2015, Politics, Society

It’s not just C-51 that’s the problem, it’s the System

I haven’t posted anything original in this space since February, in part because I am writing a new book, but in part because I have been a little depressed about the seeming inevitably of the government passing the worst piece of Federal legislation I have seen in my lifetime. (If you don’t know what C-51 is, or you don’t think it’s particularly bad, please see the last few posts on this site, none written by me, which detail many of the problems with this brutal bill.)

Last night, the House of Commons passed C-51 183-96. The 183 MPs who supported it included the Conservatives, whose legislation it is, and the Liberals, who are supporting it, we must suppose, solely because this is an election year.

One of the criticisms thrown at our system of government is that MPs do not properly represent their constituents and this is very evident in the passing of this bill. Harper obviously wants this legislation to pass – it’s his baby – though he was not present during the vote – which is so symbolic it makes my brain hurt.

Conservative leadership hopefuls are no doubt supporting this piece of legislation in the hope that Harper, when he retires, will support their bids. Only one of them will be so lucky, of course. There are bound to be a least a few Conservative MPs ignorant or dumb enough to think this is a good piece of legislation and many more who think being “hard on terror” is what their base wants, and so they should support what the base wants, regardless of how unconstitutional that is. (By the “base” I do not mean their constituents but rather the minority of Canadians who support the Conservative “agenda,” whatever that may be. These people do not necessarily live solely in the ridings of Conservative MPs.)

The Liberal support is a little more confusing. Trudeau presumably supports it because he doesn’t want to appear “soft on terror” less than a year after the two “terrorist” attacks and, of course, this is an election year. But the other people in his party? Regardless of how they feel about this legislation – and it’s hard to imagine many of them support something so anti-liberal, not to mention something so antithetical to the idea of Canada the Liberals have been trying to sell us for decades – how can they support a leader who is failing to differentiate himself from a man who is so unpopular outside of his own base that conservatives don’t like him? (Prior to the “terror” attacks of last autumn, Harper and the Conservatives had arrived at new levels of unpopularity. Nothing like a “terrorist” attack to change people’s minds. But once memory of that fades, and we return to our collective sanity, it is unlikely anywhere near a majority of this country will continue to support Harper’s drastic remaking of our laws. As a Liberal, I would want to side with the old Canada, no?)

I will not be voting NDP in the next election, most likely, but I’ve never been more proud of the federal wing of this party. They (and the lone Green MP) are the only people standing up for the Charter right now. It’s a pity more Canadians aren’t paying attention to this important fight, because you’d think more of us might be actually be proud of what they are doing for us.

The problem is that it doesn’t matter. Canada’s system of party discipline ensured that the legislation passed last night, regardless of personal ethics. (Now, lest you think I am advocating an American solution to this problem, I am fully aware of the consequences of little party discipline in the wrong system, particularly the pork-barreling that occurs when all you care about are your constituents’ jobs.) But this would not be the end of the world if we had an effective Senate and an effective Head of State to kill the bill. But, alas, we do not.

Our Senate remains a rubber stamp. They will point to the reports they’ve made over the years, and recommendations they give the House about changes to bills, but they never effect change in the way an elected Senate would. An elected Senate would be worried about their jobs – hopefully in a different way than the House is worried about their jobs – and would presumably take into account their constituents’ opposition to this bill. Remember when Harper was going to reform the Senate?

An elected Head of State might feel similarly. Unfortunately, our Governor General also remains a rubber stamp. I’m not sure which is worse, our previous Governor General rubber stamping Harper’s past prorogues, or the inevitable automatic passing into law of this bill, without any kind of challenge, from our current Governor General. (Okay, this is worse.) Why would he do this? Because the Governor General is the stooge of the Prime Minister in our system. He owes his job to Harper. Why would he stand up to him?

Ever since I became an adult and realized the full extent of government power, I have wished for minority governments. Many of my friends and family have asked me why. Friends, family and, especially, the media have told me more than once that minority governments are bad because nothing gets done.

Well, unfortunately, in the current system in Canada, things do get done with majority governments. As with last night, and as with the various appalling legislation this government has passed that is both willfully ignorant and cunning. (I say willfully ignorant because this government rejects evidence as a matter of principle – they are actually proud of it. I say cunning because of the way this government has used various strategies to disguise legislation – most notably the omnibus bills, where they package together so many pieces of legislation that the public can’t possibly concern ourselves with the details.) This government, a majority, is either a nadir in Canadian political history, that we will move on from and laugh about in the future, or a turning point in the way our society is governed. Which is entirely up to us.

A few years ago, I published a book arguing that Canada wasn’t enough of a liberal democracy. I said Canada wasn’t (small l) liberal enough because we lacked protections against a majority government doing whatever it wants. I said Canada wasn’t (small d) democratic enough because the system wasn’t responsive to the concerns of regular citizens, rather it favoured blocs of loosely aligned ideologies and interests. The Conservative’s recent legislative record is proof of the former. The Conservative’s ability to win a majority of seats in this country with a minority of support is proof of the latter.

Now my system was ambitious and overly complicated – I was young, angry, passionate, perhaps a little too close to academic still – but I believe that many of the ideas I suggested – an elected Senate, an elected Executive divorced from parliament, contracts with MPs, mandatory constituent meetings, and the like – will make our country a better place. I stand by the vast majority of recommendations I made at the time.

The time has come for us to demand constitutional change in this country. The inevitable passing into law of C-51 is just the first step towards a Canada we will not recognize, a Canada that more closely resembles the police state in the United States than it resembles the country you and I remember from our youth. Under this legislation, it is even conceivable that demonstrations for constitutional change could be construed as supporting terrorism. (If this sounds crazy to you, I urge you to better familiarize yourself with the vague text of this bill.) We need to start now. We cannot rely on the system to protect us from autocrats and wannabe dictators any more. We need to change the system. And, whehter you like it or not, that starts with you and I. Nobody is going to do this for us.

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