Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Irresponsible Government: Holding the Third Party to Account

Accountability in Canadian politics is often a tenuous commodity. This is particularly the case in majority governments where the executive maintains both a firm grip on the House of Commons and the rules that govern it. The incumbent government is fond of using parliamentary rules and standing orders to curtain debate and speed bills through the elected chamber, making ample use of time allocation, closure and, perhaps most problematic, the use of omnibus bills. The ways in which a government can, if it so wishes, attempt to avoid accountability in the House are, as such, myriad.

While holding the government to account is a daunting task, the opposition is not without tools at its disposal. Question Period - although much maligned and, in many respects, a hollow exercise - remains the most visible and direct expression of the relationship between the executive and the elected assembly, between government and opposition. This brief - and (sadly) largely scripted affair - embodies the adversarial nature of Canadian politics and reflects the core of responsible government. It is here (in theory) that the government, through Ministers, is made answerable to the House by responding to queries about its general operations and the policies it peruses.

Of course, a government has little interest in being held to account for its actions. The most basic response to questions is often a non-answer. The simple dictum is to answer the question you wish had been asked or simply ignore the question entirely. The scripted nature of Question Period - and the reliance on notes and, for some, a lectern - make improvisation difficult and spontaneity in questions rare. Often the same question is asked multiple times - an answer or non-answer given - and then repeated in French. It is Question Period, it is often said, not Answer Period. The limited time frame for questions is further undercut by softball questions from backbenchers who eschew their responsibility for holding the government to account and instead devote their time to narrow partisan interests or to currying favour.

A second tactic readily employed by the government side is allowing parliamentary secretaries to speak on behalf of ministers. The bloated Harper ministry has made ready use of these positions. While these positions have legitimate usage - both in terms of partisan advantage in giving backbenchers experience and rewarding members with an additional allowance and in relieving the duties of overburdened ministers - their excessive use in the House to speak on behalf of their ministers, particularly during Question Period, is problematic. Minsters, and ministers alone, are responsible for the conduct of their departments. Holding the government to account necessitates, as such, that ministers respond to questions not simply delegating this responsibility to their understudies.

The government's reluctance to expose itself to oversight is understandable and expected. The behavior of the Official Opposition, particularly after the Liberal Party selected new leader Justin Trudeau, is equally understandable, although given the rhetoric of the NDP ("Ottawa is broken") and pledges to do politics differently, less expected. Despite never having formed government and only being the Official Opposition for two years, the New Democrats have increasingly placed partisan political considerations ahead of their duty to hold the government to account.

This is troubling as, given their privileged place in the Commons, the NDP is obviously best equipped procedurally and in terms of resources to provide the most effective political check on the executive and its actions. The response to the Senate scandal - and Liberal motions related to it - has once again proven the vacuous nature the opposition. Their display in Question Period has been pathetic.

Two episodes this week stand out. First, the Official Oppositions continues to see its job - and oddly enough, so does the government at times - as holding the third party (and not the government) to account for its actions. Consider, for instance, that so many of the NDP front bench's question - ostensibly to the government - have been so heavily prefaced with references to the actions of Justin Trudeau, particularly statements made (and subsequently taken out of context) in relation to embattled Senator Mac Harb. It's as if they think that the third party and its leader must retain the confidence of the House. Their understanding of parliamentary practice - among other areas, the Constitution chief among them - is sorely lacking.

Second, take the party's opposition to Liberal motions calling for greater accountability of parliamentarians. Here the opposition has entered into an interesting paradox, voting against the Liberal motions while simultaneously claiming that the Liberal leader was - as Nathan Cullen put it - attempting to 'take credit' for years of NDP effort. Instead, the opposition has focused, once again, on holding the third party to account by putting a motion forward (which passed with all party support) aimed largely at Trudeau's speaking engagements.

What this reflects is an Official Opposition used to Liberal governments - and perhaps expecting one in two years - and a government used to its own place, first in opposition and, second, in minority parliaments. The job of the official opposition is not hold the Senate to account and it is certainly not to hold the leader of the third party to account for his actions. Whether the NDP acts because it is unsure of its institutional role - either through ignorance (willing or otherwise) or sheer novice - or because of purely partisan electoral considerations - and a need to strike back at a resurgent challenger - is largely immaterial. By focusing on the actions of the third party, its leader and its Senators, the NDP is falling short in its sole responsible to hold the government to account.

The NDP surged into second place in part of the strength of its rhetoric. If Ottawa was indeed broken, the party has made little headway in mending the process. It has adapted by its astonishing electoral success by falling into patterns it once decried. Shaken by recent polls that spell electoral doom it has neglected its sole political responsibility by utilizing its place in parliament not to do its job but to attack an electoral opponent. Much has been made of the government's disdain for accountability, it's secretive ways and abhorrence of openness and debate. Responsible government rests on the understanding of the two parties involved that they both have a responsibility and an indispensable role. The government must answer for its actions and the opposition must force it to do so. These are two sides of the same coin. They are mutually dependent. Utilizing the limited opportunity available in Question Period to posture for partisan advantage is tantamount to dereliction of a central constitutional duty. Irresponsible government results from an opposition unwilling to do its job.

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