In chemical terms, last month’s federal election was an inert gas. Injected into the chamber that is the heart of Canada’s democracy – the House of Commons – it produced no reaction. The new House is so close to the one from before the election that you’d need an electron microscope to spot the difference.
But while the election result merely reaffirms the Liberals’ minority government status, it also represents an important milestone: Parliament can finally get back to working as it was meant to.
Not that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is keen on that. On Friday, his office announced Parliament would return on Nov. 22 – two full months after the Sept. 20 election.
This despite the fact that, ever since the House of Commons rose on June 21, 2019, for the summer break, it has sat a total of just 169 days. That’s 169 days over two years and four months – a period that normally would have seen the House sit something like 260 days, based on an annual average in non-election years of 120 days a year.
Yes, there were some unavoidable reasons for this. In 2019, the fixed election on Oct. 21 meant that Parliament was dissolved just prior to its normal fall sitting schedule. Election years always have fewer sitting days.
And of course there was the COVID-19 pandemic, which started in March of 2020 and disrupted every aspect of Canadian life. The House could not stick to its normal schedule without putting MPs and their staffs at risk, at least not at first. It needed time to adjust.
But over the past two years, politics has played the biggest role in preventing Canadians from being meaningfully represented in Parliament, and in preventing a minority government executive from being responsible to the majority in an elected House. The politics were played by Mr. Trudeau.
After the Oct. 21, 2019, election, in which his government was reduced to a minority, he waited until Dec. 5 to recall Parliament – which then rose for the Christmas break eight days later.
In April, 2020, thanks to a government motion supported by the NDP and the Bloc Québécois, Parliament was reduced to a single, all-party special committee on the pandemic. It met by videoconference two days a week, and eventually added a third, in-person day in the House of Commons. These don’t count as sitting days.
Through most of 2020, Mr. Trudeau was able to govern as if he had a majority. Instead of answering to Parliament, he answered journalists’ questions in front of his house.
In total, between July 1, 2019, and June 30, 2020, the House sat for 40 days – a period during which Ottawa brought in sweeping COVID-19 relief measures costing hundreds of billions of dollars.
Mr. Trudeau further sidelined Parliament in August, 2020, when he used prorogation to bring an end to committee hearings looking into the WE Charity scandal. That didn’t reduce the number of sitting days in 2020, but it demonstrated a callous contempt for the role of MPs and Parliament.
And then, in a failed bid to build back better as a majority government, he called a snap election that effectively cancelled most of this year’s scheduled fall sittings.
And now, true to form, he is recalling Parliament in late November, when he could easily do it at the start of the month.
Enough is enough. Canadians may not always enjoy the partisanship and faux outrage that characterize politics, but having a functioning Parliament is vital to the health of our democracy.
The theatre of daily Question Period and the work of committees lie at the heart of responsible government – and they are never more essential than in a minority government.
Mr. Trudeau took advantage of the pandemic to shield his minority from a lot of parliamentary oversight but, barring an unexpected disaster, he won’t have it to hide behind in 2022.
We look forward to a reinvigorated House of Commons and a full quota of sitting days, with plenty of overdue heat aimed at Mr. Trudeau and his cabinet.
But it should come sooner. By hurrying up the process of naming a cabinet and producing a Throne Speech, the PM could have demonstrated some sympathy for the fact that Canadians have been shortchanged when it comes to responsible government for the past two years.
The fact he didn’t speaks volumes.
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