Columns

A one-party state

The federal Liberals are virtually unimpeded in their exercise of power. With so little opposition, debate is being stifled.

Mary Janigan August 27 2001
Columns

A one-party state

The federal Liberals are virtually unimpeded in their exercise of power. With so little opposition, debate is being stifled.

Mary Janigan August 27 2001

A one-party state

Columns

The federal Liberals are virtually unimpeded in their exercise of power. With so little opposition, debate is being stifled.

Mary Janigan

In retrospect, the only surprise is that the governing Liberals took so long to squash John Bryden like a bug. Two months ago, the enterprising Ontario MP cobbled together an unofficial 14-member committee of parliamentarians to update the 18-year-old Access to Information Act. The government itself had assembled a bureaucratic task force to draft changes to the law. But Bryden figured that elected MPs in public hearings could do a better job than civil servants in private meetings. His timing was unorthodox: he wanted input into the bill before it was drafted to ensure that every issue from cabinet privacy to the exemption for Crown corporations was aired—and every possibility for freer access was considered. He drew up an elaborate agenda, cheerily inviting officials to attend.

Two weeks ago, House Leader Don Boudria haughtily announced to his fellow Liberal that no public officials would be coming: MPs could consider the bill—“in an orderly and rational process”—after the bureaucrats had drafted it. Brydens committee, he added, was not formally constituted, so officials could face legal liability for what they said. Dashed, Bryden still says it is “all the more vital” that he continue.

“Defining secrecy, finding that balance,” he maintains, “is so centrally important that MPs should be engaged from the beginning.”

It was a small mid-summer’s moment that perfecdy captured Canadas plight: with an overwhelming majority in Parliament, the federal Liberals are virtually unimpeded in their exercise of power. Their opposition in Parliament is divided and squabbling: last weekend’s meeting in Mont-Tremblant, Que., of MPs from the Progressive Conservatives and the rebel Democratic Representative Caucus was only a baby step towards possible unity. (Canadian Alliance MPs were not present.) Liberal MPs like Bryden who try anything novel are simply squelched by the all-powerful Prime Minister’s Office.

Provincial premiers, deeply divided themselves, cannot provide meaningful opposition. At this month’s annual meeting in Victoria, they could only agree on a call for more federal funds. In any event, the premiers’ input is largely restricted to issues over which they have jurisdiction, such as health care. There is no coherent voice to express alternatives on everything from Canada-U.S. relations to urban affairs to aboriginal policy. “Governments govern best when there is a constant threat of defeat,” says Roger Gibbins, president of the Canada West Foundation. “When political leaders don’t face that risk, they drift away.”

The consequences are serious. Canadians have turned off: in last November’s federal election, only 61.2 per cent of eli-

gible voters cast a ballot—the lowest electoral turnout in Canadian history. (The highest was 79.4 per cent in 1958 when the Conservatives under Prime Minister John Diefenbaker won in a landslide.) Worse, in frustration, regional parties are becoming the norm—such as the Bloc Québécois in Quebec, the Aliance in the West or, for that matter, the Liberals in Ontario. “There is no government-in-waiting on the opposition benches,” laments Université de Moncton political scientist Donald Savoie. “Regions may unplug by losing interest in Ottawa-—or through separation movements such as may occur in Newfoundland. If we do not have an alternative soon, things will crack.”

Meanwhile, the Liberals have it all their own way. With federal spending cuts in the mid-1990s, most departments chopped their public policy units. At the time, it seemed like a painless excision because most departments could barely maintain previous services, let alone worry about future needs. It is only now, without the spur of serious opposition, that Ottawa is leisurely rebuilding that policy-planning capacity. In the meantime, it often relies on privatesector think-tanks for fresh ideas which it adopts, willy-nilly, whenever it suits its purposes. And it often falls prey to whatever lobby group, frequendy representing business interests, can exert the greatest pressure. “What we are missing today is vigorous, open debate on public policy,” says University of Toronto political scientist David Cameron. “Nobody should have a monopoly on defining what the issue is—or the response. And nobody should be able to shut down discussion without arguing the merits of the case. This is where we are suffering. It isn’t healthy.”

So what to do? It’s little wonder that some groups such as Toronto-based Equal Voice, a group dedicated to electing more women, are espousing proportional representation: after all, the Conservatives got 12 per cent of the vote in the last election—but only four per cent of the 301 seats. Yet it’s difficult to imagine Jean Chrétiens Liberals (41 per cent of the vote, 57 per cent of the seats) contemplating any massive overhaul of the electoral system. It’s even harder to picture the three blocs of conservative opposition somehow finding it in their souls to put the public good before their own narrow interests. “Fundamental change in national political institutions will only come after Chrétien leaves,” predicts Savoie. “The only choices are major changes through an enlightened leader—or regionalism running amok.” In the meantime, Bryden will hold his hearings in stubborn isolation, cabinet and the bureaucrats will ensure they get to keep their secrets—and everyone in Canada will be the poorer for it.