OTTAWA — One of the most unproductive sittings in Canadian legislative history is sputtering to an end.
MPs are preparing to head home for the summer, having spent six months locked in furious debate over the vital role Parliament should play in a healthy democracy.
But amid all the wrangling and rancour, there’s little sign that Parliament has actually done much work.
And there’s little hope for improvement when Parliament resumes in the fall after a 12-week hiatus.
Consider the record of accomplishment so far this year:
As of today, only two appropriation bills — important but routine pieces of legislation that ensure the government has money to operate — have received royal assent after winning approval from both the House of Commons and Senate.
A handful more — including an all-party brokered compromise on refugee reforms and a massive, omnibus budget implementation bill — might yet become law in a last-minute flurry of activity.
But even that buzzer-busting burst may fizzle amid renewed threats related to the release of Afghan detainee documents.
The NDP and the Bloc are threatening to hold up millions in federal cash needed to pay for this month’s G8 and G20 summits if the Conservatives don’t finalize an agreement on how the documents are to be released.
“That could produce a debate in the House of Commons that would override any of the other debates, including the release of funds,” NDP Leader Jack Layton told CTV’s Question Period on Sunday.
The Commons is expected to break as early as Thursday but the Senate may sit up to an additional three weeks to deal with legislation the government deems most urgent.
Parliamentary expert Ned Franks says he can’t recall another legislative sitting that has accomplished so little.
“There might have been (but) I have no record of it,” says the political scientist.
According to Franks’ records, Parliament last year approved 34 bills — 24 of them before the summer hiatus. That’s on par with the average 35 bills per year passed by the mother of all parliaments in Britain.
Clearly, Canadian parliamentarians are lagging well behind the normal pace this year. But then, as Franks observes, “This parliament isn’t functioning like a normal parliament.”
He blames a government that “views Parliament as the enemy” and opposition parties that “oppose indiscriminately” everything the government does.
Unless both sides undergo an attitude transplant over the summer, Franks expects the autumn will produce more of the same.
With the Tories’ popularity sliding amid outrage over the $1 billion security tab for the G8 and G20 summits and the Liberals struggling with leadership woes and merger rumours, it’s unlikely either of the main parties will have the courage to put this Parliament out of its misery and force a fall election.
Hence, Liberals and New Democrats predict the fall sitting could well pick up where the current one is leaving off — with the threat of a nasty showdown over the right of parliamentarians to ferret out the truth and hold the government to account.
The threat has dominated the parliamentary year so far, from the moment Prime Minister Stephen Harper prorogued Parliament just before the new year in an ostensible bid to buy time to “recalibrate” his government’s agenda.
Opposition parties suspected the real motive was to dodge a parliamentary motion, passed in December, demanding that the government release all uncensored documents related to the alleged torture of Afghan detainees.
Once Parliament resumed in early March, five weeks later than originally scheduled, the government continued to ignore the will of Parliament. Opposition parties finally appealed to Commons Speaker Peter Milliken, who agreed the government was in contempt of Parliament — a finding that technically could have triggered the house arrest of some key ministers, possible court challenges or even an election.
However, Milliken asked all parties to try to find a compromise that would result in disclosure of the relevant documents without jeopardizing national security. They did eventually strike an agreement in principle but, even now as the parliamentary clock winds down, the four parties are still dickering over the details.
Not one document has been disclosed.
Even as the Afghan detainee issue inches toward resolution, the government has opened a new front in the war with Parliament. For the past few weeks, it has refused to allow ministerial aides to testify at Commons committees, blithely ignoring summonses to appear at inquiries into the Guergis-Jaffer affair and allegations of political interference in Access to Information requests.
“It’s been a frustrating session in many ways because the government has had this stonewalling attitude toward everything — stifling information, refusing to produce documents, trying to keep witnesses away from committees,” Ralph Goodale, the Liberal House leader, said in an interview.
He said continued refusal to let aides testify could lead to another contempt of Parliament showdown in the fall.
“This is a very critical issue. It goes to transparency, it goes to accountability and it goes to the proper functioning of a legitimate parliamentary democracy,” he said.
Libby Davies, Goodale’s NDP counterpart, agreed the matter could come to another ugly head.
“There is a very strong pattern here, whether you look at the prorogation, whether you look at the Afghanistan documents … and now this absurd, unilateral decision that political staff can not be questioned at committee,” she said.
“This all comes back to a government that is very authoritarian, that is very abusive of power and tries to run roughshod over Parliament … and I think it’s very possible that we’ll see that continue into the fall when we come back.”
There could also be a potential showdown over the government’s attempt to stuff all manner of unrelated legislation into its monster budget bill, which runs almost 900 pages and includes everything from changes to federal environmental assessments to potential privatization of Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.