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Lawrence Martin
Lawrence Martin

Lawrence Martin

The gong show's over - Parliament can use the break Add to ...

Holidays anyone? Try becoming an MP. Parliament breaks this week and will be gone at least three months. We recall it had a two-month break to start the year due to prorogation. All told, it will sit about six months this year. But compared to times previous, this is a heavy load. In 2008, due to an election and another prorogation, Parliament sat for a grand total of four months.

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Maybe it's time to declare MPs' jobs part-time employment. Okay, some members won't be sitting on the dock of the bay all summer. But their schedules won't exactly be taxing.

The taxing part will be thinking about the session that just ended. It is being described as one of the worst on record. All warring and wrath and bluster. Little in the way of accomplishment. Both major parties sinking in public esteem.

Of no surprise was that the debate in Question Period was of an odious quality. QP's relevance seems to diminish with every session. Conservative Michael Chong has proposed some well-needed reforms in a private member's bill, but it likely won't get far because it isn't in governments' interest to have Question Periods in which answers are given.

What made this session more rancid than most was the malfunctioning of House and Senate committees. In contrast to QP, they used to be a forum where substantive issue work was done and the government could be held to account. Now, committee sessions are becoming more like Question Period. They're all about obstruction on the governing side and lynch-mobbing on the opposition side.

Given its minority status on committees, the government has been determined to make them dysfunctional, and has succeeded to a quite a degree. The latest was a decree stipulating that staffers in ministers' offices would no longer testify. Stephen Harper's team invoked the convention of ministerial responsibility, saying that only ministers need appear before committees. Never mind that advisers might know more on files than ministers themselves, or that they might have information incriminating a minister. No matter. Like many others in Ottawa, they've been muzzled.

The move was small potatoes for a government that shuts down Parliament willy-nilly, but it does serve as another example of how the democratic process is being stifled. Rob Walsh, the parliamentary counsel, ruled this week that the Prime Minister has no authority to tell staffers not to appear.

The gag rule was just one of several the government has taken against committees, not the least of which was the PM's breaking of his pledge to allow committees to appoint their own chairs. In opposition, he railed against Jean Chrétien's assumption of that power.

Another setback for the system this session was C-9, the budget bill. The actual budget part was fine, with Finance Minister Jim Flaherty balancing stimulus spending and deficit reduction. But the bill was turned into an all-purpose Trojan horse concoction, replete with legislation that had nothing to with the budget. Measures included the rolling back of environmental assessment (this at the time of the oil-spill calamity in the Gulf) and legislation that could set the stage for the gutting of Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. This shoddy approach, advancing your agenda by omnibus-bill stealth, is the likely way of the future. The Liberals opposed many measures in the package but acceded to it for fear of triggering an election.

The session featured myriad flip-flops and stumbles by the Liberals, the government's unreleasing of documents that were required to be released under access laws, uproars over airport tantrums, culture wars, anthem changes, fake lakes.

It was reflective of the Ottawa mentality that the big story was the Rahim Jaffer-Helena Guergis gong show. On this one, the media and the Liberals were much to blame, as the melodrama deserved less than half the attention it got.

All said, it's a good thing that our legislators are taking another long break now. They need a rest, time to think things over, time to recalibrate again.

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