Throughout the past week of parliamentary manoeuvring, it was hard not to detect in the government’s reactions a note of astonishment, even shock.
The notion that a committee of Parliament might have the temerity to demand that ministers appear before it or that government papers be released to it – or worse yet, that the government might be bound to accede to their demands – I mean, these things just aren’t done, are they?
Hence the hysterical rhetoric about government being paralyzed and ministers being unable to do their jobs, if either were required to conform to the sort of basic standards of accountability that are routine in other democracies. These things are done, actually. They just aren’t done in Canada – or haven’t been until now.
Majority governments, it is true, need not make any serious effort to answer to Parliament or its committees, given their automatic control of both or rather given the relatively recent convention that MPs on the government side should make no attempt whatever to hold the government to account, beyond requests that it explain “what makes it so extra-specially wonderful.”
But we are not in a majority at present. Rather than effortlessly straight-arm all inquiries into its activities, a minority government is obliged – would you believe it – to respond to them.
The government’s behaviour over the past week – threatening to dissolve Parliament rather than accept a committee of inquiry into the WE Charity scandal, invoking the possible loss of life-saving vaccines should another committee look into its handling of the pandemic – suggests it has not yet come to terms with this.
The point is not that the Conservatives, in proposing the two investigations, were not also motivated by partisan self-interest. No doubt some of the demands in each motion were overdrawn or unnecessary. The point is that it is not up to the government of the day to police such matters – to decide, on its own, what is or is not an acceptable level of parliamentary scrutiny. Yet that was both the intent and the effect of declaring the first vote to be a matter of confidence, as it would have been had the second also been so designated.
Does it matter? What difference does it make whether a committee of Parliament looks into something? Aren’t they typically just forums for partisan grandstanding? Don’t we have independent officers of Parliament, such as the auditor-general or the ethics commissioner, to do this sort of thing?
But there’s no reason we can’t have both. Much of Watergate was uncovered by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but much else came out of the Senate committee hearings. Was there a lot of self-interest, grandstanding, wild claims and overheated rhetoric, on both sides? Of course. The same is true, you may have observed, in a trial. Ours is an adversarial system. It’s how we get at the truth.
At any rate, whether to strike a committee should be up to Parliament, not the government, to decide. Which means it should be up to Parliament, not the government, to decide what is or is not a matter of confidence. So long as any attempt to hold the government to account can be subject to the threat of dissolution, MPs will have a knife at their throats. It is time to take the knife away.
It is one thing to say that governments must at all times command the confidence of the House. It is quite another to allow governments to define for themselves what constitutes a test of the House’s confidence. As history has shown, they cannot be trusted with this power.
Sometimes, as under Paul Martin in May of 2005, they have ignored defeats on what were clearly votes of non-confidence. More usually, they have insisted on treating as matters of confidence motions that were neither intended to be by their sponsors nor could plausibly be interpreted as such.
At the least, then, the matter needs to be removed from their discretion. There are some votes that are, by their very nature, matters of confidence and understood to be so: Throne Speeches, budgets and so on. Otherwise, the practice should be much as it is now in Britain: only an explicit motion to the effect “that this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s government” can be considered a vote of non-confidence.
Other possible reforms – whether to require the support of a supermajority of MPs, rather than a simple majority; whether to allow only “constructive” confidence votes, in which an alternative government is proposed – can also be considered.
But it is essential that Parliament reclaim the power to dissolve itself. Now would be a good time to do it.
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