The COVID-19 crisis has neutered Canada’s already weakened Parliament. At the federal level today we are governed by the Prime Minister and his court. Canadians seem fine with this, even as the conventions of parliamentary democracy slip away.
Long before the pandemic forced us all into our homes, sittings had become fewer and farther between. “Even in good times, the Commons is meeting less and less frequently,” said Michael Morden, research director at The Samara Centre for Democracy.
“MPs were sitting 40 to 50 per cent of the year in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Now we’re down to around a third of the year or less," even before the pandemic struck.
After voters elected a minority Parliament last Oct. 21, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau waited until Dec. 5 to convene the House of Commons. A week later, the House rose for its Christmas break, which in Ottawa lasts until the end of January. The House sat for five more weeks before suspending on March 13 because of the public-health crisis.
Although it has sat for a day here and a day there to authorize emergency spending, regular sittings aren’t scheduled to resume until the third week of September, although “I’m starting to wonder whether we will have regular sittings before the next election," said Philippe Lagassé, a political scientist at Carleton University who studies parliamentary systems. “It’s a fair concern at this stage.”
Since minority Parliaments tend to have a shelf life of 1½ to two years, it’s entirely possible that Mr. Trudeau will take us into an election next spring, seeking a fresh mandate to govern in the wake of the pandemic.
If so, the 43rd Parliament could give the 31st of 1979 – Joe Clark’s short-lived Conservative government – a run for its money as the Parliament with the fewest sitting days.
If we truly valued Parliament, members would have found a way to keep going despite the pandemic. In Britain, the House has continued to sit, blending in-person and virtual representation.
But as Prof. Lagassé observes, British MPs see themselves as parliamentarians first and party members second, while Canadians MPs are slaves to the party whip.
The concentration of power in the hands of the Prime Minister has also sidelined cabinet, said Daniel Béland, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada. "Now the model is centred on the Prime Minister, some advisers in the [Prime Minister’s Office], a few top civil servants, a few ministers like [Deputy Prime Minister] Chrystia Freeland. They are the dominant players.
“This has been going on for a couple of decades. But in the crisis, it becomes even more apparent.”
Canadians like to be governed this way, which is why the system is replicated in the provinces.
“We’re comfortable with that as a people,” Prof. Lagassé said. “We want action. We want things done." We value the liberties guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and trust the courts to rein in any executive abuses. Otherwise, we expect legislatures to defer to the leaders whose agenda we voted for.
One check on executive authority, the press, has been in decline for years, as advertisers shift over to Google and Facebook. The pandemic has accelerated the decline for many news organizations.
And while provincial premiers often act as an unofficial opposition, the recession brought on by the COVID-19 crisis has left them politically weakened. Mr. Trudeau attached strings to the $14-billion in aid he offered provinces on Friday, including new provincial rules guaranteeing paid sick leave for workers. "We don’t want any conditions,” Quebec Premier François Legault complained, but $14-billion is real money.
With the Conservatives leaderless and demoralized and the NDP in steady decline, it’s hard to find any credible opposition to what is turning into the most dominant administration since the Second World War.
Although Mr. Trudeau didn’t create court government, as it has been called, we should be worried that he’s so comfortable with his pandemic powers.
“The crisis has emboldened the Prime Minister,” Prof. Béland said. While a public emergency may require the temporary concentration of power, he said, “you cannot suspend routine politics for too long, because that becomes the new routine.”
And then people might begin to wonder why we bother with Parliament at all.
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