Thursday, December 31, 2009

More reviews are in

John Geddes:
Fixes for specific shortcomings in the functioning of the House can usually be found. For example, the current impasse concerning turning documents related to the detainee issue over to MPs might be settled by creating a special committee parliamentarians sworn in to hear national security secrets. Many observers have floated promising ideas for improving the tone of Question Period and the functioning of Commons committees.

But all this depends on the executive branch, the Prime Minister and cabinet, showing decent respect for parliamentary tradition. And that means, above all, accepting the Opposition’s role as valid and integral, an idea that evolved in Britain, with the term “His Majesty’s Opposition” coming into use as a convention in the course of debate in 1826.

The Harper government has adopted a position dangerously close to the notion that opposition questioning of the government on any matter relating to Afghanistan is somehow inherently disloyal. As far back as 2007, the Prime Minister himself accused the then-Liberal leader St├ęphane Dion of caring more about the Taliban than for Canadian troops. In recent weeks government ministers have made a habit recklessly equating defending their own handling of the detainee file with defending the behaviour of Canada’s troops in Kandahar.

That’s not just an obnoxious debating tack. Implicit in the ploy is the notion that the Opposition shouldn’t be pressing the government in the first place on the most serious questions of foreign and defence policy. As if to do so is inherently disloyal. It’s a throwback to the 16th and 17th centuries, when British MPs were permitted to ask about local or private matters, but the big questions of state were out of bounds.

There is no quick fix to a national atmosphere in which proper regard for the House, which calls for something approaching reverence for its conventions, has been deteriorating for so long. We’ve gone on too long talking too often as if the House doesn’t deserve respect. Given that lazy habit in our national conversation, it’s not surprising that the Prime Minister believes he can slam the doors on the place without paying any political price.

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