The year in democracy

In the beginning, there was disagreement.

In the beginning, there was disagreement.

The first session of the first Parliament of the Dominion of Canada was called for the “despatch of business” at 3pm on the November 6, 1867. Specifically, the duly elected members convened that day for the purposes of choosing a speaker. John A. Macdonald spoke first that Wednesday, nominating James Cockburn. George Etienne Cartier stood to second the motion. And it was then, on this necessary first bit of business, that the House encountered its first dispute—Conservative MP Joseph Dufresne of Montcalm, Quebec, rising to lament that Mr. Cockburn could not speak French. “He thought it was to be regretted that, at the inauguration of a new system, greater respect was not shown to Lower Canada in this matter,” the journals report. “He looked upon this as a matter of national feeling.”

Nonetheless, after Mr. Cartier assured the House that Mr. Cockburn could at least understand French, the House unanimously elected its first Speaker. The House then adjourned until the next afternoon when the Governor General was scheduled to deliver the Speech from the Throne.

Debate on the address began on Friday at 3pm. But after just two interventions, business was interrupted so that Prime Minister Macdonald might explain why the minister of finance and the secretary of state for the provinces had just resigned. The ensuing discussion took up most of the afternoon, so it was only after dinner that Joseph Howe was given time to explain his objections to confederation.

The people of Nova Scotia, he said, “had been legislated into this House against their wills.” “With these remarks as to his own position he would proceed to the subject before the House, the consideration of His Excellency’s Speech,” the official record recounts. “As a public man of some experience he thought discussion on the speech a mere waste of time, but with respect to the speech now before the House, matter had been introduced which challenged the correctness of the view of the people of Nova Scotia, and, therefore, called upon them for discussion.”

He regretted, he said, some of what he had heard from Charles Fisher in the day’s first speech. “His honourable friend had said that party feeling should be laid aside, and it might be laid aside by his honourable friend, but with respect to this House he feared his dream would not be realized,” Mr. Howe explained. “There would be two altars in this House, the worshippers of which would be as far from agreeing as were those at the first two altars erected on this earth—the altars of Cain and Abel.” This drew laughter.

The topic here was actually something like original sin: this House gathered here after the Mother Parliament had allegedly failed to exercise due diligence and perhaps been misled as well. “He was in the House of Lords when the Act of Confederation was passed, and though that body consists of 400 members there were only ten members present at the third reading. If this had been a small matter affecting the slightest interest of one Peer of the realm there would have been a commission, or a committee of inquiry before Legislation had been allowed to pass,” Mr. Howe apparently ventured. “With respect to the House of Commons, though the members did attend in their places the question was not discussed. Men like John Stuart Mill, who had studied subject of Government nearly all their lives, might have come down with their views on this subject, but the House of Commons had not given the attention it deserved. The House owed it to the Empire, it owed it to the North American Colonies, that a full investigation should have been made before the measure was passed, and perhaps amendments might have been introduced that would have rendered it acceptable. One member of the House of Commons had actually stated that the question had been discussed at every hustings in Nova Scotia, a statement which the people of Nova Scotia had shown to be utterly untrue.”

He would go on to explain at length his objections to the current situation. (Up to and including the postal system: “No poor widow, keeping a forty shilling a year way office can look for appointment or preferment except through the favour of some gentleman in Ottawa.”) He is said to have spoken for an hour and forty minutes and “was listened to with great attention.” “He made many capital hits, and was warmly applauded on resuming his seat,” the official record states. “In conclusion, the
mere parchment does not make a Union, the Act of Parliament does not create harmony,” he is reported to have said. “The Act might be acceptable to the Canadians, and why not? They obtain a vast seaboard, they extend their limits, and had they done it fairly and honourably no man with a head on his shoulders would have complained. But the people of his own Province had been tricked into this scheme, and he very much regretted that it had not been approached in a manner which might have led to the perfecting of a measure which would have rendered unnecessary such a speech as he had been compelled to make.”

After two more speeches, including a thorough response from Charles Tupper, the House adjourned for the weekend at 11:30pm.

From this mess, the torch was passed, be it ours to somehow keep from being extinguished.

The House of Commons, not to mention the country for which it was created to represent, persisted. It persisted through 1868, when the first omnibus bill—An Act to continue for a limited time the several Acts therein mentioned—was tabled. It persisted through 1916, when fire destroyed the chamber. It persisted through 1923, when the Senate rejected as too broad an omnibus bill that would’ve allowed for the construction of 29 new railway lines. It persisted through 1982, when the opposition walked out of the House and refused to return for two weeks, eventually compelling the government to split the Energy Security Act into eight separate bills. It persisted through 1990 when Liberal Senators played kazoos to delay the passage of legislation on the GST. It persisted through 1999 when Reform MPs compelled votes on 471 amendments to hold up the Nis’ga treaty.

It persists now, amid much stated concern about its function, ability, purpose and power.

Last year was thought to have been a low point—the first government in history to be found in contempt of Parliament subsequently elected with a majority. On various counts, this year could be said to have been worse.

That majority government pushed two omnibus budget bills, each more than 400 pages, through the House. The Parliamentary Budget Officer was stymied and scoffed at by the government that created the office. The Auditor General found that Parliament had not been fully informed about the cost of the F-35 procurement. The finance minister once again provided his fall update to an audience far away from here. The Government House leader caused a bit of a commotion with some finger-wagging and swearing, while the chamber was regularly reduced to the stage for a poorly acted farce. That House leader made frequent use of time allocation to limit debate. Elsewhere, the provinces of Ontario and British Columbia were respectively deprived the luxury of a functioning legislature.

But here, this year, there was a fight. Unburdened without the possibility of an election, the opposition parties acted to make passing those omnibus bills at least a prolonged and public inconvenience, ensuring that neither passed without wider notice. The Parliamentary Budget Officer pressed on, seemingly undaunted. The Auditor General brought something like the truth to bear on the F-35 file. The Internet forced (or helped to force) the Public Safety Minister to retreat. Doctors interrupted cabinet ministers. Scientists marched on the Hill. And after #TellVicEverything, there was Black Out Speak Out and #IdleNoMore. And now there is this hunger strike.

If our democracy is not quite the vibrant construct we wish it was, there are glimmers. The government and the official opposition are led respectively by erudite policy wonks who like to imagine themselves as pugilists in the rhetorical ring—and for the first time this particular former has a comparable rival in the latter. Elizabeth May has taken up residence in the far corner and made parliamentary democracy her cause. Megan Leslie often asks questions and Michelle Rempel periodically responds. The chair of the ethics committee is 21 years old and among the most prominent members of the official opposition are half a dozen women who were born in the 1980s. Brent Rathgeber has a blog. Michael Chong and Irwin Cotler are still here, as are various other men and women of whom their constituents can be proud. And by next summer the third party will likely be led by either a man blessed of good genes, great hair and immense potential or an astronaut.

So if it is not all good, it is also not all bad. But if this past year was about anything it was that fight—those fights and that they were had and what they might amount to. In those hours and hours and hours of standing and sitting and standing and sitting for C-38 and C-45 was something like the essence of parliamentary democracy: the governing party testing the limits of what it might get away with and the opposition doing everything in its power to subject the government’s actions to scrutiny. In the Parliamentary Budget Officer and the Auditor General were necessary stalwarts. In the hashtags and shouting was the public, or at least segments thereof, imposing itself on the proceedings. The fight is not quite an end in itself. It should amount to something. Change, if decided to be necessary, must be realized. The process of perfecting this grand measure requires more than 140 characters. But it is the fight that keeps this blessed mess alive and the flame lit. Short of utopia, the fight must be had, over and over and over. (We might wish that the fight was fought on nicer or wittier terms, but we should neither expect nor desire that advancing ourselves forward won’t involve some kind of fight.)

A few months after the 2011 election, after the principles of Westminster democracy were apparently set aside in favour of a strong, stable, national government, a sizeable number of citizens paused to mourn the passing of a thoroughly political man—an individual whose last act as leader of the official opposition was to launch a 58-hour filibuster. If that week of public recognition seemed to show we were not quite yet entirely consumed by cynicism, 2012 perhaps showed the fight is not yet out of us.

You are free to despair for it all. But at least so long as the fight goes on, there is the possibility of a more perfect democracy.