CANADA

THE HIGH COST OF SILENCE

Anthony Wilson-Smith January 17 1994
CANADA

THE HIGH COST OF SILENCE

Anthony Wilson-Smith January 17 1994

THE HIGH COST OF SILENCE

CANADA

BACKSTAGE ' OTTAWA

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

Picture this: a democracy where the political leadership behaves as though actions truly mean more than words—and dissent by political opponents is muted and moderate. In this more perfect world, your elected representative is usually found close by in his or her constituency office, rather than off in a faraway capital where local concerns are too easily put out of sight and mind.

That description is almost entirely true of Canada since the Oct. 25 election.

There is no denying that Jean Chrétien’s Liberals have been bold and busy: tearing up helicopter and airport deals, engineering the replacement of the governor of the Bank of Canada, ratifying the North American Free Trade Agreement, signing the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and, this week, participating in crucial discussions in Europe on the future shape of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). They have done all this with scarcely a peep of dissent from the leaders of the four opposition parties. Only Preston Manning has been regularly available for public comment—usually from his Calgary lair. And members of Parliament, other than cabinet ministers, have been in their home ridings, presumably busy seeking ways to service their constituents.

All this has been made possible by the Liberals’ decision to wait until Jan. 17—almost three months after their election— before convening the House of Commons.

That is part of a continuing trend away from lengthy sessions of the House. In 1984, according to Robert Fleming, editor of the book Canadian Legislatures, the Commons sat for 177 days. In 1992, it sat 110 days. And last year, only 76. Gone, too, are evening sessions, so even the sitting days are shorter.

Is that a good thing? Yes, would be the answer of most politicians on the government side. For ministers, the hours spent preparing for Question Period and Commons’ committees are a drain on time better used overseeing their departments. For backbenchers, the sessions highlight their impotence: unable or unwilling to publicly criticize their party, government MPs bring to mind Will Rogers’ dictum that “there is no more independence in politics than there is in jail.” And members of all parties are—or should be—aware that the public’s lack of respect owes much to the sometimes infantile antics of their predecessors in the House.

But political peace has its price. Despite the efforts of interest groups and others g to denigrate or supplant it, 2 Parliament remains the on| ly forum in which duly

0 elected representatives

1 from across the country K gather to discuss national " issues. All other alternatives are, at best, poor second choices.

In the absence of Parliament, debate of important public policies is restricted or non-existent. It would have been nice, for example, to have heard advance discussion of what positions Canada should adopt this week when NATO leaders debate the organization’s future in Brussels. (Similarly, it is nice to know that the life-or-death matter of Canada’s role in future peacekeeping ventures will be publicly debated when the House sits again).

For MPs themselves, there are compelling reasons to await the opening of Parliament. Parliament is where individual MPs get a chance to shine nationally. Both in public and private, they can influence the policies of their parties and, by extension, the tone of debate in the country. And there is a selfserving question for MPs to ponder as they prepare for the first meeting of Parliament since last June 16: if they don’t place much importance on public debate in the House of Commons, why should the rest of us?