It's Not Bickering. It's Democracy.
Parliament is a squalid irrelevance. Debate is noisy discord. The differing viewpoints of individuals and parties is nothing more than bickering that distracts from what matters.
Many Canadians feel this way about Parliament, and certainly the institution deserves to see the nation's curled lip now and then. But like it or not, Parliament is the beating heart of the body politic. And perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the leaders' debate Tuesday night was to see the head of government, as Stephen Harper has been for five years, express -albeit in modestly more polite language -this contemptible sentiment of contempt.
Harper's preferred word was "bickering." That's how he described Parliamentary debate. It's all just bickering. (It wasn't only him, to be fair. Jack Layton used every clash between Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff as a chance to smile wryly and pose as the only adult in the playground.)
But what exactly is Parliament, and more specifically the House of Commons? It's the place where people chosen in ridings across the country gather to talk about the nation's business. Our representatives often disagree. Is this bickering?
It can be trivial sometimes. It deserves to be called "bickering" in those moments.
But often the disagreements of our representatives reflects disagreements among Canadians. We have different values and priorities, different visions. Very simply, we disagree.
That's fine in a mature democracy. We disagree, we debate, we discuss and negotiate. And if we still can't find a reasonable compromise, we vote. It's all good.
But not to Stephen Harper, it seems. Underlying his comments, particularly in the first half of the debate, was a tone of disdain for Parliamentary "bickering." It was all so annoying to him. As head of government, he had important things to deal with. Why should he be bothered with this bickering? Give him a majority so he needn't bother.
His sentiment was expressed most clearly when the Parliamentary contempt ruling was discussed, appropriately enough. It was mere politics, Harper insisted. The opposition was bickering, as usual, and they decided to push the matter and force an election. There was nothing more to it.
Of course, Harper did not mention that the Speaker of the House of Commons, a man who held his post with the support of the Conservatives, an officer universally respected, a scholar who knows as much about Parliamentary history and procedure as anyone in the country, had investigated the matter and found that Harper's government had violated Parliamentary privilege. In fact, if the Speaker had not so ruled, the whole matter would have never come to a vote.
Nor did Harper mention that there have been 13 minority governments in Canada, 18 minorities in Britain since 1834, and lots more minorities in the provincial governments and the many other governments around the world that use the Westminster system. Not one of those governments was found in contempt of Parliament. The ruling against the Harper government was genuinely historic.
Mere bickering, says Stephen Harper.
In the debate, Michael Ignatieff said the prime minister did not show proper respect for Parliament. I think stronger language is needed to describe what the prime minister showed.
"People expect the party that wins the most seats will form the government," Harper said. For the majority of Canadians who, according to surveys, do not understand how our Parliamentary system works, that probably sounded right. But Harper is not among the majority who do not understand how our Parliamentary system works.
He knows perfectly well that, as the respected political scientist Peter Russell told me recently, "the licence to govern in Canada is the confidence of the House of Commons. Period. Full stop."
Yes, the phrase "people expect" can be used to narrowly evade the bald-faced falseness of his statement. But this is not the fine print on a contract. Lawyerly slipperiness is not what is expected of a prime minister discussing the fundamental law on which this country is founded.
Surveys tell us that half of Canadians are so clueless about Canadian governance that they actually think the people elect the prime minister. Rather than sweep away that ignorance, Harper makes use of it. Indeed, he fosters it in order to advance his immediate political interests.
You want to hear squalid? Don't listen to Parliament. Listen to Stephen Harper talk about the constitution of Canada.