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Page's protest rings hollow - but there's plenty wrong with Parliament

Senate page Brigette DePape stages an anti-Harper protest during the Speech from the Throne in Ottawa on June 3, 2011.


Throughout history there have been many iconic and symbolic acts of resistance. Brigette DePape's silent protest in the Senate will not live on as one of them. In part that's because DePape's actions, more than being a laudable act of civil disobedience, took advantage of her professional privileges and responsibilities as a page to advance her personal beliefs and convictions.

More importantly, I couldn't help but feel that celebrating DePape's actions would mean simultaneously celebrating a certain disrespect for Parliament. Much has been made recently of politicians' lack of decorum in, and respect for, Parliament. If citizens are going to disrupt and disrespect Parliament or celebrate those who do, why would we expect politicians and governments not to? We too have responsibilities in our democratic system. Canadians need to re-engage with and re-invigorate our democratic institutions - not further malign them.

A number of commentaries criticizing DePape's act seem to coalesce around the idea that we have had free and fair elections, implicitly, if not explicitly, negating any need to critically examine the state of Canadian democracy.

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For example, writing here on The Globe's website, Rob Silver has rightly criticized DePape and her admirers for ambiguously conflating her act with the Arab Spring. He rightly points out this risks trivializing the struggle and sacrifice made in the Mideast and parts of Northern Africa to secure rights and freedoms many of us take for granted. But in making the point he completely ignores the importance of examining Canada's democratic system, its limitations and the need to address them.

To my mind, these claims are far more troubling than DePape's act.

While free and democratic elections are necessary, they are by themselves not sufficient for a robust democracy. For example, in our forthcoming book Democratizing the Constitution, my co-authors Peter Aucoin, Lori Turnbull and I have examined how, over time, prime ministers have come to exercise excessive control over the House of Commons and its operations. This includes the ability to abuse the power to summon, prorogue and dissolve Parliament to protect or advance the partisan interests of the governing party, without serving any democratic and/or public purpose. We describe how this undermines the capacity of the House to fulfill its three major responsibilities: to review government legislation, to scrutinize government administration and performance, and to extend or withdraw confidence as it deems fit.

The resulting concentration of those powers in a single individual does not belong in a robust democracy.

How has this circumstance come to be? We attempt to demonstrate how a lack of clear and basic rules addressing the most essential aspects of the Constitution combined with a lack of effective constraints by either the rules of the House of Commons or political parties on these powers of the prime minister have threatened the integrity of Parliament as a democratic institution and of responsible government.

In our book, we propose a number of potential reforms to remedy this situation and to shift power from the prime minister to the people's elected representatives in the House of Commons.

These are of course far from the only shortcomings in our system. We also examine other limitations such as the distorting effects of the first-past-the-post electoral system.

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But the point here is simply that of all the reactions that DePape's actions have generated, it is unfortunate that greater reflection about what is needed to strengthen Canadian democracy and how best to address these needs have given way to overconfidence in the status quo.

After all, "one swallow does not a summer make."

Mark D. Jarvis is a doctoral candidate at the University of Victoria and co-author with Peter Aucoin and Lori Turnbull of Democratizing the Constitution: Reforming Responsible Government, available soon from Emond Montgomery Publications .

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