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, March 28, 2010

A Small but Important Distinction.

Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party, picked up on this recent statement by Stephen Harper leader of the Harper Regime regarding the behaviour from his ministers in airports.

As seen on the national news last week he said “Do I realistically expect that everybody who works for me is perfect? No. We can’t run an operation like that. But when people make mistakes, we expect them to own up to them and learn from them and I’m sure they will in these cases.”

Seems that not only do the ministers of his regime think they are above the law and can ignore the rules that the rest of the citizenry must follow but he also seems to think that those ministers WORK FOR HIM and not those who they purport to represent. It is a small point but goes to the very heart of the problems rampant within our governance at this time as it shows the mindset of both Mr Harper and his Ministers.

This small “slip of the tongue” is just another indication that this regime has no idea of how our parliamentary democracy is supposed to work, that MPs, including the PM, WORK FOR US and that as such they are all ultimately answerable to parliament as a whole. Other more obvious manifestations of this mindset have of course been seen, the proroguing of parliament, twice, to avoid accountability, the refusal to produce documents to a parliamentary committee, the suppressing of any information that might reflect badly upon their management of our country. The list is endless.

There are those in Ottawa who have expressed concern over this, one such individual being Senator Elane McCoy whose web pages have recently been made more accessible to those without high speed. In exploring the information thus now available to me I found these two quotes that speak to this subject:-

Parliament evolved as an institution to oversee and curtail arbitrary decisions imposed by the executive branch. The "power of the purse” is the most effective measure to hold a government (that is to say, cabinet) to account, but Parliament has forgotten this. Too many decisions are made without reference to Parliament or are "ratified" by overly obedient backbenchers and senators.’

Senator Lowell Murray

‘…in our system the word government now means Prime Minister....
[T]he system of parliamentary democracy we originally chose for Canada is not the system we have now. It has been transformed by the
concentration of power more and more in one person – and so is subject to terrible abuse when, for example, that person has the attitude and style of a bully and, of course, surrounds himself with people of like mind.’

Senator Royce Frith

It has become a test of wills between those who would rule as kings and those who would protect our crumbling democracy, as Travers said:-

In England, that test of wills was resolved in Parliament's favour when King Charles I was beheaded in 1649. In 21st century-Canada the same effect is achieved more civilly and with less bloodshed when a prime minister loses Commons support.”

But will it be resolved without harm to our democracy? It seems to me that the right hand of our parliament has already been cut off but has a life of its own, the left hand is flapping around uselessly, it has become deaf and blind to the needs and desires of Canadians, and the body is sick and needs an injection of fresh blood to survive. Meanwhile the head continues to ignore all these things whilst singing “don’t worry, be happy” with a video in the background flashing “we have a plan, we have a plan”

It is exactly what that plan is that bothers me, for if we go by past performance, (which would seem to be the only reliable measure of future performance) the destruction of any measure of control by the peoples representatives over the increasingly dictatorial and secretive PMO would seem to be the aim of this regime.

Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Information Vacuum

I have said before that in my opinion democracy cannot exist without access to information. If the people, or the peoples representatives, do not have he information upon which to make informed decisions, if those working for the people in government do not have the ability to disseminate that information, then democracy has been corrupted. We can agree or disagree with various policy decisions made by the Harper Regime, that is after all how democracy works, but that said regime continues to suppress, block, deny access to, and generally control every piece of information coming from OUR government is clearly an effort to destroy our ability to intercede from a knowledgeable perspective. It is a direct attack upon our democracy, such efforts at controlling information are not new but they have NEVER reached such conditions that now exists.

As we stumble from one Constitutional Crisis to another under this regime it is hard to comment upon specific problems, its like shooting a moving target, by the time one has formulated a response the situation has evolved into yet more complex maneuverings. The Afghan document issue is one such issue, however I believe that we must keep in mind that this is not now anything to do with what is in those documents (except that it would appear that there is some pretty damming information being hidden) but about the very basis of our democracy – the supremacy of parliament, NOT the PM – AND the right of our representatives to see such information as is necessary for them to do their job.

The following clips highlight the situation.

Fed up with months of government foot-dragging on their demand for uncensored documents related to the alleged torture of Afghan detainees, opposition MPs sought a formal ruling from the Speaker of the House of Commons that their parliamentary privileges

Should Speaker Peter Milliken agree and the government continue to balk at releasing the documents, opposition MPs said they're prepared to follow up with motions censuring the government - and three top cabinet ministers in particular - for being in contempt of Parliament.

Liberal MP Derek Lee admitted many of his colleagues don’t understand the battle going on. “This is constitutional law and it’s 350 years old,” he said. “It’s not simply a political thing.”

If we do not succeed in getting the documents ... we may well have undermined the ability of Parliament to perform its constitutional role of representing Canadians and bringing the government to account,” he said.

As this opinion says prorogation was but one of a series of moves that “undermines the fundamental democratic institutions of this country” which given that our troops are fighting a loosing battle overseas to bring democracy to Afghanistan is rather ironic!

Some Canadians may not pay much attention to archaic constitutional terms such as prorogation of Parliament or even to the fate of Afghan detainees transferred to torture. Other Canadians will care greatly about both these issues. But all Canadians must care about a minority government that undermines the fundamental democratic institutions of this country while also manipulating quasi-judicial tribunals and intimidating the public service from speaking truth to power. This abuse of executive power is tilting toward totalitarian government and away from the foundations of democracy and the rule of law on which this country was founded.

While our soldiers defend our belief in democracy overseas, the very institution meant to give life to that political ideal – Parliament – has been prorogued. The soldiers must show up – it’s their duty. I thought it was ours, too, to resume our responsibilities in January. I don’t know what it says when we can ask dedicated citizens to risk their lives in a military venture when we can just decide to take an extended vacation. And I’m not sure this qualifies as support for the troops.

We are not without those in parliament who understand the importance of information access “Last fall, a parliamentary committee recommended sweeping changes to the Information Act. Justice Minister Rob Nicholson nixed the recommendations.”

It seems however that we have moved way beyond that to the point where this regime is now deliberately NOT keeping records in order to avoid accountability for their actions.

But the Conservatives may have found the ultimate solution to the problem. There's an easy way to prevent anyone from getting access to your records, a veteran bureaucrat explained this week – don't keep records. Team Harper is catching on, he said. There's far less documentation, far less record-keeping. It's the formula for deniability. Why not make it the way of the future?

The bureaucrat was at the Department of National Defence, where the Afghan detainee affair has brought controversy, some of it prompted by journalistic prying through access laws. “I get a call from the Privy Council Office,” he said. “They're setting up a conference call. The first thing that's said is ‘No note-taking, no recordings, nothing. We don't want to see anything in writing on this.' … That's the way they develop policies now and, for my money, it's scary.”

This attitude of secrecy and withholding information is rampant throughout the Harper Regime as evidenced by these two examples which are just the tip of the iceburg

Canada’s climate researchers are being muzzled, their funding slashed, research stations closed, findings ignored and advice on the critical issue of the century unsought by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government, according to a 40-page report by a co

The government of Stephen Harper is fighting tooth and nail to keep Suzanne Trepanier, the grieving widow of Remy Beauregard from being allowed to speak to parliament. The reason is straightforward; Trepanier believes that the vicious harassment from the partisan ideologues Harper' government appointed to the board of Rights and Democracy drover her husband to an early grave.

Not only should the PM and indeed all of cabinet be charged with contempt of parliament, but it can be seen that they have such little regard for the people that they represent, the parliamentary system, the officers of parliament and even the MPs that comprise our parliament that the word treason comes to mind when adding up all the attacks upon out governmental systems that have taken place over the last 2 or 3 years.

Remember that Mr Harper accused the opposition of Treason for daring to consider forming a coalition government in response to his previous shutting down of our parliament.

The highest duty of a Prime Minister of Parliament is to uphold the Constitution of Canada, which includes the rights and privileges of the House of Commons and the duties owed to the Queen's representative in Canada. Stephen Harper keeps on failing in his duties on both counts ....

Errol P. Mendes Professor of Constitutional Law, University of Ottawa

Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Monday, March 15, 2010

Democratic Renewal and Changes Needed

For a variety of opinions regarding what to do about our declining democracy and parliamentary deficit take a look at this series of articles from The Mark .

Hold More Free Votes

Stop Heckling

Have a Real Debate

Downsize the PMO

Make Committees Matter

Find Some Principles

Show Some Leadership

Back Ottawa's Watchdogs

My apologies for not providing a extract from each article, I know how difficult that makes it for users without high speed connections. For various reasons it was this or nothing!

Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Sunday, March 7, 2010

PCO / PMO – Who? What?

With the focus upon who or what department can and cannot release documents and / or is responsible for deciding if they are a “security” matter I thought I would take a look at exactly how the Privy Council Office and the Prime Ministers Office operate and what their mandate is. Much of what follows is extracted from mapleleafweb which site I highly recommend if you need more information on how our parliamentary system works.

The Privy Council Office is an administrative body, staffed by professional public servants, or bureaucrats, that is intended to provide non-partisan and expert support to the prime minister, cabinet, and government departments. In its role, the PCO is often consider to be the most important and most senior of the central agencies of government. The term “central agencies” refers to a group of government administrative bodies whose responsibilities extend across all policies areas. Other key central agencies include the Department of Finance, the Treasury Board Secretariat, the Public Service Commission, and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).

Broadly speaking, the Privy Council Office serves as the Prime Minister’s public service department and secretariat to the Cabinet. It provides support to the prime minister, ministers who are included under the prime minister’s portfolio, including the deputy prime minister, leader (and deputy leader) in the House of Commons and Senate, the cabinet as a whole, and the many smaller cabinet committees.

While PCO is small (relative to other government departments) and delivers no programs to Canadians, it nevertheless incurs significant annual expenses. In the 2007-08 fiscal year, for example, PCO expenses totalled almost $151 million (Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, 2009).

The PCO,s primary tasks are to:

Provide non-partisan advice to the Prime Minister, Cabinet and Cabinet committees on matters of national and international importance;

Ensure the smooth functioning of the Cabinet decision-making process and facilitate the implementation of the Government's agenda;

Foster a high-performing and accountable Public Service.

PCO is also responsible for providing administrative and financial support to commissions of inquiry.

It consists of a number of departments with specific areas of interest, overseen by deputy ministers who report directly to the PM and / cabinet. One such department of current interest is:-

The Deputy Minister, Afghanistan Task Force, provides advice and support to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Committee on Afghanistan in the delivery of a strategic plan to transform Canada’s role in Afghanistan.

Key deliverables for the task force include:

Preparing a renewed diplomatic strategy, to be led by the Prime Minister, to advance Canada’s goals in Afghanistan;

Supporting the Prime Minister’s efforts to secure an additional battle group and key equipment;

Sesigning a reprofiled development assistance program to enhance the profile and resonance of Canada’s contribution in Kandahar;

Establishing metrics for measuring progress toward each of these deliverables; and

Redesigning Government communications on Afghanistan.

The other of considerable interest is:-

The Director (Access to Information and Privacy) administers the Department's programs relating to the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act. His or her office also coordinates requests to written parliamentary questions, petitions and motions that have been referred to the Privy Council Office.

Whilst the various departments and Deputy Ministers are charged with “providing non-partisan advice to the Prime Minister & Cabinet” they are to some extend subject to the whims of the PM of the day. The PM “on the advice of the head of the PCO (referred to as the “Clerk of the Privy Council”), appoints the senior staff of the agency” so it would seem that whilst these civil servants are supposed to be “non partisan” they are very much under the control of the PMO so far as their day to day actions and “recommendations”.

The PMO is in fact paid for out of the Privy Council Office budget but is clearly a more temporary and openly partisan office answerable only to the PM.

The Prime Minister's Office (PMO) is a central agency staffed with temporary political appointees rather than full-time, career civil servants and has no statutory base, its budget being a component of the estimates for the Privy Council Office. The Prime Minister determines the PMO's organization and role; its functions derive from the prime minister's political responsibilities as party leader rather than as head of government, though in practice the division between these responsibilities is not clear, thereby providing opportunities for the PMO to trespass on the more purely administrative preserves of other Central Agencies.

It is important to note that there exists some overlap between the PCO the Prime Minister’s Office. However, whereas the PMO provides support specifically to the prime minister, the PCO also provides support to the cabinet. Moreover, the PCO is intended to operate as a professional bureaucratic agency, staffed by senior public servants appointed on the basis of merit, and which provides non-partisan, expert support to the government. The PMO, by contrast, is made up of personnel who are loyal to the prime minister, and provide the prime minister partisan support in his/her dealings with the media, the governing political party, and other government institutions (such as the cabinet, the legislative branch and provincial/territorial governments).

So there it is, I am not sure I feel any more comfortable with the minimal accountability that exists within the PCO or reassured that it operates at all independently of the PMO, but at least I know where much of the advice to the PM stems from (not that he has to listen to it). We also wonder why they are charged with "redesigning" communications on Afghanistan and what needed to be changed that this was specifically included in their mandate.

Update:- For a more current view of the PCO / PMO check out these posts.

partisanship-at-pissed-off-pco and impolitical.blogspot.com

Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

One Year Ago

A year ago when I started Democracy Under Fire with the help and encouragement from a fellow blogger from the opposite side of this vast country we said “We are a pair of concerned citizens from opposite sides of this country who are trying to highlight how fragile our democracy is and the need to protect what we have….”. My partner has since found the examination of what is happening to our democracy too depressing and has returned to concentrating upon self-sufficiency and family, tasks which I cannot but help but agree are more rewarding than writing about the ongoing decline of our system of governance.

There is much that I have learned in researching the various articles you will find in the archives of this blog. I now know much more about how proposed legislation is dealt with, I have learned that much of the work of parliament is done within parliamentary committees both in the HoC and the Senate. I have found many links to information (some of which are shown in the side bar) and found that compared with some other democracy’s our access to information, particularly financial information, is severely limited. I have learned that there are citizen and civil servants striving to correct this and be proactive in providing information via the internet. And we have all seen how the use of the internet makes it all but impossible for those in power to suppress the truth or hide wrongdoing from the public. My thanks go out to all my fellow bloggers who publicise these things, particularly those that provide links to original articles or information.

It was just one year ago that the Harper regime was defending its “stimulus plan” as opposition partys asked for more accountability as to how it was to be spent. A year later and we still don’t really know how much has actually flowed or any real detail as to exactly where. The PBO continues to try and get the real figures, and they continue to be hidden in multiple and ever-changing “programs”. We are once again about to embark upon a budget vote this one more probably a slash and burn to make up for the spend and hide over the last few years. Little has really changed in the accountability front, if anything it has become worse.

We also said “Part of the concern is, in our view, the ever increasing partisanship and internal lack of democracy of our political parties, and so we will endeavor to be as non-partisan as possible in our articles and commentary.” That promise has been hard to keep, not in the sense that I wanted to extol the virtues of any particular political party for they all have their faults, but more because I wanted to keep the focus upon how our democracy was, and is working, rather than how one particular party is systematically concentrating power in the PMO. This does not mean that at times I have not wanted to rant on at great length about the Harper Regimes specific attacks upon our democratic institution, practices and traditions, but thus far I have chosen to take a more educational and informative route.

Like my partner, I too become depressed with the almost daily list of various politicians, both federal and provincial bending the rules, ignoring their constituents, spinning or hiding the truth, and generally padding their own party nest rather than doing what is right for the people. I will however try to carry on. The posts may become much more pointed in their criticism and I suspect that in the next few weeks there will be much to write about. Will the throne speech bring cooperation or confrontation, will the newest motion to have the Harper regime produce the requested documents to the parliamentary committee (or be charged with contempt ) be tabled as is and adopted, will the new chairs of various committees allow open debate or walk out? Will the newly stacked senate do their job or simply vote along partisan line irregardless of the matter before it? Will the whole thing degenerate into a partisan shouting match, will we see fistycuffs in the HoC, will we have a chance to elect a new government. Will the voters see through the spin and BS put out by those now elected and vote for someone new, will it make ANY difference?

We, the taxpayers and people of Canada will just have to wait and see for we have little control over any of those things, even our choice of vote is often bought by the party that can spend the most money on advertising what the party line is, and making promises that they know they cannot keep. Me cynical, now why would you think that?

Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers