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Preston Manning

It's time for a fresh start in Parliament Add to ...

There is a time for everything And a season for everything under heaven A time to tear down and a time to build A time to love and a time to hate A time for war and a time for peace. -Ecclesiastes

The current session of Parliament ended last week on very much the same note as it began last fall - with partisanship carried to excess and threatening to precipitate an unwanted and unnecessary election.

Last fall, it was the Conservative government's threat to abolish party subsidies that precipitated the crisis, and it was Prime Minister Stephen Harper's standing that was damaged. Most recently, it was posturing and brinkmanship by the Official Opposition over employment insurance reform that precipitated the crisis and, this time, it was Michael Ignatieff's stature that was diminished.

But as the writer of Ecclesiastes observed long ago, there is a time for everything. And perhaps this summer could be a time for our federal politicians, their key advisers and the Ottawa media gallery to take stock of the perceived dysfunctionality of Parliament and come up with a "fresh start plan" for this fall. By that, I mean a plan that would restore public confidence in Parliament at a time when such confidence is sorely needed, especially to facilitate economic recovery.

At the heart of declining public confidence in Parliament is the conduct of the daily Question Period, the image of our House of Commons most frequently shown on television.

So why don't the Speaker and the House leaders get together this summer and come up with a plan to reform Question Period to make it a credit, rather than a discredit, to the democratic process?

A starting point for their discussions could be a close examination of the Question Period procedures in the British House of Commons; the practice there generally enjoys a better reputation for civility and effectiveness than that of its Canadian or Australian counterparts.

At the same time, why don't the owners of our major media and the executive of the Parliamentary Press Gallery get together to discuss reforming the role of the media in reporting on parliamentary affairs. Media coverage tends to amplify the negative and controversial dimensions of parliamentary activity and to dampen or ignore the more constructive aspects.

Most of us would agree that one of the primary functions of a democratically elected parliament is to openly consider and pass legislation. In this regard, the current session of this minority Parliament has been among the most productive in Canadian parliamentary history. But you would never know it from the media coverage over the past eight months.

Since Jan. 26, when the second session of the 40th Parliament convened, 52 government bills have been introduced; of those, 26 have already been passed and have received royal assent. This legislation has included budget implementation measures, the appropriation of funds to finance the stimulus package, free-trade agreements with a number of European and Latin American countries, Arctic pollution protection and the enlargement of Nahanni National Park, energy efficiency and the facilitating of electronic communications, and Criminal Code amendments pertaining to organized crime, auto theft and trafficking in stolen property.

This output is a major accomplishment, particularly for a minority Parliament that the public (based on its perception of Question Period) believes incapable of even agreeing on what day it is.

Achieving this impressive output required significant day-to-day co-operation among the four House leaders to move the parliamentary agenda along. It also required constructive contributions from all sides of the House, participation in endless committee meetings, key testimony from expert witnesses, significant debates on principle, cross-party co-operation to secure amendments, and innumerable votes - dull activity by the media's definition of newsworthiness but absolutely essential to the peaceful and orderly governance of our country.

As part of a "fresh start" for Parliament this fall, there must be some way of reforming media coverage of its activities. But given Canada's commitment to respect freedom of the press, such reforms must come from the media community itself.

Other "fresh start" measures could include bipartisan or multipartisan co-operation on some major piece of legislation - perhaps EI reform - or some agreement to alter the "confidence convention," so the only condition on which a government could be defeated in the House would be on an explicit motion of no-confidence moved for that purpose.

Whatever the content of a "fresh start plan," its necessity will never be accepted by politicians until we accept the principle that there are limits to partisanship that should be recognized and respected by all.

Those limits derive from the fact that voters are never as partisan as the partisans. They will never love us and our party as much as we do, and they will never dislike our opponents and their party as much as we may. When we step outside those boundaries - deifying our own cause and demonizing that of our opponents - we will lose public support. When we stay within those boundaries - clearly distinguishing ourselves from our opponents but in believable terms - we stand a better chance of restoring public confidence in ourselves, in our parties, in Parliament, and in democracy itself.

Preston Manning is president and CEO of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy.

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