The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: House of Commons

Identity – United We Fall

MuzzlingAt some point you have to stick up for yourself.  That is especially true in politics, where countless people come after you with their own agendas.  If you don’t, you might lose their vote.  And if you accede to what they wish, even though you disagree, you might lose yourself. – a tough bargain.

Conservative MP Mark Warawa has recently discovered a thing or two about this.  I know Mark, and even took French lessons with him one summer in Quebec.  He’s a nice enough guy, though we disagreed on many fundamental issues.  He holds strong opinions that are often fortified by support from a large number of his constituents.  When he announced in Parliament recently that he wanted to provide a MP privilege motion on the floor he entered a world of hurt. His own party, the party Whip, fellow committee members from his party, even the Speaker of the House (a Conservative) blocked his ability to stand up in the People’s House and represent the people of his riding. 

This was all because Warawa desired to put forward a motion against abortion.  This is just like Mark – go it alone if you can’t get your party to support you.  Yet as difficult as this for some people to accept, that’s exactly what an MP is supposed to be able to do.  As a Member Parliament, he has the “privilege” because he is elected to speak on matters important to him in the House.

The entire thing was a mess, but it was also a violation, not only of Parliamentary protocol, but of the lack of spine evident in so many MPs to stick up for the process of MP rights, even if they didn’t agree with the subject.  Mark found himself in the uncomfortable position of having his rights defended by a few opposition members, while at the same time having them denied by his own team.  But this was never about teams or partisanship; it was about the right of an elected official to raise a matter of privilege in the House of Commons.  He even consulted a parliamentary expert who agreed on the process and his right to put his motion forward.

So, Ottawa has come to this.  In the end it wasn’t about the government against the other parties, which has reached cancerous levels, but about a single MP representing his riding having no standing in the one place where he is supposed to be able to stand up for his constituency.

I enjoy Andrew Coyne’s writing, in part because he so quickly cuts to the chase on issues like this.  In his powerful article, How Mob Rule Muzzled Mark Warawa, and All Other Canadian MPs, he states, 

This isn’t a team.  It’s a mob: mindless, frightened, without purpose or direction except when the leader decides, and unquestioning in its acceptance of whatever the leader decrees.  What we have been watching these past few days is an exercise in raw power politics, designed as much to humiliate the individual in question as anything else.  And let it be noted that a good many members of Warawa’s ‘team’ were more than willing to take part.”

It’s bad, isn’t it?  Even shocking.  But we would miss the point of all this if we merely placed the blame on parties, or even the Prime Minister.  The real lesson here is that MPs not longer defend the process of Parliamentary procedure and democracy.  This is where Coyne is his most compelling: “… it is as much about the character of the individuals involved … Everybody has a choice … They could, as a few have done, stand up for what was right: they could protest against the leader’s abuse of power and the steady erosion of MPs’ prerogatives that made it possible.  Or they could choose to pile on, and collude in their own servitude.”

At the bottom of all this is you.  If Mark can’t be defended by other fearful MPs, then what happens when something urgent in your riding arises and you require an advocate for the cause?  What if the leader doesn’t want it championed?  What if your MP’s party decides it’s too risky?  Well, in the end, democracy isn’t really about them anyway, is it?  It’s about you, whether you deserve it or not.  A system has been put in place that permits your voice to be heard in the very centre of power through an elected representative.  The moment that is no longer possible, then you, your MP, and the entire democratic system, is worth little.

This is why Parliament itself can only be saved from its downward spiral by conscientious MPs who put ethical Parliamentary procedure before their party or even their ambition.  Their choice is a torturous one – legitimacy or the party.  They either stick up for the process of open access to power or they bury it. 

This is what citizens have been suspecting all along and Mark Warawa’s blocked efforts only confirm it.  Politics is all about fighting on a field between well-prepared and resourced troops drawn largely from the professional political class.  Not being able to play an equal part through their representatives, citizens have vacated things altogether because for them it was never a battlefield.

The deepest lesson in all this is clear.  The system can only be saved by courageous individuals, and not just a new leader or party renewal. 

It’s Our House

It was years ago and it was a vicious fire in a rural region. A number of us with firefighting experience volunteered to attempt to stop a forest blaze that was in the process of devastating the wildlife and habitat of the region. It had already consumed a number of houses and cottages and threatened a local woodworking operation. Seven of us had banded together in an attempt to head off the blaze before it charted a new path into another set of woodlots. We were filthy and exhausted, having struggled for the entire night and now half the morning.

It was almost noon when a helicopter arrived with some food and water for the team. It was then that we noticed one of our number was missing. We quickly retraced our steps until we found our new friend pouring water from his garden hose on the cedar shingles that covered an old modified farmhouse. I climbed the ladder, asking him why he had left us. “Glen, it’s my home. Everything I’ve built in my life is in here.”

I thought about that instance yesterday for some strange reason. I thought about the “People’s House” – Parliament, in all its splendour and historic significance. Everything we built in this country is somehow symbolized in that place. Everything from our aboriginal heritage, the building of the railroad, our industry sectors, children, natural resources, historical leaders, connections to the monarchy and to France, the BNA Act, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms – things we have built as a people and that I’ve had the privilege of preserving each day.

And right now it’s about ready to be consumed. This is alarmist, to be sure, but it’s fitting. Over 100 years of not just tradition but enshrined laws of jurisprudence emanated from that place. A woman’s right to vote, a child’s right to protection, a farmer’s right to till the land, and a family’s right to provide for their own – all these and so much more were sourced at that very spot. The House of Commons is hardly just a marvellous structure. Like a church or a family album, it houses who we are. It is a place of worship for the sheer power of human community and our desire to deal in toleration and respect for one another. It’s a place where we said to the rest of the world:

We know our differences and we live with our tensions, but we live as a people – one people – and for all our separate distinctions we have made a home for ourselves in a marvellous land. We worship it, died for it, live for it everyday. We celebrate our democratic faith in every region of our country and we celebrate our diversity. But it is in House of Commons where we find the ultimate source of our democratic pilgrimage. Many of us haven’t even been there. but our aspirations reside in its hallowed halls. It holds our spirit in the hands of legislators meant to keep us together and we place the future of our children in its care.”

Beautiful, inspiring and simple words that are now under threat. For the first time in our history we have a government found in contempt in that privileged place. Heat has given way to combustion. A man who would be king has opted to take the ultimate seat of authority by unparliamentary means and has defied the will of the people, expressed through the Speaker and their representatives. The flames have been encroaching for a couple of decades, but now they have been spotted on the inside, threatening our representative system from within.

Candidates during an election fight for many things, but some have split from the traditional hustings to defend a Parliament under assault. Young people are embracing digital media instead of garden hoses to protect its structure. Constitutional experts are carefully casting off their non-partisan leaning in favour of speaking out against a government bent on consuming our centre. Veterans, returned years ago from the battlefields, are figuratively donning their uniforms once more to protect a country they had already shed their blood for. Children are writing petitions and women are fighting for their rights. Environmentalists are fighting for our air and water, while unions fight to retain the true industry of this country – its people. Internationalists are weighing in over our lost influence in the world and democratic reformers struggle to  resurrect a citizen’s influence in Parliament.

I know there’s an inconvenient election taking place at the moment. I know it interfered with your Easter and the royal wedding. But if you look carefully, a number of your fellow citizens aren’t in your midst at present; they’re on a figurative roof, using whatever means they have at their disposal to protect that one place where you find your ultimate freedoms and protection. “It’s my House,” they proclaim through their struggles against a government bent on autocratic rule. And if you look through your papers, you’ll discover that you have a shared ownership in the place, with all the commensurate privileges and responsibilities that come with such a possession. If you can spare a minute, these brave souls could use your help on the roof. There are only a few days left to save it. Until May 2nd, to be exact.

The Lobby and the House

Here’s something of a private tour of the opposition lobby in Parliament and a tour of the chamber of the House of Commons itself.  You’ll see Conservative Michael Chong in it briefly, whose bill I’m seconding to improve the decorum in Question Period. And you’ll get a close-up of the Speaker’s chair.

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