Parliament is supposed to be the most important place in the structure of Canadian governance. We don't elect a government; we elect members to the House of Commons, and out of them a government is formed. Government may propose legislation, but Parliament has to pass it. The government can't spend money unless Parliament votes it. And though a majority government has enormous power, it still has to work through Parliament, including by regularly standing in front of the opposition and facing their questions, during Question Period. There aren't many ways to hold a majority government to account. This is one of them.
Which is why something that happened earlier this week during Question Period should bother us. It says something troubling about the health of our democracy. The Leader of the Opposition, the NDP's Tom Mulcair, asked the government a simple question: Would the 30-day period of approval for a military mission to Iraq be up on Oct. 4? The PM was not in the House, so his parliamentary secretary, MP Paul Calandra, rose in his place. Instead of answering the question, he launched an attack on the NDP for being insufficiently supportive of Israel. Repeatedly asked about Iraq, he repeatedly read his notes on Israel. It was, for Mr. Calandra and the Conservative Party, deeply embarrassing. Or at least it should have been. Instead, his colleagues applauded.
The whole episode is a symptom of a bigger problem. The government more and more treats Parliament like a bothersome impediment, to be bypassed or minimized whenever it is expedient. For example, the government appears to have avoided proper legislative scrutiny for a host of crime bills by treating them as private member's bills, which receive much less study and oversight.
As for the PM's non-answering understudy, Mr. Calandra has pulled this act before. Last year, when the NDP's Charlie Angus asked another simple question – how many lawyers from the Prime Minister's Office were involved in setting up the deal to pay off Senator Mike Duffy's expenses? – Mr. Calandra rose and launched into a lengthy, heavy-handed speech on the virtues of the Conservative Party. Like his Iraq answer, it was a giant non sequitur. It wasn't clever. He didn't even pretend to address the question. And the government benches gave him an ovation.
What will the government do for an encore? Respond to unwelcome questions by reading from the dictionary? That would at least be informative.
To call Mr. Calandra a clown is to do a disservice to the ancient profession of painted-face buffoonery. But he is not alone in thinking that what is supposed to be our cornerstone democratic institution should be treated as somewhere between irrelevant and a joke. The other side of the aisle can be guilty, too. This week, an NDP MP showed her own form of disrespect, with extra points awarded for novelty. MP Charmaine Borg, one of the members elected from Quebec in the 2011 Orange Wave, tweeted out that she was launching a new fundraising campaign – and for a mere $50 donation, she promised to read your name in Parliament. For $1,000, she would stand up in the House and say, "Resistance is futile!"
For those not in on the joke, that is the favourite phrase of The Borg, a fictional group of cyborg aliens from the TV show Star Trek: The Next Generation. The aliens have the same name as Ms. Borg, which we get is really, like, totally hilarious when you're playing beer pong with your buddies, but possibly a tiny bit less appropriate for highest elected body in the land. We also get that it might be an easy fundraising tool to let MPs sell parliamentary time, and problematic for that reason. (How much could an MP charge to put someone's name on the House of Commons Jumbo-Tron? Wait, they don't have one of those yet?)
To Ms. Borg's credit, when she was criticized for her fundraising antics, she immediately admitted her mistake, pulled the offending words and apologized. To Mr. Calandra's discredit, he has done no such thing.
And the day after Mr. Calandra mocked questions with un-answers, Mr. Harper himself essentially answered the original question. Only he didn't do it in the House of Commons. He wasn't in Ottawa; he wasn't even in Canada. In front of a New York City business audience, Mr. Harper said the government is considering expanding Canada's involvement in the offensive against the Islamic State. It's bad enough that the government doesn't think it needs a vote on this in Parliament. Now Parliament has to learn about government policy by tuning into a press conference in a foreign country?
What's more, on Thursday a U.S. military spokesperson told Global News that Canada had recently approached the U.S. about what more we might be able to do in Iraq – whereas on Wednesday, Mr. Harper was telling the New York audience the opposite, that it was the U.S. that had requested help from Canada. Could we have some straight answers please – in Parliament?