A ruling by the Speaker of the House of Commons on Wednesday may add fuel to the federal election fire, but what it should do is cause the ruling Conservative government to remember something basic — Canada is a democracy, and accountability is an important part of democracy.
Speaker Peter Milliken ruled that International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda may be in contempt of Parliament for misleading MPs about a memo that was altered. His other ruling was that the government did not give MPs enough information about the cost of two aspects of its policy, corporate tax cuts and crime bills.
While the two subjects are different, the way both were handled goes to the heart of how the federal government operates. All meaningful decisions are made in the Prime Minister’s office, and cabinet ministers, MPs, Parliament as a whole and taxpayers who pay the bills are frequently kept in the dark.
This approach to running the federal government started in the days of Pierre Trudeau, continued under Brian Mulroney and Jean Chretien and has reached a high-water mark under Stephen Harper. Harper’s penchant for secrecy is legendary, and has been at least partially necessary, given that he has a minority government, there is overt hostility to the Conservatives from many Ottawa insiders, and past Conservative governments have had difficulty with independent-minded MPs.
While the prime minister and cabinet must set the agenda for the government, in our system Parliament has the final word. It is supposed to oversee all government spending. If the budget, the major element of the government’s plans each year, is defeated (as can only happen in a minority Parliament), then an election must be called.
It isn’t an election that is needed right now. It’s respect for the institution of Parliament and the job MPs are elected to do.
MPs must have full information about spending plans in order to cast informed votes, and cabinet ministers must give forthright answers to Parliament and its committees.
This isn’t rocket science. It’s basic democracy.