Back at the start of the pandemic, in March, 2020, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau found himself having to reassure Canadians that he was actually quite a fan of the country’s parliamentary democracy.
“I want to make it very clear: I believe in our democratic institutions,” he said at one of his early COVID-19 briefings.
It was an odd thing for a duly elected Prime Minister to feel compelled to say, but Mr. Trudeau was on the defensive for good reason. His government had just been called out for trying to push through clauses in a major pandemic relief bill that granted the Finance Minister the power to increase spending and taxes without having to come back to Parliament for a vote until 2021.
This was an attempted end run around the foundational principle of parliamentary democracy that says the executive cannot tax and spend without the consent of Parliament. It would have still been in effect today had the opposition parties not reared up and said “no way.”
The offending clauses were removed, and the episode was quickly forgotten. But 21 months later, it has become clear that the incident wasn’t some innocent misstep, but was, in fact, a perfect expression of Mr. Trudeau’s disdain for Canada’s democratic institutions – a disdain that has been on display the entire pandemic, continues today and will no doubt live on in 2022.
Where even to start?
How about with the present: After winning a second minority government on Sept. 20, Mr. Trudeau delayed the return of Parliament for two months, until Nov. 22 – this after he declared the election to be the country’s “most important since 1945 and certainly in our lifetimes.”
After the previous two federal elections, Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals recalled Parliament within six weeks. The two Conservative governments before that did so in a month. There was no valid reason for the two-month delay – especially at a moment Mr. Trudeau claimed to be so historically urgent.
And now, after finally deigning to bring back Parliament, Mr. Trudeau’s government has actively hindered it from fully resuming its work.
As of Wednesday evening – nearly three full weeks into the four weeks of scheduled sitting time in the House of Commons prior to the Christmas break – only two of the House’s 25 standing committees had been made operational. A big reason for that is that the standing committee on procedure and House affairs, which prepares lists of committee members for approval by the House, only met for the first time last Friday.
As well, it took Mr. Trudeau until last Friday to name his roster of parliamentary secretaries – government MPs whose chief job is to stand in for cabinet ministers during Question Period and other House business and to help steer legislation through Parliament.
Had Mr. Trudeau recalled Parliament in four to six weeks after the election, and moved at a determined pace to bring it back to life, Canada’s democratic institutions would be fully functional by now. As it is, it will likely be February before that happens, after the holiday break.
Which might not be so bad except that, prior to its recall on Nov. 22, the House had sat for just 169 days since June 21, 2019.
Much of that was owing to the fact Mr. Trudeau, with the help of the NDP and Bloc Québécois, used the cover of the pandemic to adjourn Parliament through most of the spring and summer of 2020. The Prime Minister further sidelined Parliament by proroguing the House in August, 2020, when the heat from the WE Charity scandal started to singe him, and then by calling a self-serving snap election this year.
Mr. Trudeau clearly would prefer not to be held accountable by the democratic institutions he claims to believe in.
It even seems as though he considers himself above those institutions, a suspicion fuelled when his government sued the Speaker of the House this year to block a committee order to produce documents related to the removal of two scientists from a federal high-security virology lab in Winnipeg.
But Mr. Trudeau is not above Parliament. In a minority government, he only serves as Prime Minister at the pleasure of the House of Commons. It is not his place to choke off the debate and scrutiny that are the oxygen of our democracy, and the fact he continues to get away with doing so should worry all Canadians.
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