Parliament: who needs it?

COYNE: Harper's put the government on a two-month hiatus, but would three months be any worse? Or four? Or six?

Government sources say they are contemplating formally shutting down Parliament at the end of every year, so the government can start afresh with a Throne Speech and a budget.— CP

Every now and then comes a moment of startling clarity, when the brain shakes off the cobwebs and you see things, as it were, for the first time. The Conservatives’ prorogation of Parliament is one of those moments.

Coming at a time when the government was under parliamentary subpoena to produce the documents it was withholding in the Afghan detainee affair, the decision to disband Parliament yet again—a second time in the space of a year, the third in 15 months—was at first unsettling, a case (so it seemed) of a government attempting to evade democratic scrutiny by suppressing the one institution empowered to hold it to account. But the news that the government now plans to make prorogation an annual event casts this in rather a different light.

In their usual bracing, unsentimental way, the Tories are simply confirming a fact that many of us have attempted to deny until now: Parliament does not matter. Once it may have acted as a check on the executive, in the days when it was a genuine legislative body, whose members debated bills, questioned ministers, and represented their constituents in votes of the House. But it has not performed that role for many years—decades, in fact—and it is useless to pretend that it has.

Parliament has become a kind of vestigial ornament, like the monarchy, beloved of nostalgists but quite without any practical purpose. There hasn’t been a mind changed or a vote swayed by a parliamentary debate in 60 years. Question period is, by common consent, a national embarrassment, kept on only to provide employment for the parliamentary press gallery. The House still makes a show of voting, but it’s a pantomime, and everybody knows it. The only votes that really count are those of the party leaders.

So Parliament will be dark the next two months. Can anyone say they will miss it? Will we even notice? The government will carry on as usual. So will the opposition, holding press conferences and staging photo ops and the rest of the real business of politics, for which the House of Commons long ago ceased to be the venue. It might seem a bit shocking just now, with the media beating their drums about it. But after it has become routine, the same schedule observed year after year, will it still seem all that outrageous? It’s a two-month hiatus now, but would three months be any worse? Or four? Or six?

Indeed, as long as we are discarding the pretense that Parliament matters, would it not make more sense—I grant this will strike some as controversial—to shut it down altogether? This country has a lot of important decisions to make: about the economy, the Afghanistan mission, global warming, you name it. Can we afford to spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year, distracting ministers from their responsibilities and taking up untold numbers of bureaucratic man-hours, all to preserve an illusion—that we are still a parliamentary democracy, in the centuries-old tradition of Westminster? Adults grow out of their illusions.

Before anyone gets too alarmed: I’m not talking about doing away with elections. Canada would still be a democracy, even without a sitting Parliament. But rather than engage in the charade of voting for individual candidates, we would vote directly for the party. The party that won the most votes would form the government. Which is what happens now, in reality.

To be sure, that might mean a party could win power with the support of less than half the voters. But again, how is that different than what happens now? In the present state of perpetual brinksmanship and uncertainty, it is hard for governments to plan for the long term or tackle tough problems like the deficit. Freed from the tyranny of Parliament, we should at last have the “majority” government everybody craves.

The good work that MPs do in their constituencies, forwarding immigration letters and the like, could be carried on by party officials. Indeed, they would have more time to devote to it, without having to do the trained-seal routine in Ottawa. And while MPs have an important role to play at present, lobbying ministers for infrastructure spending, that only benefits those ridings clever enough to elect a member of the governing party. How much better if there were someone appointed in every riding to do the job?

Most of the changes needed to bring this about would not require legislation; those that did should not prove too troublesome, on past form, for MPs to digest, though they might require a whipped vote. The one real obstacle to abolition is found in the Charter of Rights: “There shall be a sitting of Parliament and of each legislature at least once every twelve months.” Very well. Recall Parliament once a year for the Throne Speech—a glittering state occasion, full of pomp, reminding everyone of past glories. Then send them home the next day. Or in the quaint parlance of a dying age, prorogue.

You see how easy it would be?

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