A blog to give a voice to our concern about the continued erosion of our democratic processes not only within the House of Commons and within our electoral system but also throughout our society. Here you will find articles about the current problems within our parliamentary democracy, about actions both good and bad by our elected representatives, about possible solutions, opinions and debate about the state of democracy in Canada, and about our roles/responsibilities as democratic citizens. We invite your thoughtful and polite comments upon our posts and ask those who wish to post longer articles or share ideas on this subject to submit them for inclusion as a guest post.
Contact us at democracyunderfire@gmail.com

Sunday, December 27, 2009

All I wanted for Christmas…

…was a functional and democratic parliament where bills are debated upon their merit not upon who proposed them, where the answers during question period are actualy answered, where parliamentary committees are allowed to do their job without partisan bickering and walkouts, where the senate operates as it should as an independent non partisan chamber to protect us against poorly conceived or worded legislation. Where parliament is not suspended whenever difficult questions are asked or must be addressed.

Where our political leaders don’t whip their slave’s member MPs into line, where the PMO means the Prime Ministers Office not the Prime Ministers Oligarchy, where all those civil servants, diplomats, commissions and boards are left alone to do their job without political interference. Where the parliamentary budget officer has sufficient resources to do his job and is allowed to report to the taxpayers who supply both his budget and all the money he tracks.

It would be nice if I could also get a voting system where by I can elect the best man or woman to represent my local interests without having to also elect all the baggage of the political party he or she represents. It would be nice if I could get reliable factual information on the vast amount of moneys spent by government (supposedly on my behalf!) to “stimulate” the economy in recent times. It would be nice if I had a strong argument against those who say our democracy is dead but I fear that although not dead it is seriously sick, what miracle it is going to take to revive it I don’t know but I don’t think its going to happen this Christmas.

I hung my xmas stocking out and would have loved to see it bulging with new cooperation, accountability, access to information and other nice surprises but I woke up to see just a partisan lump of coal in the toe. Maybe next year….

May all of you have a wonderful holiday period with family & friends and forget this political crap for a few days. Let us all hope for a change for the better during 2010 in ALL of the legislatures across the country but particularly in that one in Ottawa

EDIT - For last years wish list, which I did not get either see http://ruralcanadian.blogspot.com/2008/12/all-i-want-for-christmas.html Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Democracy is Under Attack

The title of this Blog says it all, and if some readers find this post “partisan” then so be it, for the attacks upon our democracy seem to be coming primarily from one direction. That the recent total distain for the will of Parliament by the current political party in power is but one small item in a long string of such actions, make it all the more necessary to make sure that everyone realizes the import of such actions. This is NOT about prisoner abuse, important as that may be, but about our “government” hiding information and blocking our elected representatives from getting at the truth. I am so upset by this blatant abuse of our parliamentary traditions that I cannot rationally post about it. This then is a collection of recent writings on the subject from just a few of those that are as concerned as I for our democracy under the hands of the present “leader”, even if you only read a few of these opinions you will get the general idea!

Rule of law, will of Parliament - doesn't really matter

A Nation Slumbers, As Democracy Dies

Say so-long to democracy guys. . . .

elected representatives, not the executive, are supreme

constitutional crisis time once again.

PM's office holds bulk of political power

rationalizations and rogue government

Independent PS unravelling

Harper heads for constitutional crunch

A Study in Hypocrisy

Conservatives on Transparency and Accountability...

Another standoff on Hill

Harper's contempt for democracy

Are the Cons Planning to Shutdown Parliament?

Time to suspend Parliament?

Contempt for Parliament?







The online community and even the MSM is obviously starting to realize what is going on, but how many of those who just watch the evening news have a true sense of the dangers from those who would take executive powers far beyond its intended use. Call it an Oligarchy or possibly even the thin edge of Dictatorship but it sure as H is not Democracy!

T/H to all of the above authors Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Definition of Government

There are many definitions of the word "government" ranging from “A government is the body within an organization that has authority to make and the power to enforce laws, regulations, or rules.” to “Body of people that sets and administers public policy, and exercises executive, political, and sovereign power through customs, institutions, and laws within a state.

For me the definition of a Democratic Government includes all those “bodies of people” responsible for making and administering decisions, laws and policy affecting the citizens of that country. That includes parliament and all our elected representatives, the senate, all those civil servant charged with overseeing and administering decisions made by parliament (particularly parliamentary officers) , our diplomatic representatives at home and abroad, and yes, the office of the Prime Minister. It is not, in my view, simply restricted to those who happen to be associated with the party who received the current mandate to administer “government”, to the leader of that party (the Prime Minister), or to that small group who the selected leader of that party has chosen to “advise” him.

That is not what most of us are referring to when we say “the government has….” or more particularly “The Canadian Government” , we are generally referring to that narrow definition that only includes those persons with the power to make decisions within the particular party currently in power. For many it perhaps does not even extend to those back benchers of that party but only to the PMO, their staff (elected or not) and the individuals in cabinet.

This examination of what we mean by “government” is brought on by the recent “request” by the majority of our representatives for the “government” (that’s the current ones with the power to instruct our civil servants) to produce unaltered historical documents so that a parliamentary committee can decide if individuals or groups of individuals have conspired to withhold information from our elected representatives. That such information may have implications for not only those that withheld the information but for the reputation of the country as a whole and possibly the individual solder putting his life on the line for “democracy” in Afghanistan, makes it essential that the truth be known. The public may not need to know all the details if such are of a “sensitive” nature, portions of the hearings could be closed to protect such, but as Robert Walsh, the Parliamentary Law Clerk recently said:-

In keeping with the principles of responsible government, no part of the Government’s responsibilities can by law be categorically excluded or removed from its constitutional accountability to the House and its committees, otherwise it would soon become only partial accountability and perhaps after some years no accountability at all.”

Perhaps we are already at that tipping point?

To clarify, I view the governing party and more particularly the PMO and cabinet as the “Executive branch of Government” as such they are PART of Government. A part that has special executive privileges it is true, but still a part, not the whole. A part that should be no less accountable for their decisions and actions than the various departments and individuals that they oversee on our behalf. It is perhaps the more narrow definition that we all refer to when saying, The Government did that or did not do this, that has led to our current executive branch referring to themselves by prefacing the word government with the current leaders name. Is it that they believe that they and they alone comprise The Government of Canada? Could it be that the current leader of the party charged with those “executive responsibilities” believes he has absolute power to do as he wishes despite the wishes of the majority of those parliamentarians charged with representing our wishes?

As with many things in our parliamentary democracy the lines between the power of the executive branch of government and the power of the people and their representatives to hold them to account is far from clear. What is clear however is that when those charged with that responsibility deliberately withhold, obscure, are less than truthful about, or otherwise seek to block information affecting both their own reputation and that of the country then we are well down that slippery slope towards oligarchy.

I am however somewhat encouraged by the number of bloggers who have picked up on this attack upon our democratic processes, it is increasing clear that the internet is our best tool to disseminate information and pressure those in power to “play by the rules”.
I hope to dedicate a post in the very near future to the link between the public use of the internet and the protection of our democracy. Your input is invited by comment or email,

T/H to Impolitical and DrDawg for this one… Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Are our Representatives Listening

Its been another strange week on the political front which makes it all the more difficult to keep these pages relatively non partisan, they are after all supposed to be about democracy which SHOULD be independent of political ideology but in actual reality is closely tied to the efforts each party puts into ether supporting it or subverting it.

The refusal of the Ontario Government to hold public hearings on the HST proposal for that province and the support for that proposal in our Federal Legislature despite broad public outrage made me wonder if any of those who purport to represent us are listening.

Our PM releasing his Economic Action Plan update on a plane to China rather that in the House of Commons coupled with his refusal to call a public inquiry into the possible withholding of information on the Afghan prisoner affair, despite a motion to that effect having passed in the HoC, make me wonder how the public can make voting decisions when the facts are withheld or misrepresented.

The one body that I am not (yet) completely in despair of is the Senate, there is still a great deal of good work coming from that chamber, however the efforts to subvert it for political purposes increases daily. That most senators are “political appointees” and a good number of them look at legislation with this in mind rather than the actual wording and impact of the propose legislation is an ongoing problem with this body. I am not the only one who thinks so below is part of a post by dale_smith which highlights both sides of that conundrum.

Sober second thought just won't do

The Senate has actually been doing its job – sober, second thought on the technical aspects of legislation – and the Conservatives are not happy. There are two bills in particular – Bill C-6 on updating the consumer product safety laws in this country, and Bill C-15, which imposes harsher mandatory minimum sentences on drug crimes. But while both bills passed the Commons unmolested, the Senate has been a different story, and they’re taking a far more critical look at these bills, and *gasp* they’re doing their job and proposing amendments.This just won’t do.So the Conservatives have been on the attack. The Health and Justice ministers go on television to denounce the Senate (those awful, unelected Liberal hacks – though the unelected Conservative hacks are all a-okay). During Members’ Statements yesterday, the Conservatives were on the warpath about how Michael Ignatieff needed be a real leader and get his Senators into line (even though they’re an independent chamber).Liberal Senator Joseph Day appeared on Power & Politics last night, and gave probably the best explanation for the Senate and its role in recent memory:

The House of Commons is a house of politics, and they balance things on politics. They look at all the matters that are before them, what they want to get out, what they want to fight. We look at each piece of legislation, and we’re somewhere between the judiciary – the judges – and the political body, the House of Commons. We have a role to play that is quite different from the House of Commons, and we do our job and they do theirs. I don’t think anybody should think that we are just the other side of the coin of the House of Commons.

And he’s absolutely right – they have a different job to play, and far too often, the House will pass bad bills because it’s bad politics to be seen to vote against it – and Bill C-15 is certainly proof of that. I know plenty of Liberals who were not happy that they were whipped into voting for it, but they can’t be seen be “soft on crime” in the current political climate. So it falls on the Senate to pick up the pieces – exactly like the chamber was designed to do back in 1867. Imagine that. The Conservatives can huff and puff all they like, but the Senate has a job to do, and as much as they don’t like it, it’s called a part of our democratic system.

Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Land of the free and home of the beaver may be in trouble.

In searching for ammunition for my weekly post I found these little snippets from recent articles which are food for thought. The title above comes from the first piece and pretty much says it all.

“The entire concept of democracy depends on the participation of the society’s adults at a level of literacy that is well above the basic. One must be able to not only understand the issues and their potential impact but to be able to evaluate and weigh the pros and cons of them without being unduly influenced by them until a decision has been made. In short, literacy is essential to a democratic culture.”
Lani Donaldson President of Beacon Literacy

Given what is going on with various parliamentary committees and court cases the following from the Supreme Court of Canada on the duty of loyalty in 1985 , is perhaps something that our governments need to be reminded of…………

“The loyalty owed is to the Government of Canada, not the political party in power at any one time. A public servant need not vote for the governing party. Nor need he or she publicly espouse its policies. And indeed, in some circumstances a public servant may actively and publicly express opposition to the policies of a government. This would be appropriate if, for example, the Government were engaged in illegal acts, or if its policies jeopardized the life, health or safety of the public servant or others, or if the public servant’s criticism had no impact on his or her ability to perform effectively the duties of a public servant or on the public perception of that ability.”

This from a recent speech by John Turner at St. Lawrence College, Kingston on Nov 19 2009 once again highlights the need to remove the power from political partys and return it to the individual MP’s……….

“(We) have found there are four major impediments to today's young people volunteering, as we did, to serve in public life. Firstly, they are not willing to make the financial sacrifices that we did -- and it is a sacrifice. They are not willing to risk their marriages with the exposure of public life. Another element that we didn't have in those days in the early 1960s is the penetration into private lives by the media we have today, and I find that despicable ... It has become a very difficult thing for younger people in this country, because nobody is a saint.
And the final impediment is, I'm not sure that the role of the member of Parliament or provincial legislature is worth it anymore, and whether the job is really the job it should be. And this brings me back to a speech I made in 1963 in my Montreal riding. I said we have to strengthen Parliament. What I said then is even more acute now, because the issues I spoke about then have become more dangerous now.
I said that I was concerned that the party whips -- party discipline -- is excluding the influence of an MP to express his or her views -- or, more importantly, the views of her constituency in Parliament, free of party discipline. I would take party discipline off all bills in the House of Commons except the Throne Speech, which is government policy, or the budget, which relates to taxation. Every other bill in the House of Commons, I believe, should be a free vote.
In the House of Commons today, there are very few private members' bills that get anywhere; the standing committees don't have the authority they used to have. And party discipline has become overbearing. It didn't begin with [Prime Minister] Stephen Harper, but he's a master of the craft.”

It often seems that retired politicians show much more concern for our democracy after they have little influence upon it rather than when they do. Then there are those that are in that position and talk the talk but do not walk the walk. Most of them in fact just seem to be stumbling backwards as in the example below…..

“For me, these (Remembrance Day) events have great meaning. They go to the core of my involvement in public service. To me, the core Canadian values of freedom, democracy, and opportunity are precious — indeed all too scarce in the world — and worthy of efforts to support them.”

Peter Van Loan MP Nov 11 2009

“The Senate lacks legitimacy right now, and appointing more senators without a democratic basis isn’t going to solve that problem,” Peter Van Loan, (Minister for Democratic Reform) July 2009.

But what exactly has our “Minister for Democratic Reform” done to protect and enhance those “core Canadian values “?
Nothing that I have heard of………………

Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Seeking the Truth from Government

This week has been particularly frustrating for the Canadian public to separate the spin from the facts both federally and provincially. It is generally VERY hard to find links to the FACTS as government tries to hide its mistakes and the opposition tries to make political hay out of any perceived error or questionable action. As I mentioned in passing a couple of weeks ago there are several citizen initiatives to bring as much government information as possible into the public eye. One such group which I will highlight in this post is Visible Government who are developing a number of tools to help us have easy access to such information. Please support them, and other similar initiatives, in any way you can because one thing you may be sure of is that government will NOT be making access to information easier any time soon!

Here is a quick overview of some of their current projects…..

Expense Visualizer (In Development)

As the result of a federal government directive, Travel and Hospitality Expenses have been published on the web in Canada since 2004. This information is currently spread across 124 different department sites, all publishing the data in subtly different formats. This project scrapes these expenses from the federal websites into a common format, so that this data can be supplied via an API to external tools and projects interested in using this information.

Access to Information Tracker (In Development)

Website for filing and tracking Access to Information requests.
Filing a federal Access to Information Request in Canada currently requires sending a $5 check, by mail, to one of over 100 different departments. Following the example of the UK site WhatDoTheyKnow, this project will allow Canadians to file Access to Information Requests, track their outstanding requests, and share the results of the request online.

I Believe In Open is a national movement to increase government transparency in Canada. We're organizing citizens to push politicians to make five commitments:

1. Support reforms that increase government transparency and accountability.
Citizens have a right to know what their government is doing.
In honouring this pledge, Members of Parliament will support reforms that increase the transparency of these institutions, allowing citizens to know what is happening inside their government.

2. Make campaign promises specific and measurable, and report progress on promises and their metrics at least semi-annually.
In honouring this pledge, Members of Parliament must publish a timeline for achieving their promises, along with specific metrics that can be used to judge whether or not a promise has been kept.

3. Publish the content of his or her daily schedule, including meetings with lobbyists and special interest groups.
We believe that, like ordinary citizens who use a punch clock at work, members of parliament should have to account for their time. When making this pledge, candidates promise to publish their daily official work schedule on the Internet, within 24 hours of the end of every work day.

4. Support reforms allowing free access to scientific and survey data gathered by government institutions.
In honouring this pledge, the candidate will support reforms that abolish access fees for scientific and survey data gathered by government institutions (at taxpayers expense).

5. Support reforms that make it easier for Canadians to obtain government information they have a right to know.
In honouring this pledge, Members of Parliament will support reforms that make the Access to Information process faster and more efficient. The member will support reforms that mandate publishing government information not restricted by citizen privacy issues by default, avoiding the Access to Information process altogether.

Disclosed.ca (Launched)
Aggregates federal government contract disclosures.
Disclosed.ca collects contract disclosure information from over a hundred different federal government websites, and makes them easily searchable.
Contracts can be listed by agency or by vendor.
There are currently almost 250,000 contract listed that can be searched by department or content.

As has been pointed out before, Australia, to some extent Great Britain and now the United States have made a concerted effort to improve their openness and accountability by improving both the sort of information provided via the internet and the means to locate and read it. Meanwhile our government is doing just the opposite, with the result that even our Parliamentary Budget Officer is having difficulty in locating the information necessary to do his job. This make projects such as the above even more important, go to I Believe In Open and sign up or give them your support by providing a link on your web site. Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Accountability for Public Expense’s

This post was originally going to be just about senators expenses but more revelations this week regarding MPs expenses have made me even more appalled at the volume of taxpayers money these “public servants” are spending or receiving for what I am increasingly believing to be less than stellar “service”!

Regular readers will know that I do not support the abolition of the Senate and believe it to be a necessary check upon badly conceived or worded legislation and particularly necessary in majority government situations. Never the less I cannot be anything but appalled by the recent revelations regarding some senators expenses charged to the public purse. Some examples recently quoted include figures of $7,000 or more per day attended which I must assume is based not just upon expenses submitted but include their annual salary and is so high due to the low number of days they attended. I am not at all sure that this is a fair measure of cost in that like our MPs not all their work is done in Ottawa and we must remember that the senate does not generally sit (although I believe some committee work still goes on) when parliament is not in session. Remember that the government of the day has control over when parliament is in session and last year was particularly lacking in such periods!

Even so the allegation that “108 Senators spend 35% more in expenses in a single fiscal year than 308 MP’s.” is most disconcerting and does indeed need looking in to. I searched for both the report of the above salaries and expenses and what rules and limits exist regarding same on the Parliamentary web site without success. Perhaps a reader can provide a link to such information. It probably reported somewhere but as is the norm with our government (of all stripes) these sort of details are hidden in some obscure place which is where the affront to our democracy comes in. As highlighted in previous posts the lack of access to information or the obscuring of said information is to me just as troubling as what seems to be, to most of us average Joes, an obscene amount of public money spent for in some cases little on no services rendered.

Even as a supporter of the Senate I must join the call for considerable reform in the method of selecting senators, the term they serve, the pension to which they may then be entitled to and the control and limits upon their expenditures whilst in office. It may be that in following these various stories I am becoming overly cynical but could it be that our illustrious PM who has threatened numerous time to abolish the Senate, particularly when they took the time to properly study and critique legislation proposed by his government, planned it this way. Certainly one such recently appointed Conservative Senator whom some have referred to as “His Puffiness” and who has racked up over more than $44,000 in expenses (some reports say more ) in the 3 months since he was appointed, apparently promoting the Conservative government point of view, has done his share to demean and bring into disrepute the entire chamber and done much the increase the calls for its abolition. How much of his expenses were actually spent upon “chamber business” and how much on promoting the Conservative party of Canada is unclear but that too needs to be examined closely.

The above is bad enough but when we then also look at some of the expenses submitted or incurred by our MPs we must begin to wonder if these folk are living in the same world as those many Canadians who are out of work, living on minimum wage or their savings or otherwise supporting a family on just a small percentage of what these folk are spending on expenses. We must recognize here that much of this may well be legitimate expenses incurred doing their job however I am convinced that the average Joe could easily reduce these numbers. First class air fair and top notch restaurant meals are nice once in a while but hardly “necessary”, most private citizens on an expense account (those fortunate to have a job with such a thing) would have to pay for that type of upgrade out of their own pocket.

But I digress, The report that the MPs printing costs have doubled to TEN MILLION DOLLARS per year over the last 3 years was what was responsible for my outrage. That much of this expense was incurred in printing what most now recognize as partisan material by the government MPs in the form of an unprecedented volume of 10%ers makes it even more galling. Remember there were mailed out at public cost (MPs do not pay for mailing but it does cost Canada Post to provide this service for which we pay in one way or another) adding to the hidden costs . When we then also see that this same government has spent THREE MILLION DOLLARS in the last month advertising that they have an “Action Plan” but revealing no hard information that actually might be useful or informative to the general public then the numbers start to get totally unbelievable.

NEWSFLASH - Speaker of the House of Commons Peter Milliken recently said that the rules have been changed to allow partisan material on tax payer funded mailings. Where is the openness & accountability in this move?

Government, MPs of all stripes, Senators and indeed all public servants and their unions, must soon come to a realization that the public purse is NOT bottomless and ALL of them work for us and are paid out of our tax dollar. It is long past time that publicly available systems were in place to ensure that there is ACCOUNTABILITY for all this expenditure. Whilst the occasional revelation, such as the above hitting the news, does shake things up briefly, the need for timely (not 6 months after the end of the fiscal period) and fully accessible accounting of such expenditures be available to the general pubic is long overdue.

Accountability and Democracy go hand in hand, accountability cannot exist without access to information being open and accessible to the general public! Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Future of Democracy

Last week I republish a bit of Steves May’s thoughts upon the future of our democracy from a post in his series on this subject. Not having a great deal of time this week I have here cherry picked some items from part IX of this series. Much of his series is focused upon “green” issues but the following is food for thought regarding where are we going with this Parliamentary Democracy of ours. I have added my thoughts upon his comments, Steve & I would be interested in your thoughts upon this.


Changing Public Opinion through Education.Seems like this is going to be a generational project, as public education requires time and energy, and is best accomplished through education which begins at home with children and continues through meaningful exposure through our school systems. The good news here is that we have been largely turning out a good number of critical thinkers in the recent decades who understand and acknowledge the perils we face to a greater degree than do most. So, we’ve already got a bit of an advantage here. It’s too bad that many of the youngest in our society are disadvantaged by mounting debts, and disengaged from the political process and our civil society, which often dismissively shuns their involvement. Given our aging demographic, this doesn’t really come as a surprise.

Indeed education is the key but we must ensure that it is FACTUAL not political spin that the public, and more importantly our youth receives!

Leaders Must Initiate a Public Discussion About the FutureRight now, our governmental Leaders have been completely ducking these discussions. Other leaders, though, are stepping up throughout all sectors of our society, and are trying to engage Canadians. While the media has largely ignored these efforts to plan for our increasingly local futures, the momentum is clearly in place. Our elected Leaders need to play some catch up. Shifting public opinion will be their impetus to do so.This discussion must begin quickly, and it needs to take place in an unbiased manner, based on fact and not conjecture.

I am very much afraid that the majority of our POLITICAL leaders will do NOTHING that would change the status quo unless it is forced upon them by public opinion and pressure from the minority of us who see these issues as a threat to the future of our democracy as we know it. We have many politicians but darn few Leaders!

Sweeping Legislative ChangesThe tools for implementation will require sweeping changes to federal and provincial legislation, and that’s not going to happen over night, especially when the public service is going to be focused on cuts. However, these changes will be needed to force the agenda. Pressure to do so must be unrelenting: from the public, from the business community, from other levels of government, from the media.

Again Steve is aiming more at legislation to implement changes related to Climate Change but the same discussion must take place regarding how we are governed in general.

There are many impediments to changing our laws, even when there is a laser-beam focus to do so. Some things to consider:-Abolish the Senate in case they decide to hold legislative changes up (provincial governments don’t have Senates anyway; we won’t have the luxury for this Chamber any longer...plus, think of the cost savings). If abolishing it won’t work, then suspend it.

Despite the recent revelations on the excessive, perhaps obscene is a better descriptions, expenses of some senators I really believe that we must retain the second chamber in order to put at least some checks upon government proposals, something which at this point does not seem to be happening in the HoC. If we ever get to the point where parliament starts working as it should and discussion and compromise become the norm not the exception, then perhaps there may be room to drastically reduce the Senate. There is not much doubt that there needs to be changes in the way the senators are selected, their term in office and upon the expectations of value for compensation received, but this check upon poorly conceived or worded legislation is still needed at this time..

-Stop the practice of partisan politics and restore meaningful debate to parliament. A bit of a tall order to say the least, but we can do this if we elect fewer politicians who are in Parliament to play games.-Adopt a much more representative form of government which is based on proportional representation. This must be a priority, although we often think it will take time. It doesn’t have to. Our elected officials can just do it. And should.

Agreed, but just about impossible to actually implement, all we can do is keep letting those in power know that partisan politics is unacceptable. We elect individuals to represent us not Partys.

Give Local Governments the Powers They NeedThere will need to be greater partnerships with all levels of government. This includes municipal governments, who are going to be tasked with delivering at least part of the mandate. Municipalities will need to receive real powers from senior levels of government, and finally transition from "creatures of the province" to "mature levels of government". Municipal elected officials must assume this responsibility with foresight and in good faith: they must acknowledge that they will be under a greater degree of public scrutiny, which is as it should be, if municipalities are given the power to tax. Power comes with responsibility. Deal with it.

A VERY complex subject given our current mix of what services are provided by which level of government, and which of those provides the funding and criteria for said services. I agree in principal but the devil is in the details on this one!

UrgencyI’ll say it again: All of this must occur within the context of a sense of impending urgency. Some have suggested something akin to a "wartime mobilization"; I’d like to see a little more thought than that go into it, but really I’m still talking about significant action being discussed over a very short period of time (say 6 months) and then action being implemented quickly. If we’ve learned one thing from the Stimulus spending, it’s that it’s not always as quick to make decisions or implement them as we might like it to be, however, it can still be done.

The longer it takes for Parliamentary and Electoral reform, or to tackle Climate Change issues, the further down that slippery slope towards an irreversible situation we get and the harder it will be to turn back.

Take Personal ResponsibilityYou must take personal responsibility as a member of your family, your community, your province and nation. You must educate yourself to the point where you have a decent understanding of the challenges we are faced with. You must act in concert with the emergent consensus. You must acknowledge that the consequences of inaction are too great to consider…………..

Indeed, each of us must not sit back and ignore these important issues, be it Climate Change as Steve is alluding to, or the demise of our Democracy that I am equally concerned about.

Extracted from Part IX http://sudburysteve.blogspot.com/2009/11/future-of-democracy-in-canada-personal_05.html Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Future of Canadian Democracy

“Sudbury” Steve May, a green party supporter, is in the middle of writing a series of articles for his blog entitled “The Future of Canadian Democracy: A Personal Journey”. The first of these pieces just touches upon the threats to our democracy and focuses upon the inaction of our government on the “green” file, the second and third articles are more in tune with our focus upon democracy contained in these pages. Part II is subtitled Media in Crisis and contains these truths……

“Most (people) are accessing (news) through visual formats, be it on television or on the internet. The written word format lends itself to being more comprehensive than a visual format, which tends to rely on images, the more sensational the better, to tell the story, with perhaps some commentary about what it is that you’re supposed to be looking at. It’s a very powerful medium, for sure. But is it the best medium for individual citizens to inform themselves on the issues?Increasingly media outlets are moving away from “fact-based reporting” to providing infotainment. What are we losing? Well, for one thing, we’re losing smaller media outlets which can’t compete with the big boys, whether it’s because of format (local newspapers no longer being published because no one is reading them) or consolidation (local tv and radio stations closing down their shops because it’s too costly to produce local content; so if you live in Sudbury like I do, you can find out as much as you want about what’s going on in Toronto but you won’t find out what’s happening in Sudbury). For another thing, we’re losing the oversight which media used to provide us with to keep our institutions in check. Now, some might take exception to this point of view, and that’s your right, I suppose. But I’d ask that maybe you conduct a bit of a critical analysis here. First, one of the roles in which we have come to expect from media is to report the facts, expose the cover-ups, and keep us all honest, whether it’s our government or the business community, or just individuals who may have done bad things. What used to distinguish truly democratic countries from authoritarian regimes was the extent of freedom those nations allowed their media to operate within. I say that those days are long gone. Media has evolved, because media now has a different master. As a result, they are playing a different role. Media no longer answers to you, the media consumer, by providing you with facts and information. Media now answers to their shareholders, to the corporate giants which have acquired media outlets, from newspapers to radio stations to tv stations.”

Part III is subtitled “Democracy in Crisis” and expands upon this theme of media inattention and corporate bias…..

“(If) the hallmark of a healthy democracy is a healthy and free media, and our democracy is showing signs of not being healthy and so is our news media...where does that leave us? What we value in our democracy is slowly being eroded, and it is happening in tandem with what we have come to value as media oversight. It is doubtful that our democratic institutions could have ended up where they are today if the media had been more vigilant in drawing attention to what has been happening. In part, though, this has happened because we ourselves have had false expectations of the media. We really thought that they would be there for us to help us understand issues, to educate us and assist us in making up our own minds.But that’s not the media’s role. The media is there to make money for its corporate owners. And as a result of this media mandate, the truth can be and has been a casualty. And it will continue to be a casualty…………………”

“But many Canadians may not realize that our government and media might be holding something back in the truth-telling department. Many still labour under the impression that the media is there to hold our government accountable, and not simply to be its mouthpiece. Our media is free, after all, is it not? And a free media is a sign of a healthy democracy, so it’s not a problem.It’s too bad that our media is not free from interference, controlled by an increasingly powerful corporate elite. But does that alone explain why our government seems to get off easy when it comes to some of the more difficult issues? Well, keep in mind the power structure of our government. It could be said that the interests of our government happily coincide with the interests of the media-controlling corporate elite. Happily, alas, for government and the corporations, but not for you and I, the Average Canadian………………”

“What does this say about the state of our Democracy? I think it says that we’re in trouble, especially when you extrapolate existing conditions into the future based on current trends. As governments continue to become more secretive and put power in the hands of Caesar, er, their Leaders, and as the media continues to move from reporting the news to providing infotainment, where will we be in 10 years time? And do you think that we’ll have started to address those very real and important issues which we need to start getting serious about right now?I, for one, just don’t see it happening. Instead, based on current trends, I believe that the Average Canadian is going to become even less engaged in political decision-making, and that governments will continue to spin reality in self-serving ways, aided and abetted by a media which will end up looking a lot more like Entertainment Tonight…………………’’

Now whilst I cannot totally agree with Steve that the “media” is totally lacking in the desire to seek and publish the “truth” I must say that the ever increasing “news magazine” type format and the lack of reporting on some very important issues by some media is very troubling. The word “media” covers a broad range of individuals and organizations and some do a much better job than others, the independent and local newspaper, television and to some extent radio has all but gone by the wayside but individual reporters and guest contributors still on occasion do bring some balance to their articles by actually doing some real research into their pieces. Those individuals must be congratulated and supported even though what they do should be the norm. Meanwhile the power of the internet and the blogging community just might save us from ourselves, for whilst these are as many opinions as there are users out there, the corporate and government “leaders” cannot control and filter the news and opinion (yet?) expressed by the many “citizens reporters” who are now the source for so much of our information.

I look forward to Steve’s next post in this series with interest. Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Infrastructure Funding Lists

Many times in these pages I have said that I believe that access to information is essential in order to keep our government open and accountable. I have said that the difficulty experienced by our Parliamentary Budget Officer and by our MSM in being able to track the “infrastructure” Funding is a clear indication that our democracy is under attack. Impolitical has compared the way our government hides that information with the readily accessible spread sheets available on line for our American neighbours. I thought I would check out how another democracy nearer in structure to ours dealt with this important information.

Australia has a web site with the title “economic stimulus plan” where details of their plan can be found, it is split into several sections as follows:-

Community Infrastructure
Road and Rail
Ceiling Insulation
Solar Hot Water
Bonus Payments
Work Opportunities

Each page has a link to a list of all the funded projects, for instance The Regional and Local Community Infrastructure Program has two large PDF files listing location, project description, funding amount and the Municipality responsible. Interestingly there is NO mention of the Australian Prime Minister on the intro page or any other page that I visited, referring to only “The Australian Government”, other pages link to the various other levels of government where, no doubt they have further information.

Their “Plan” seems to be much more structured and less haphazard than ours and certainly is clearly defined and documented. So far as the actual spending and financial situation there are 4 or 5 “Treasurers notes” each month which, although showing little detail, do discuss the latest economic news. However they do have an ongoing series of financial reports and spreadsheets from the Australian Bureau of Statistics which currently show the position up until 3 months ago. They are very comprehensive and probably just about as up to date as any large organization could be expected to produce. Kevin Page would be in his glory!

What a marked difference from our reporting systems, we will be lucky if we know where we stand right now by sometime in 2010. The Australian government is truly “Open and Accountable”. If the United States can implement such public reporting in the very short time period since “Bush” and Australia can do it, so can we. It is simply that our governments of all stripes and levels simply DOES NOT WANT US TO KNOW.

I note that there are a number of government employees who are working hard at changing thing and trying to get systems in place so that such public access to this information via the internet becomes the norm. For the most part they are doing so on their own initiative and their own time, supported in part by several citizens initiatives to enhance the use of new internet technology to make it easer to find information of all kinds of government related information.
Just don’t expect our government to help them do that anytime soon!

For those interested Australia has also produced an extensive study on Electronic Democracy as relates to governments on the need for, the requirements of, and pitfalls of same. In it Electronic Democracy is defined as follows:-
“The direct and indirect use of electronic technologies (information and communications technologies) to participate in the democratic process. Direct forms of electronic democracy include electronic and online voting, participation in consultation, and interactions between elected representatives and constituents. Indirect forms of electronic democracy include such things as the production and consumption of politically relevant information and community capacity building to utilise information and communications technologies.”

They obviously have not let the report gather dust. Way to go Aussies. Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Our Government & Democracy.

I have up to this point in this project called Democracy Under Fire made a concerted effort to avoid making posts that could be construed as partisan, this has meant that I have avoided for the most part pointing out the many past and ongoing anti-democratic actions by the current Conservative Government. With the count in that regard increasing daily I cannot in good conscience continue to ignore these attacks on our democracy.

What follows and future posts in this forum will continue to focus upon our democracy, be it simply informative information or upon actions by individuals or Partys that enhance and protect our democracy, or those that attack and erode it. I will not comment upon party policy and actions unless it directly (in my opinion) effects our democracy. Subjects such as access to information, accountability, MP’s obligations to their party and their constituents, manipulation of parliamentary and electoral rules, the controlling of dissenting opinion, the interference with commissions and inquiries etc etc are all fair game.

With the above in mind I should thank the CPC for my obsession with this subject, for it is their actions in the spring of 2006 that suddenly made me realize that I had better sit up and take notice. It was precipitated a few days after they were first elected when an MP who ran and was elected as representing another party was persuaded not only to switch partys but was immediately installed in to an important cabinet position whilst another cabinet position was filled by a non elected conservative. I will not dwell upon that piece of history but just say that since then I have been watching much closer and for a time was keeping fairly close track of such questionable action. Of late I have been less thorough in collecting these instances, mostly because it would involve almost daily adding to the list!

In this post I will just briefly touch on a few things that have caught my eye since they avoided a confidence vote by shutting down parliament after just 13 days of sitting, that after having called an election (in contravention of their own recently passed legislation) and called parliament (under their leadership) “dysfunctional. If we remember that they had prorogued parliament after the summer recess, prorogued it in Sept and not called that election until parliament was due to resume (thus the House sat for just 130 days from Oct 2007 to Jan 2009, 0 days in the 6 months from July to Dec). They then prorogued it again in January! Perhaps then you may understand the need for not allowing this government to avoid public scrutiny, for they avoided opposition scrutiny, such as it is, for much of 2008.

Here then are a few of the more recent things that stick in my craw in regard to this Conservative Government.

The most insidious and ongoing thing is the shameless self promotion of the “Harper Government” using our tax dollars on TV, on Government web sites, on those pesky 10%ers and even on all those bill boards that are REQUIRED at each infrastructure project. Then there is the latest abuse of presentation cheques being made to appear as if they come directly from the Conservative Party of Canada and not from The Government of Canada and even Go Trains repainted to promote the “Action Plan”.
A few points here firstly it is NOT Harpers government it is OUR government, it is the Government of Canada. Note:- there are well over 100 references to the “Harper Government” on the CPC web site alone, over 200 on the PM site and quite a few on the Government web site.
Secondly if anyone believes that the sudden appearance of conservative logos on presentation cheques was an “oversight” by individual MPs then they probably also believe that it is also an oversight that the majority of infrastructure funds went to conservative ridings.
Thirdly those “Action Plan” ads do nothing to actually inform the public of factual information regarding the specifics but simply say “we have a plan, we have a plan” and thus cannot be viewed as legitimate government advertising.

Another very troubling tendency of this Conservative government is their concerted effort to stymie any effort to investigate and get to the truth of allegations of wrongdoing. Suing an arms length government body such as Elections Canada is clearly an effort to hold up or block the legitimate search for the truth, good or bad. It is a case of “if you have done nothing wrong, what do you have to loose?”, the same can be asked of various Parliamentary inquiries that have been subject to similar foot dragging, procedural wrangling and outright disrespect for due process. The fact that a number of court decisions, even after appeal, have proven them to be in conflict with the laws of the land on several occasions would seem to show that they also have a similar distain for the rule of law. That this is coupled with a concerted effort to conceal and withhold information that should be readily available to the pubic, the shutting down of access to information databases, the necessity of bureaucrats, diplomats and MPs to “clear” any release of information through the PMO makes this governments vow to be “open and accessible” when first elected in 2006 a total farce.

There is little doubt that all governments and political partys are guilty of being partisan and trying to hide their mistakes but what strikes me with this lot is no so much what they are doing but the volume of questionable actions and self promotion, the unprecedented efforts to hide and control information, and the methods used to accomplish this. It is apparent to me that this government cares little for maintaining an open and accountable democracy but would much prefer an oligarchy and are doing everything in their power to go there. Would that I had confidence in the opposition partys to turn this tendency around but I fear that they are of much the same view, if not quite so blatant about it. Perhaps it is true that “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

“Democracy demands vigilance, and a willingness to pose difficult questions and to take risks. I do not mean by that only taking to the streets to complain about what is wrong, but also advocating constructive alternatives.” David Kilgour MP (retired)

Let us all be vigilant and ask those questions! Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Digital Democracy in Canada takes a hit!

My last post bemoaned the lack of honest politicians and so today I could not let the resignation of Garth Turner as a candidate for the Liberal Party of Canada pass without comment. Like him or hate him Garth tells it like it is, is fearless in putting his opinion forward even if it does not follow the “party line”, can probably be called the father of digital democracy in Canada for his long standing blog whilst an MP and this decision is a great loss to both the LPC and to the folks he was proposing to represent.

In short he is the sort of representative we need in parliament to cut through all that bovine manure referred to in the last post. In case you missed it here is what he had to say about the current financial situation that Canada is in and how it will effect us……….

“The HST is a simple precursor of what’s coming over the next five to ten years, thanks to Stephen Harper. You, your family and your business should prepare. Higher income taxes, more fees, probably an increase in the GST. Some of those increases may be labelled ‘temporary,’ but they will sting nonetheless. There will also be spending cuts. Big ones.

The best thing anyone standing for public office can do at the moment is be honest with you. Share some facts.

As Stephen Harper took office in 2006, Canada was entering its nineth consecutive year of budget surpluses. The outgoing Liberals left a positive balance of roughly $15 billion.
As of now, Harper’s government has amassed a deficit of $55.9 billion, over ten billion more than the previous record.

Each family’s share for this year’s shortfall alone is $3,700.

After coming down for more than half a decade, the national debt will rise to its highest level within three years – above $600 billion – according to the independent Parliamentary Budget Officer.

The current Harper government increased federal spending to its greatest point, even before the recession in late 2008. When the storm hit, the cupboard was empty.

Many people now fail to see how Mr. Harper can even wear the mantle of a ‘conservative’ prime minister.

The most spending ever. The largest federal government in history. The greatest one-year deficit. The largest national debt. And the fastest descent from a surplus to a deficit on record.

To date, no party or leader has treated you honestly to an explanation of what a $56 billion deficit or $600 billion debt mean for your family or your finances. Suggesting there’ll be no tax hikes, spending cuts or mortgage increases is akin to Stephen Harper telling us one year ago Canada was immune to recession and our budget would stay balanced. It’s crap. But apparently crap that people like hearing.

After being recruited to run for MP in the Ontario riding of Dufferin-Caledon, and having my candidacy approved by the Liberal Party last July, today I informed the leader of my resignation…………………
In Dufferin-Caledon I have been the only nominee for MP candidate since August. I’m interpreting the leader’s failure to allow a nomination meeting as a signal my views are unwelcome.

From - http://www.garthturner.com/2009/10/05/where-i-stand-2/

I suspect that it is indeed true that “his views are unwelcome”! It would not do for the public to be told the truth now would it! Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Sunday, October 11, 2009

On trust, lies, spin and obfuscation!

Can the Canadian public consider their system of government to be democratic when they cannot access reliable and accurate information on past, present and future decisions made on their behalf and the results arising from such action? This is a question I have been asking myself for some time now, some actions by our politicians are clearly antidemocratic such as deliberately obstructing the committee process but is withholding or “spinning” information. I believe it is. If we the public base our voting choices upon what we are told, be that by the government, the opposition, or the MSM, and that information is not only false or misleading but deliberately made to be so, then this is clearly a attempt to derail the democratic process. In my view democracy demands open and accountable government which means our representatives must themselves be open and truthful.

When one is faced with several conflicting stories from what SHOULD be reliable sources it becomes obvious that one or more of them is disseminating bovine manure. A case in point is the recently released report on the status of Canada's Economic Action Plan, here we have at least three different versions of what has been done, what effect it has had and what will happen in the future. Lets take a look at some of the conflicting information.

Our Government …..ooops, sorry, Harpers Government says that “90 per cent of the stimulus funding for this fiscal year has now been committed” - “More than $7.6 billion in federal funds have been committed to more than 4,700 provincial, territorial and municipal infrastructure projects” and “Our Economic Action Plan is helping create or maintain an estimated 220,000 Canadian jobs by the end of 2010."

The opposition Liberals say “, just 12 percent of the $4-billion Infrastructure Stimulus Fund (ISF) was supporting any construction. A maximum of 4,800 of the intended 40,000 jobs across the country have been created compared to job losses averaging 5,800 a week” I suppose both percentages COULD be true given that announcements and commitments do not equal money spent, but what of the jobs!

The Parliamentary Budget Officer says “Many missing data correspond to implementation and outcome indicators that the GC collects as part of its standard due diligence process and should be readily available. Failing to include these data could hinder Parliament’s ability to provide meaningful oversight of the economic stimulus package.”
“Of greater concern than the absence of readily available information is the regular shifting of titles and categories of stimulus measures. Some measures have been re-categorized or renamed between the GC‟s Reports” - “These changes to the titles and categories of initiatives render it challenging to track implementation progress…….”.

In other words there is insufficient information, or there have been efforts to obscure information to the extent that the PBO is “challenged” to produce an accurate opinion on the report as was required when the budget was passed. “A requirement for legislative approval of Budget 2009 was that quarterly progress reports on budget implementation be provided to Parliament.” If the PBO did not get the “information that would be required to provide Parliament with accurate, timely, and easily understood information on (the) three key issues “ then how does the government, or for that matter the opposition, know the actual situation and figures.

Confused? Seems like even the PBO cannot give us an answer so how can WE be expected to judge the performance of our government.

Ok, lets move on. Are we being told what is going on by our government and if so how? The BUDGETED amount for advertising by the various government department for the FIRST QUARTER OF 2009 totals $65,414,000 of that $34,000,000 (that’s 34 Million Dollars!) was slated for advertising associated with the “Economic Action Plan”. Now that to me equals 1000 good jobs wasted in advertising, but I could maybe forgive that waste if such advertising were to give me details of where to access funds from said action plan or even where said funds are being spent. Instead it would seem it has been spent on repeating adinfinitem “we HAVE a plan, we have a plan”. Excuse me if I am not impressed and find it self serving and anti-democratic.

Meanwhile our political partys continue to play political musical chairs around any legislation put before them, the latest being that EI “reform” bill which in reality is a temporary change to a few eligibility rules that will help a few specific individuals and leave the majority no better off than they were before. But it seems that this bill is so important that whether the government lives or dies is dictated by it according to some partys.

So can we trust ANY of them to tell us “the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth”? Not a chance. Does this detract from our “democracy”? You had better believe it. Am I getting increasingly cynical and frustrated with it all? I think this probably shows that I am. What can we do about it? Be vocal in condemnation of those that spin and lie, and seek out (and elect) those who put honesty, truth and the electorate before party and bovine manure!

Something stinks on Parliament Hill! Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Democratic Leaders Debate - Debate Criteria

With the possibility of an election once again looming we have seen increased “debate about the debate”. It seems to me that for a debate amongst leaders during an election period to be considered “democratic” then the criteria in selecting the participants must also be democratic, or at the very least based upon more than the personal opinion of a few executives. In thinking about what I would do if faced with the task of deciding who could or could not participate in a National Debate during the election process I have thought that it should be based upon some LOGICAL criteria that would set a precedent for future decisions. Whether those criteria would be set by the “Media Consortium” the existing Political Parties in power or Elections Canada is perhaps fodder for another post. I will however put this forward for consideration. If the “media consortium” limits or chooses the participants and provides said air time to those participants “free of charge” is this not a supply of goods or services to said selected participants and should that not fall under the election funding rules? If a third party decided these matters based upon some non partisan criteria then that possibility would seem to have less validity.

This then is just a “what if” to show the difficulties in setting up such criteria.

If one looks at the last election results one can see that at this time the Greens are the only ones “in the race” who are not all but guaranteed a spot. No other unelected party has achieved even close to their volume of popular support (ALL others only account for about 1% of the vote) or in fact fielded candidates in all provinces and over 90% of all ridings. It is to me a no brainer to include them, the greater question for me is whether a purely regional party such as the Bloc should be included (but they do have about 10% of the national vote). So what criteria should a logical non partisan panel use to decide, here are some thoughts on possible options…..

10% of the popular vote
10% of the popular vote AND candidates in all provinces
10% of the popular vote AND candidates in 50% of all ridings
10% of the popular vote OR candidates in all provinces
10% of the popular vote OR candidates in 50% of all ridings
5% of the popular vote
5% of the popular vote AND candidates in all provinces
5% of the popular vote AND candidates in 50% of all ridings
5% of the popular vote OR candidates in all provinces
5% of the popular vote OR candidates in 50% of all ridings

Or a combination of the above such as…

10% (or more?) of the popular vote
5% of the popular vote AND candidates in 50% (or 75% or ?) of all ridings

Which seems quite reasonable given that 5% is the funding threshold and 10% is the current standing of the Bloc, however the combinations and exact criteria are endless……

One of the things I note in “playing“ with some of these scenarios is that a regional party in the smaller provinces would have greater difficulty that those in a more populous area, (whilst the Bloc can garner 10% of the popular vote it would be impossible for a regional party in PEI to do so) I am not sure that this is “fair” but we are talking Nationally here. Despite having one regional party in the HoC it is still debatable (with no disrespect to that party) whether political parties who do not encompass at least the views of several provinces or a reasonable percentage of the citizens of Canada should participate in a National Debate!
However I do believe that with the size of our country, future regional parties, those who are not advocating the demise of Canadian Democracy but seek to enhance it, and represent a sizable number of citizens in a particular part of our vast nation, should perhaps have the opportunity to put their point of view before the public in the debate. We must also recognize however that there must be limits upon the number of participants in order that it remain a “debate”, this may not be “fair” to partys or individuals who do not meet the threshold and perhaps they should be provided with a “free” 30 second spot or something similar to compensate. It is “unfortunate” that the choices of so many citizens are so strongly effected by the ability of a candidates party to buy advertising!

Just so we all know what the numbers are, here is the data for the last election (% rounded).

NDP – 37 seats – 18% of popular vote – 308 seats contested in all provinces.

CPC – 143 seats – 38% of popular vote – 307 seats contested in all provinces.

LPC – 77 seats – 26% of popular vote – 307 seats contested in all provinces.

GPC – 0 seats – 7% of popular vote – 303 seats contested in all provinces.

BLOC – 49 seats – 10% of popular vote – 75 seats contested in ONE province.

There were 67 independent candidates and 234 “other” candidates (across 14 parties) who gained a total of 1% of the popular vote.

It can clearly be seen that under present circumstances there should be NO debate as to whether to include the Greens in the Debate, they clearly have exceeded any reasonable criteria but one, a seat in the House. But the debate is about who to elect to the House NOT who was elected last time and so that, from my point of view, should not even come into it! Since recent polls have indicated that over 70% of Canadians support the inclusion of the Greens in the debate despite (or perhaps because) their having around 10% popular support I can only surmise that Democracy IS still alive in Canada! We can only wait and see if it is still alive within those that decide who participates.

Having said all that let us not forget that the National Televised Debate is more about party policy (past and present & future) and the leaders public persona, and publicity for that party, than who we individually elect. In this country we elect individual MPs not Partys or Leaders (although one would not think so listening to the current lot in Ottawa) so that local all candidates debates are probably a better guide as to who we should have to represent us. It would be revealing if some of the questions during the leaders debate and at local candidates debates, whenever they may take place, were regarding how they view our democratic processes and how they would protect and enhance our democracy and make the election process less biased towards the larger party’s. That to me is the key to bringing about the changes in governance and policy needed to address the challenges of the 21st century. Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Parliamentary Privilege

This from Devlin Johnson clearly lays out the problem with allowing MPs to be protected from slander when speaking in the House as well as some of the problems with removing that privilege. The British parliament, upon whose system ours is based, recently tried to change that practice and not only failed but landed up explicitly preserving Parliamentary privilege!


A member of the legislature rises slowly, pausing for dramatic effect. Her eyes glare across the aisle at a member of another party. She opens her mouth to speak, denouncing her opponent's views. Her voice steadily rises in a great crescendo as the content of her speech becomes more and more personal until, in a great climax of righteous anger, she accuses her opponent of a great offense against morality (or the law, or whatever you like). The opponent, it turns out, has done nothing of the sort.
If this scenario transpired outside of the halls of the legislature, the person making the unfounded accusation might find herself liable under provincial defamation laws. But in Canada, as in most common law jurisdictions, politicians who make such statements in the legislature are immune from such private law actions. This is a legal doctrine known as "Parliamentary privilege" and it extends to the Senate, the House of Commons, and to all provincial legislatures. It protects legislators from both civil actions and criminal prosecution in a wide variety of circumstances.

If you watch legislative proceedings regularly (and I know you do), you will often hear members taunting one another with challenges to "step outside the House of Commons and say that". This is a reference to the Parliamentary privilege doctrine; if the same words uttered in the House of Commons were repeated outside they grounds, they might be considered slanderous (or even, in some cases, criminal offences).
The doctrine of Parliamentary privilege, like most legal doctrines, traces its origins to England. It arose out of a need for politicians to be uninhibited in fulfilling their duties as legislators. In Strode's Case (1512), a Member of Parliament from Plympton, Devon had planned to introduce legislation in the House of Commons that would alleviate the harsh working conditions for tin miners in Cornwall. While en route to Westminster to present the bill, Strode was detained. The Stannary court, which had jurisdiction over matters of equity relating to the tin mines, prosecuted Strode. He was fined and imprisoned. Parliament responded by passing Strode's Act (now the Privilege of Parliament Act), which declared that any legal proceedings "for any bill, reasoning, or declaring of any matter or matters concerning the Parliament, to be communed or treated of, should be utterly void and of none effect" (quoted from The Law and Custom of the Constitution, William Reynell Anson).

The doctrine has surfaced again and again throughout the annals for Parliamentary democracy. Consider, for example, the case of Duncan Sandys. In 1938, Sandys was serving as a Conservative MP in the British House of Commons. During question period, Sandys directed a question to the Secretary of War, Leslie Hore-Belisha concerning the state of London's anti-aircraft defenses. Hore-Belisha, who had assured Parliament of London's preparedness, became concerned that Sandys was in possession of military information protected by the Official Secrets Act. Hore-Belisha drew the matter to the attention of the Attorney General, who advised Sandys that he would be obliged to reveal his source or else face imprisonment for up to two years. After consulting with the Speaker, Sandys raised a point of privilege on the floor of the House of Commons to determine whether he would be protected by the doctrine of Parliamentary privilege. The Committee of Privilege found that Sandys was not subject to the Act, although he could still be disciplined by the House of Commons.

As recently as 1986, the issue of national security and Parliamentary privilege arose again in England in what became known as the "Zircon affair". The BBC had commissioned a documentary which uncovered a secret spy satellite programme that had not been approved by the Public Accounts Committee. Although the government pressured the BBC to shelve the programme, the filmmaker revealed his account of what had happened to New Statesman magazine. As the details became public, opposition MP Robin Cook managed to obtain a copy of the documentary and arranged to screen the programme in the House of Commons. The Attorney General sought to prevent the screening and convinced the Speaker of the House of Commons to ban the documentary from being screened in the Palace of Westminster. On subsequent review by the Committee of Privileges, the Speaker's ban was upheld on the basis that a screening is not part of the normal proceedings of Parliament and not protected by privilege.
The last two cases raise challenging questions about privilege, state secrets, and democratic accountability, and there is certainly an argument to be made that the Parliamentary privilege doctrine has played an integral role in allowing Members of Parliament to hold cabinet to account when that would otherwise be impossible. Moreover, the privilege doctrine helps to ensure that minority viewpoints can be expressed in the legislature, which is essential for a full and healthy debate about public policy.

However, there is another side to the privilege doctrine. For example, legislators can get away with making irresponsible statements about one another (and about private citizens) with impunity so long as those statements are made within the confines of the legislative process. The combative environment in question period provides ample opportunities for Members of Parliament to overstep the bounds of responsible discourse. Often, the temptation to take cheap shots or to level harsh accusations (often based on little or no real evidence) lures Parliamentarians into the trap of base politics.
The Cadman affair seemed to boil over in that way in 2008. Author Tom Zytaruk had come forward with evidence of an alleged attempt by Conservative Party Officials (including the Prime Minister) to bribe dying Member of Parliament Chuck Cadman. In their zeal to hold the governing party to account, Liberal Members of Parliament made numerous statements both inside and outside the House of Commons to the effect that they believed the Prime Minister to be guilty of official corruption. To the extent that their comments were confined to Parliament, they were protected by Parliamentary privilege. As the controversy grew, however, more and more comments were made outside of the House. The Liberals ran an article on their official party website with the headline "Harper knew of Conservative bribery".
In an almost unheard of move, Stephen Harper filed a lawsuit against the Liberal Party. However, the case was settled when Michael Ignatieff took over as leader of the party (although the details of the settlement are not available to the public, the Liberals have been silent on the Cadman affair ever since the lawsuit was settled; some have speculated that Ignatieff agreed to gag his caucus in exchange for Harper dropping the suit).
Perhaps the time has come to re-think Parliamentary privilege. Undoubtedly, it will survive in one form or another; after all, there is considerable evidence to suggest that it is an essential component of a free and open democracy. On the other hand, absolute privilege is an invitation to discourteous comments and unfounded accusations. I think that we are living in an age in which the risk of Members of Parliament being arrest for proposing legislation is low, while the risk of the Members of Parliament spreading vicious rumours about one another is high. To that end, perhaps it is time to ease up on Parliamentary privilege in order to make it more responsive to the needs and challenges of contemporary political reality.

Parliamentary privilege should be broad enough that it protects what is integral to democracy and accountability, but narrow enough that there is a disincentive to act like children. Moreover, a flood of defamation litigation would be an ineffective deterrent to such behaviors and creates the risk of libel chill. There are, of course, other strategies to be employed in curtailing the lack of civility in Parliament. One option is to expand the concept of unparliamentary language to include a more generalized expectation of Members' conduct (as it stands, it is essentially a banned words and phrases list which includes, for example, "inspired by forty-rod whiskey").
Reform to Parliamentary privilege would be difficult. The Supreme Court ruled in New Brunswick Broadcasting Co. v. Nova Scotia (Speaker of the House of Assembly) that Parliamentary privilege forms part of the unwritten portion of the Constitution of Canada insofar as it is inherited via the preamble to the Constitution Act, 1867 (formerly the British North America Act) which states that our constitution is "similar in principle to that of the United Kingdom". It is not clear whether or how constitutional conventions such as Parliamentary privilege can be adapted by Parliament. For example, it is unclear whether a legislative amendment would be necessary (or even possible) or whether our constitutional conventions can adapt gradually as practices and societal expectations change.
In any event, the possibility of reforming Parliamentary privilege is one of the many dimensions that should be given careful attention in the project of improving the quality of discourse in the House of Commons and in provincial legislatures across the country.

This from Great Britain July 2009

There was plenty of criticism of an early proposal which would have allowed MPs' words in the Commons - now protected by Parliamentary privilege - to have been used against them in court. As worded, the original bill said "no enactment or rule of law which prevents proceedings in Parliament being impeached or questioned in any court" should stop "any evidence from being admissible in proceedings" against MPs accused of breaking rules. It was not just MPs who had their doubts. The most senior official in the Commons, Malcolm Jack, warned it could have a "chilling effect" on MPs' freedom of speech. The government stuck with it but were defeated when more than 20 Labour MPs rebelled to vote against it - among them former cabinet ministers John Reid and Margaret Beckett. A new clause, explicitly preserving Parliamentary privilege regardless of anything else in the Act was later added.

What do you think should our MPs be able to lie, slander and make personal attacks in the HoC with impunity? I say this immunity from accountability is a major impediment to the modernization of our parliamentary democracy. Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Who is caring for our democracy?

Every party talks about running (I'll put the words in quotes because someone surely has said this) "the most open, transparent, and accountable government the country has ever had" yet every party in my waking life has failed to deliver on this promise.
To the Liberal's I issue a challenge: if your guy and your party were really serious about reforming Canada's governance in a positive way, ultimately even the most jaded Canadian apathetic voter might perk up and notice.

Is it too alarmist to claim that Canada's democracy is on life support? Not in my opinion. Our representatives are often no better than puppets. Rather than representing regions and their constituents, our parliamentarians at all levels of government more often than not are whipped to adhere to the party line and that is decided by a few, mostly unelected people, in the Prime Minister's Office. Parliament is side-stepped at every turn. First among equals is a concept many prime ministers, notably our current one, have trouble identifying with.

The weakening of parliament in favour of increased power in the PMO - to the point where today the U.S. system is actually more democratic than ours - is as a result of intentional design by both Conservative and Liberal government leaders dating back almost four decades.
Manning's "Reform" movement recognised some of this, to their credit; but despite being one of the architects of the Reform Party, Harper wasn't so much interested in democratic reforms, only in power that would allow him to "re-form" (quite a different notion) Canada in his own vision.
I want to see a truly open government. We have the technology available to us now that can easily permit all to see spending done by almost every department in near real-time. Open all the doors and windows, pull back all the curtains. Lets see not only who is lobbying who, in real time, but what they are talking about. Lets have more citizen involvement than a token election every year or every four years.

The above is reposted from http://mikewatkins.ca/ , one of several bloggers writing about our “dysfunctional” parliament this week, well said Mike, without open government democracy is indeed in trouble.. The following is from Peace, order and good government, eh? . The point is well made that once again out politicians are misleading the public into believing that there is something inherently wrong with a coalition government (despite the fact that ALL the partys have in recent years attempted to form one!). Perhaps it must once again be pointed out that our parliament consists of elected MPs from several different political persuasions who SHOULD all work together for the good of the country. A coalition is simply a more formal agreement to that end, and is not only perfectly legal but could in fact be more productive than the usual non cooperative mood in the HoC!


Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff vowed Friday that his party would never enter into a governing coalition and said he could make Parliament work without such a deal.
Ignatieff said he has a "certain credibility" on the coalition issue, pointing out that he could have become prime minister back in January had he agreed to a pact with the other opposition parties, but he turned it down.
"I don't think I need to give further proof of my feeling that that's not what Canadians want."

When the pundits refer back to that ill-fated coalition attempt they love to remind us that it didn't poll at all well. But I think we discovered late last year that a significant number of those who make their living explaining our politics to us either don't understand our system of government themselves or don't really have a problem with misrepresenting it to us. A big part of the reason the public reacted negatively to the coalition was because the media told them to. If it wasn't print pundits competing to see how many times the word "coup" could be squeezed into the same short column, it was broadcasters signaling that they were in dire need of a fainting couch at the mere thought that a bunch of scruffy MPs whose uniforms weren't all the same colour might have the temerity to try and form a government.

Since then, the constitutional experts have spoken and reminded us of some of the facts of life in Canada. This isn't a republic; it's a parliamentary democracy. We don't vote for a prime minister or a government; we each of us vote for a representative of the riding in which we live and when those representatives reach Ottawa it's up to them to sort out which group of them, and with which leader, can govern with the confidence of the majority of them. The political parties involved are a convention but not a requirement; the confidence of the majority of the members is a requirement and not a convention.

With an election campaign not even underway yet, there was probably a teachable moment here. There was an opportunity for the opposition leaders to point out that the Conservative talking points about the illegitimacy of a coalition are nonsense. Using teachable moments to actually teach something important and valuable would show leadership.
Instead, Ignatieff has just reinforced the view that there's something wrong with the idea of a coalition and that voters who reacted badly to something that was a shock when it happened and that was misrepresented by a lot of the voices who were shouting at them at the time, were right to do so. Aside from allowing a misconception to stand unchallenged, Ignatieff has allowed Harper to set the terms of the debate and reacted defensively. If he keeps doing that, he'll lose.

“Never” is such a long time, sounds like another promise that cannot be kept! Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Leaders Debates

“How can it be that we grant TV networks control over what is arguably a defining moment in any election campaign? Above all, leaders’ debates should serve the public interest, by being informative, fair and a way to pique campaign curiosity in Canadians. The TV networks do not exist to serve public interest – they exist to make money”

This quote from the article at http://www.camillelabchuk.ca/ pretty much sums it up, how can we allow the “consortium” decide who can and cannot put their point of view before the public in what is often a defining moment in a election. The choices of who to include (particularly when it comes to emerging partys) is a difficult one, but to allow the broadcaster to arbitrarily make that determination is, in my view, clearly wrong.

Here is Camille’s full article which includes links to the CSD report.

I’ve been awaiting the Tom Axworthy/Centre for the Study of Democracy (CSD) study on the televised leaders’ debates for some time, and was pleased to see it finally released yesterday. It’s been clear for several election cycles that the leaders’ debates need tweaking. Canadian outrage over the long-time exclusion of the Greens reached a boiling point in 2008, when public pressure propelled Elizabeth May into the debates after the Conservatives, NDP and broadcast consortium conspired to keep her out. This was a happy ending, but it raises critical questions over debate fairness, including transparency, who controls the leaders’ debates, who participates, and the format.

As the CSD study notes, debates are virtually the only unregulated aspect of the election cycle — it’s the wild, wild west as far as rules go. Participation, format, focus and other issues are discussed behind closed doors by the mysterious and ominous-sounding Broadcast Consortium. How can it be that we grant TV networks control over what is arguably a defining moment in any election campaign? Above all, leaders’ debates should serve the public interest, by being informative, fair and a way to pique campaign curiosity in Canadians. The TV networks do not exist to serve public interest – they exist to make money, and this bias became apparent in 2008, when they scheduled our leaders’ debate to coincide with the American VP debate, so as to minimize loss in ad revenue. The CSD concludes, and I strongly agree, that control over the debates be wrested from the consortium and given to an independent, transparent and accountable debates commission, as is the case in nearly every other jurisdiction.

The only CSD recommendation with which I take issue is that the Bloc be barred from the English debate, as they don’t run in a majority of English-speaking ridings. Perhaps my views are shaped by the long and hard battle we Greens waged for debate inclusion, but I would tend to err on the side of having more voices at the debate table — not fewer.
At any rate, Canada is long overdue for a review of our leaders’ debates, and I encourage parliamentarians to introduce legislation brining these debates under the umbrella of the Elections Act.

It’s time to take the power back from the biased and secretive TV networks and ensure the debates truly serve the electorate in a way I think we all would like them to.

If a broadcaster donates broadcast time to SELECTED partys during an election period is that not a donation of goods and services that should be declared by those partys as such? Just asking! Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers