Whatever happened to the Backbench Spring?

It would be nice to think the House could help sort out the Duffy-Wright affair

The official minutes of the ethics committee’s meeting on Tuesday have now been posted. It is explained only that Liberal MP Scott Andrews proposed “hearings on the conduct of public office holders in relation to the handling of the repayment of Senate expenses by Senator Mike Duffy and the conduct of officials in the Prime Minister`s Office in this process,” that Conservative MP Chris Warkentin then moved that the meeting be conducted in camera, that Conservative MPs then voted in favour of Mr. Warkentin’s motion and… that’s it. Nothing else about Mr. Andrews’ proposal is noted. It is not on the agenda for this afternoon’s meeting of the committee.

Mr. Andrews claims that Conservative MPs voted to reject his proposal, but since the discussion did not take place in public it is basically impossible to say for sure what happened or what arguments were put forward.

Two months ago, Mark Warawa stood and began a minor rebellion. What ensued was, on a practical level, a fight for the right of individual MPs, specifically backbenchers, to stand in the House of Commons and speak at their own discretion and without having to obtain the permission of their respective party whip. On a principled level, this was arguably about something more than that basic matter of procedure or even the freedom of speech. Here was how Michael Chong explained it.

Despite Speaker Jerome’s ruling of April 14, 1975 that it is a right of members to put questions to the government during question period, today members of the House of Commons no longer have that right to ask questions of the government and to hold it to account.

That shift from the early 1980s to the present during question period from a coordinating and scheduling function on the part of the House leaders and party whips to you, Mr. Speaker, to one of command and control over who gets to ask and answer questions in this place, is instructive of the question in front of us today as to what we should do with members’ statements. That shift has eroded the basic principle on which modern Canadian political institutions are based. That is the basic concept of responsible government, the idea that the executive branch of government is accountable back to the legislature and that members in the House have to play that fundamental role, including members in the government caucus.

This shift from scheduling and coordinating to command and control has stripped members of the right to ask questions during question period and is now threatening to do the same during members’ statements. It has also eroded the power to hold the government to account, the fundamental concept of responsible government. It is something that our forebears felt important enough that a monument to Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine and Robert Baldwin, figures in Canadian history in building these institutions, was erected behind Centre Block overlooking the Ottawa River, proclaiming responsible government in Canada.

It is something that the rebellions of 1837 were all about, the idea that crown prerogative was not unfettered and unchecked and that ultimately, the executive branch was accountable to the legislature.

In short, the idea that the executive is accountable to members of a legislature is a fundamental underpinning of modern political institutions in Canada, and the shift that has happened in question period and is starting to happen in members’ statements is eroding this very fundamental principle.

Two months later there is at yet no great outcry that Nigel Wright, until recently the most senior political advisor to the executive branch of this government, be brought before a parliamentary committee and asked to explain himself.

Now, it is possibly unfair to draw a line connecting these two things. The fight over the time reserved for statements by members was based on a specific complaint. It resulted in a small, but important, victory. And it was unreasonable—unfair, even—to imagine that that would result in a sudden outbreak of open dissent. The fight was worthwhile in its own right. It needed to be waged. And the Speaker’s subsequent ruling was an important milestone, regardless of what was to ensue.

The Harper government presently finds itself at a very sensitive moment. It might even seem that its future viability is in the balance. And so it would certainly be daring for any Conservative MP to join those now applying pressure to Mr. Harper’s administration. Perhaps at this point in time it is too much to ask.

But this might at least serve as a marker of how far we have to go to establish the legislature as an effective and responsible scrutinizer of the nation’s business and the affairs of the state. Six months ago, a group of Conservative MPs voted to invite Justin Trudeau, not yet the Liberal leader, to testify before the natural resources committee about comments he made two years earlier about Albertans (the motion has yet to be acted upon). This week, a different group of Conservative MPs apparently couldn’t be convinced to pursue a study of a payment made by the Prime Minister’s chief of staff to a sitting senator. It is good that the ethics commissioner is pursuing this payment. But, I would argue, it would’ve been good for the House to take up its own public consideration.

Yesterday’s Question Period was a worthwhile start to what might be a real, public, pursuit of the truth of this matter. It would be nice to think that our House of Commons could have some role in sorting out this affair.

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