A man standing in front of a burning house and cheerfully describing the blazing structure as “prime real estate” would only be slightly more incongruous than the sight last week of the Government House Leader, Peter Van Loan, declaring that “Parliament is working better than ever right now.” If this is the Harper government’s idea of a high-functioning Parliament, we would hate to see what the opposite looks like.
Where to begin? This is a year that began with a Senate expenses scandal and ended with the Opposition questioning the Prime Minister about an RCMP investigation into the cheque-cutting activities of his former chief of staff, Nigel Wright. In between, three senators were suspended for claiming expenses unrelated to their work as senators and for accepting housing expenses for their primary residences. For those who’ve forgotten – and the government surely wishes it could – the Senate is one of two houses of Parliament.
There was an unnecessary prorogation and an early adjournment, which combined to limit the number of sitting days in the House of Commons this fall to 34. Question Period was reduced on many days to something akin to satire, thanks to the inane deflections of the Prime Minister’s Parliamentary Secretary, Paul Calandra, on questions related to Mr. Wright’s cheque.
The government also continued to muscle omnibus legislation through the Commons. An omnibus bill is a bill crammed full of other bills. Once upon a time, bills were passed à la carte; these days, Parliament is regularly subjected to the legislative equivalent of channel bundling. A bill to prevent cyberbullying introduced this fall turned out to be a many-tentacled thing that included provisions relating to, among other bizarre matters, the theft of cable service.
Simmering behind all of this was a high level of dissatisfaction on the government back benches that boiled over on multiple occasions. One former Conservative MP, Brent Rathgeber, resigned from caucus in June over his frustration with the Harper government’s attempts to silence backbenchers critical of its actions and policies. Another Conservative backbencher, Michael Chong, recently introduced a bill that would wrest away much of the control a party leader holds over his or her caucus and give it back to MPs. Mr. Chong insists that his bill is not a reflection of his feelings about the Harper government, but it is hard to imagine it would have gained as much cross-party support as it has, in any other era.
Mr. Van Loan’s measure of Parliament’s success is that it adopted 40 new laws in 2013. Passing laws is not a particularly difficult task for a Parliament controlled by a majority government. Holding that government to account appears to be the hard part. Maybe next year will be better.