Thursday, January 28, 2010

The reviews are in

Lawrence Martin:
(The Conservatives) campaigned heavily against Liberal abuse of power and promised a new era of accountability. And the Accountability Act did, in fact, contain many fine reforms. But as Duff Conacher of Democracy Watch (who advised the Conservatives on the legislation) will tell you, a goodly number of the proposed reforms never made it to the table, and others that were enacted have since been violated in spirit. When Stephen Harper's all-controlling proclivities are factored in, the end result has been a further worsening of the problem.

People don't use the term “overconcentration of power” so much any more. It has been replaced by phrases akin to one-man rule. Everyone in the governing party falls at the feet of the Sun King. It's been four years since Mr. Harper came to power, and almost that long since anyone in his party has had the nerve to question his decisions. Maverick MP Garth Turner spoke out once and was banished from the party. The talented Michael Chong did the same and has been a backbencher since.

The democratic deficit increases for the simple reason that the government finds democracy too restraining. Power cannot be shared. Mouths need be closed. Loose charges sink barges. Most revealing was one of the government's defences for its latest suspension of Parliament. It's easier to get work done, Conservatives said, when Parliament isn't in session. How could anyone disagree? When there is no opposition across the aisle, autocracy takes the place of democracy.

Sensing that democratic reform is becoming a top-drawer issue, Mr. Ignatieff – his Liberals are back to work despite the shutdown – promised this week to give more power to federal watchdogs who have been under attack by the Conservatives for not being toadies. That's fine, but bearing in mind what happened to Mr. Martin's high-minded intentions, he needs to come up with much more. He needs a wide-ranging reform plan that will substantially diminish a prime minister's powers.

He could start with measures to reverse what began 30 years ago, measures that strip away the authority of the unelected in the PMO and turn those functions over to elected members. The enormity of prime ministerial might is such that a downsizing would still leave the office as one of the strongest among Western democracies.
And James Travers:
Conservatives found new ways and means so dark and Machiavellian that Liberals were left gawking in envious wonder.

Imagine a confidential manual instructing chairs to manipulate, obstruct and, when necessary, sabotage committees. Imagine directly challenging the independence and objectivity of the chief electoral officer, sacking the nuclear safety watchdog for dutiful barking and then systematically choking counterparts probing issues as diverse and seminal as timely access to information, complaints against the RCMP and who knew what and when about Afghanistan prisoner abuse.

While all the buzz around here, not much in that authoritarian behaviour disturbed the nation's cozy sleep. A record number of voters stayed home even when Harper shafted the spirit of his own fixed-date law by forcing the fall 2008 election.
That mask has now fallen away, exposing the bare face of self-interest. Parliament is dark because Harper is tired of being embarrassed by rivals shining their little lights into Afghanistan shadows.

Academics will spend years studying how and why a tipping point was reached. But it's already obvious that the unintended consequence of Harper's repeat gambit is that Canadians are making dotted-line connections between lesser events and greater threats.
Harper's great unintentional gift to Canadians is a wake-up call. Finally alert, their attention is the political variable he didn't calculate and now can't control or ignore.

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