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, November 17, 2013

A Created Crisis?

The whole debate about the reform or abolition of the senate would not be getting the attention it is currently getting were it not for the somewhat overblown concern about just three senators expense claims and Harpers request to the courts to find out if he can do away or substantially change the upper chamber without broad agreement from the provinces and Canadian taxpayers. Is this much like the “dysfunctional parliament” that said 'leader' referred to when trying to justify his decision to shut down parliament a few years ago? Is the 'crisis', as with much of the ongoing infighting in the house and in committees, something of his own making, the senators under scrutiny are after all all highly partisan conservative individuals chosen by said 'leader' and the 'cover up' seems to be centred in his office! Is the underlying aim to abolish the senate so that the PM in a majority government can have “absolute power”?
A few days before the election of 2006, when the polls showed he was about to end 13 years of Liberal government, Stephen Harper told reporters that Canadians shouldn't be uneasy at the prospect of "absolute power" for a Conservative government because it would be kept in check by senators, civil servants and judges appointed by the Liberals.
"We have no alternative but to accept the checks," he said. "They're part of our system. Judges are named. Judges can't be removed except under extraordinary circumstances."
Seven years later, the Senate and the senior ranks of the civil service are full of Harper appointees, but judges are acting as a stubborn check on Harper's absolute power, just as Harper predicted.

Indeed some of the arguments put forward to the supreme court by the government side would seem to indicate that he has little regard for due process as set down in our constitution and would prefer to simply change thing to his liking without any consultation or agreement with the provinces or the people.

It will be interesting to see how Harper reacts when the Supreme Court justices eventually tell him that he can't reform or abolish the Senate without a deal with the provinces.
It seems likely that he will see this as a communications challenge. The prime minister can't fight the Supremes, can't reform the Senate, can't lock up everybody he'd like to lock up, but he can deliver messages that press his supporters' emotional buttons, even if he can't deliver on what he has promised them.
Some of the presentations to the court were indeed as this observer notes rather outrageous.....
So the Stephen Harper government complains to the Supreme Court that the Senate is too partisan. This is the most outrageous legal argument since the fellow who killed both his parents asked for mercy on the grounds he was an orphan. Sound and fury, signifying nothing.

I have said in these pages a number of times that simply asking the provinces to submit a list of candidates to the PM and him committing to choosing from that list would eliminate much of the problem with partisan and unqualified individuals and enhance the regional representation that is the basis of the senate selection process. I am not alone in seeing this simple solution!

There is no more reason to elect senators than to elect judges. The purpose of the courts is to interpret the law. The purpose of the Senate as conceived by the framers is to act as a chamber of advice and consent. It is the House of Commons that has the unique task of representing the popular will, for which purpose that body does indeed need to be elected.................

How to choose them? We can look at how we select Judges. These worthies are also appointed by the PM (in effect – the Prime Minister’s Office passes on every name) but the problems are few because in almost every case the choice is made from lists drawn up by the legal communities in the various provinces – lists of people with a known and respected track record.
Let us choose senators in the same way. Let some great Prime Minister (will Mr. Harper step forward?) establish the precedent that with few exceptions, he/she will choose only from such lists. The provincial nominating bodies might be made up of members chosen by the governing and opposition parties in the local Legislature, by the municipalities, business and unions, the bar, universities and perhaps a few others. As with the court nominations, their work could be private and only for the eyes of the PM (which makes it easier for some to put forward their names), or it could be public.
This process would yield a truly respectable Senate. Yes, it would mark a diminution of the Prime Minister's patronage powers, but that would happen under the alternative of abolition in any case. We would be better to preserve and improve a truly useful advisory body.
Even Mr Harper has floated this idea but has said that he would not necessarily select from such lists which totally negates the whole idea but would of course allow the PM to continue to appoint partisan flacks. I think we all know where this one is going....absolutely nowhere, any major change will need constitutional change and that requires broad provincial support. Lets face it the Harper regime is not exactly renown for building broad support for anything and a PM that refuses to even meet with his provincial counterparts is unlikely to get a lot of cooperation in that regard.

The Senate and the House of Commons will continue to be a partisan war zone for the foreseeable future and we can but hope that a more 'cooperative' government can and will find a way to get consensus on bringing in Electoral, Parliamentary & Senate reform that will better serve the Canadian people than that which exists now.

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Sunday, November 10, 2013

Information is Power

The senate expense investigation and who knew what along with the PMs efforts to rid himself of these now disgraced conservative senators that he appointed has all but eliminated other news from the headlines. There was however some mention a couple of weeks ago of Canada's information watchdog Suzanne Legault's recent report and remarks wherein she points out that the freedom-of-information becoming “a system in crisis, where departments are unable to fulfil even their most basic obligations under the act”.

It is interesting to note that, if I remember correctly, the whole Duffy-Wallen affair came out of a FOI request way back in May. Would this have reached this level of confusion and accusations if such expenditures were publicly available on an ongoing basis WITHOUT having to request (and pay for the request) the information and then wait months for the response? It should not take a FOI request to see where OUR money is being spent, it matters not if its senators expenses, the PMs advertising budget, or how much he spends to have his hair done ALL expenses should be posted on line in a timely manner. This does not mean 3 to 6 months after the end of the fiscal year but at a very minimum quarterly and within 30 to 60 days.

Our secretive government is however going the opposite way - In a closed-door session with dozens of bureaucrats Thursday, Suzanne Legault cited a series of novel measures she says are damaging an already tottering system. "I am seeing signs of a system in crisis, where departments are unable to fulfil even their most basic obligations under the act," Legault told the group.
As an example, she cited a directive in April this year from the Treasury Board warning bureaucrats to steer clear of ministers' offices when looking for documents to respond to an access-to-information request.
In other words the bureaucrats have been told to not even look in certain places so that they can say that they found nothing!! As Legault says access to information is fundamental to Democracy
She said - that both ministers and deputy ministers in the public service must show leadership to create a culture of transparency within their departments, explaining it is fundamental to Canada's system of government, and a key tool that allows Canadians to engage in the democratic process and learn about the government's actions and decisions.
"When the access system falters," she said, "not only is Canadians' participation in government thwarted, but ultimately the health of Canadian democracy is at stake."
I would go furthest and say that with modern data systems available such information should be generally accessible without going through a bunch of bureaucratic hoops to see it and that those who deliberately hide, delete, fail to reveal, or otherwise obscure such information are democratic terrorists!

Of particular concern on this file is the obscuring, withholding or failure to collect scientific facts, be it regarding the state of our population and their well being or the condition of, and action required to upkeep, our natural heritage of parks, rivers, oceans, air and other resources.
This is a government waging a quiet legislative and administrative war on science — especially those fields of science dedicated to gathering and analyzing data on the health of Canada’s natural environment — and it has undone a century of good work with alarming efficiency since the passage of its sweeping omnibus budget bill in June 2012 ............
So what is the nature of this war on science? Above all else, it is a sustained campaign to diminish the government’s role in evidence-based policy-making and environmental stewardship in three simple ways: reducing the capacity of the government to gather basic data about the status and health of the environment and Canadian society; shrinking or eliminating government agencies that monitor and analyze that evidence and respond to emergencies; and seizing control of the communications channels by which all of the above report their findings to the Canadian public.
The ultimate goal is equally clear: to induce in the federal government a sort of wilful blindness, severely limiting its ability to see and respond to the impacts of its policies, especially those related to resource extraction.
Do No Science, Hear No Science, Speak No Science — this is the essence of the Harper agenda. And its list of alterations and diminutions is alarming in its length and breadth.

There is a very small piece of good news, the Federal Liberals have instructed their MPs to post their person expenses on line, something the lone Green party MP did way back in July, it a small step and long overdue but that they have also called for the following is even better:-
  1. Require Members of Parliament and Senators to proactively disclose travel and hospitality expenses made by them and their staff. The Liberal Caucus’ proactive disclosures can be viewed on their individual biography pages at Liberal.ca.
  2. Introduce legislation to make meetings of the Board of Internal Economy of the House of Commons open and transparent to the public. The ability of the committee to go in-camera where necessary (for example, on sensitive HR matters) will remain, but not as is currently the case, as a default. The Senate Board of Internal Economy is already public.
  3. Create a common, quarterly and more detailed online expense report for spending by Members of Parliament and the Senate that is also more easily accessed and usable by the public from the home page of the Parliament of Canada website.
  4. The House and Senate Boards of Internal Economy should work with the Auditor General  to develop mandatory performance audits of the House of Commons and Senate administration every three years, and public guidelines under which the Auditor General is called in to perform more detailed audits of parliamentary spending.
It remains to be seen that if and when they are in a position to bring such policy into being implemented it actually happens, we may be sure it will not under the Harpler regime, at least not unless the PM, the PMO and the cabinet members were exempt from such requirements.

Information is power and Mr Harpler wants that all for himself!

Update--- The Conservative government has agreed to stop requiring information about a person's background before processing their requests for documents under the Access to Information Act.
----Must be already on file!
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Sunday, November 3, 2013

An Insidious Sickness

Canadian Democracy is sick. It has been showing alarming symptoms for some time now, they range from the inability of a large portion of our MPs to speak out without first consulting the PMO and a failure to listen to those with opposing or alternate opinions, to totally ignoring the rules and conventions built up over years of parliamentary debate and development, and a total lack of ethics and honesty. A new symptom appearing just this week is the removal of independent and small party MP's right to intervene at the report stage of proposed legislation and at the Con convention the ruling regime came out AGAINST proportional representation and for 'riding equality' whatever that means!

Other symptoms include
the starvation of many government departments essential for the well being of the country, environment & science, information services, parliamentary and electoral watchdogs, etc etc whilst at the same time other less essential departments such as the PMO and their advertising budget are being well fed and becoming obese.

As with most sicknesses there are those that are alarmed by the development and try to intervene and suggest some possible remedy’s, those who are so disconnected that they are unaware that the patent is sick, and those who say its nothing to be alarmed about, the symptoms are meaningless, ignore them there is nothing wrong. Some would have us believe that the current affliction of the senate is part of the sickness, and indeed it is, but the removal of that organ will not stop the spread of the sickness for it has spread far too wide within the body political to be cured by random amputation.

Only the removal of the cancerous tumor in the Prime Ministers office will set us on the road to recovery but even then it may take years to get back to good heath and in fact we may never recover all that is lost, we may indeed not recognize our country even after the tumor is removed, democracy will be but a shadow of its former self for years to come. We can only hope that the cancer is not terminal.

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