversight, misstating of costs, and abdication of responsibility in the F-35 purchase; and the refusal to provide basic information on spending to Parliament or the Parliamentary Budget Officer — to say nothing of the stonewalling, prorogations and other indignities of the minority years.
It should be noted it is not only the opposition’s interests that are being defended here. It is Parliament’s. Were MPs on the government side more mindful of their responsibilities they would be as vigilant in its defence as the opposition. So while there is a strong element of partisanship in all this, there is also a vital question of principle; though the opposition parties may be accused of past acquiescence or even participation in some of the abuses of which they now complain, that does not preclude them from discovering their backbones now. It may look tedious, even inane — all those MPs bobbing up and down in their place as their names are called, hour after hour after hour — but let us not succumb to cynicism: They are bobbing for democracy.
What’s the point? Once, as in the famous “bell-ringing” episode of 1982, the point would have been to hold up parliamentary business until the government relented: not on the substance of the bill, which a duly elected government is entitled to pass, but on the principle that the bill should be split, that Parliament is entitled to vote on each of its several major parts separately, and to give each the kind of informed scrutiny and debate it warrants. Again, that is not only in the opposition’s interests, or even Parliament’s, but the nation’s: it makes for better legislation.
But the opposition has lost many of the procedural tools it once had to protest in this way. It can delay a bill’s passage, not prevent it, and then only for a day or so, after the Speaker’s ruling earlier this week consolidating several amendments into single votes. So the fight now is not to block the bill but to make a point: to bloody the government’s nose, to arouse public opinion and, it is hoped, deter the government from acting in a similarly high-handed fashion in future. That strikes me as well worth trying. Obstructing Parliament, even for a day, is not ordinarily to be encouraged, and is rarely good politics. But when a government has abused its powers as regularly and as grotesquely as this one, it forfeits the benefit of the doubt.
The question is what happens next. We are a long way from the next election, and it’s not clear anyone is paying much attention. Suppose they are: Parliament will rise for the summer before long, and whatever damage the government may have sustained in the short run will be forgotten. Certainly it would be hard to argue the Conservatives paid much of a price for their past misdeeds: given a chance to punish them at the last election, the public instead returned them with a majority. Little wonder that the Finance minister is already advertising his intent to bring forth another omnibus bill in the fall. The precedents thus set, we can look forward to a future in which Parliament would be reduced to two votes of consequence per year — one to rubber-stamp the government’s spring agenda, a second to cover the fall.
This is how it happens. This is how it has happened: the more powers government acquires at the expense of Parliament, the harder it is for Parliament to resist still further encroachments, or even to recall why it might. And if somebody doesn’t stop it, somewhere, this is how it will continue.
So this is just a start. As gratifying as it is to find, notwithstanding an earlier column, that Parliament still has some fight in it, it can’t end here. The opposition must be prepared to bloody the government’s nose again, and again, and go on doing so, for as long as these abuses continue. It must be prepared to do so, what is more, in the face of public indifference or even hostility. It cannot count on appealing to public sentiment. It has to teach the public to care. It has to teach them why it matters.
It’s an oddly appropriate way to protest: by voting, repeatedly, futilely, endlessly. It has become a somewhat degrading ritual — could there be a better symbol of how ruthlessly all parties, not just the Conservatives, whip nearly every vote than the sight of MPs in obedient little rows, standing up and sitting down when they are told? But it can mean something real again.