A cynic might be forgiven for regarding the early adjournment of the House of Commons for the summer with some suspicion. Apparently even the most bitterly partisan Parliament this side of, well, the last Parliament, can agree on one thing: an early summer for themselves.
Coming as it does in the midst of a Senate expenses scandal that has implicated the Prime Minister’s Office, attacks on Liberal leader Justin Trudeau for charging speaking fees to charities, and Leader of the Opposition Thomas “Mad Max” Mulcair’s recent run-in with Parliament Hill security, perhaps all three major parties will be happy for the break.
Yet as the product of all-party agreement, having the House rise a few days early is best assessed in light of what it accomplishes. Central to the deal is a decision to have a committee examine establishing an independent body to oversee expenses and spending by members. This presumably includes considering an earlier proposal by Mr. Trudeau to require all MPs to post their expenses online (the NDP initially rejected this as a “stunt,” with the rather odd argument that it required further study).
The agreement also saw a number of bills rushed through with unanimous consent, which may be viewed either as a victory for productivity or a defeat for careful consideration. One of the bills, for instance, would impose stricter conditions for those found “not criminally responsible” due to mental illness in criminal cases, and may raise significant Charter of Rights issues, especially in light of Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin’s recent comments that the current legal regime has “served us well”.
The deal also scuttles other legislation in progress. One of the most hotly contested is amendments to a citizenship bill that would revoke citizenship from dual nationals convicted of terrorism. The concept would raise obvious Charter issues, both in terms of when citizenship can rightly be stripped, but also because the bill would treat dual citizens differently from those who only have Canadian citizenship (under international law, you cannot strip someone’s citizenship and render them “stateless”). The NDP was in the midst of filibustering to stop the amendments and so the adjournment is a win for them on this issue.
So both the government and the opposition parties got something they wanted out of the deal. The co-operation came as some surprise given the rancour that preceded it for weeks, even months. The NDP and Liberals have been like sharks smelling blood ever since it was revealed that Stephen Harper’s (now former) chief of staff, Nigel Wright, cut a cheque to help Senator Mike Duffy repay improperly accrued expenses. And with polls showing a spike in public support for the Liberals, both the Conservatives and the NDP have hammered newly minted leader Trudeau at every possible opportunity.
It has been, in many ways, a particularly ugly parliamentary session. Yet amidst all the nasty din, there are rays of hope for the democratic health of Canada’s woe-be-gotten Parliament.
First, in April, there was a brief assertion of backbenchers’ rights, when Speaker Andrew Scheer affirmed his right to not always rely on party lists when members stand to make statements in the House.
Then, two weeks ago, Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber resigned from his caucus to sit as an independent. Mr. Rathgeber cited the tight-fisted, top-down control exerted by the PMO in his decision. It was an act of rare principle in a Parliament that desperately needs more of it. Highlighting even more the democratic principle at stake was the scurrilous demand by the PMO for a byelection in Rathgeber’s riding. This was a pathetic misrepresentation of Canada’s parliamentary democracy: we elect individuals, not parties, to the House of Commons.
All-party cooperation on transparency and accountability on expenses - if it proves successful - may count as another important drop in the bucket towards needed reform.
If Parliament is to be revitalized, a greater assertion by its members of not only their rights but also their duty to hold government to account, to act as individuals rather than herded sheep, is crucial. Beneath the noise of scandal, recrimination, endless talking points and foolish theatre, the last few months also bore witness to the door being cracked ever-so-slightly open towards a more functional Parliament. Canadians should take advantage of summer opportunities to speak with their representatives about pushing that door wide in the fall.
Emmett Macfarlane is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Waterloo. His new book, Governing from the Bench: The Supreme Court of Canada and the Judicial Role, is published by UBC Press.