Tight reins choke Parliament

It’s well known that a healthy democracy needs oxygen, daylight and the not-so-gentle patter of constructive dissent. Less understood is that it can’t thrive without space.

It’s well known that a healthy democracy needs oxygen, daylight and the not-so-gentle patter of constructive dissent. Less understood is that it can’t thrive without space.

That space first shrank when the complexities of governing a highly diverse, urban federation outgrew institutions more compatible with a rural country that, within its distinct regions, was largely homogenous. Now all that remains is reminiscent of an old homestead surrounded by subdivisions.

Change is as necessary as it is inevitable. Still, it’s wrenching to watch as lesser-spotted politicians, the ones voters send here to serve and protect citizens and taxpayers, adapt without a struggle to their condensed habitat and reduced circumstances. Hard as they work at home for constituents and re-election, MPs don’t have the elbow room here to do much that’s memorable. Individual pursuit of virtue is discouraged and collectively holding the government to account is virtually impossible.

Parliament is now so controlled that it’s simply not known if the $10 billion auto-sector rescue is justified or a prudent use of public money.

A hyper-partisan committee pulled so weakly at the loose threads of Brian Mulroney’s business dealings with Karlheinz Schreiber that the only result is the $14 million Oliphant inquiry.

Worse still, there’s a vacuum where there should be a roiling debate over how a country with Canada’s challenges moves from a dated and clearly failing economic model to one that’s sustainable.

Such pressing matters, such big-ticket items, were once the business of the House of Commons. A brightest-and-best bureaucracy provided policy options and parliamentarians knew enough about the problem’s component parts – as well as the solution’s costs – to offer a reasoned opinion on the decision reached by cabinet and a first-among-equals prime minister.

Even if glossed by nostalgia, that model is now a distant memory.

Once policy chefs, civil servants are now greasy-spoon cooks expected to meet executive orders for, say, hammer-dumb legal changes, a brown Green Plan or partisan spending, with no advice given or questions asked. Parliamentarians denied timely information and subject to party discipline, operate in the dark and vote as party strategists dictate. Prime ministers have slipped the bonds of cabinet and caucus as well as the Commons to become between-elections czars.

Situational ignorance and perpetual secrecy have crack-addict appeal for parties in power. Rarely is anyone wiser when authority is applied carelessly or with a wink and a nudge. That’s how it was in the Liberal sponsorship scheme and is now in the Conservative rush to spend infrastructure billions.

But there’s a catch and it, too, is linked to the loss of space. Prime ministers encourage mediocrity by refusing to expose their decisions to close scrutiny. Mediocre national governments fail to maximize the sliver of policy room that remains between globalized economic, trade and security issues and the immediate services delivered by provinces, towns and cities.

That leaves prime ministers in an impossible position of their own making. Policies that too often lag far behind public aspirations and expectations are greased through an institution drifting ever farther from the centre of daily life.

So great is that distance now that voters express indifference by staying away from ballot booths. It’s as if they recognize that the space left to them is now too small to justify the effort.

Jim Travers writes for The Toronto Star Syndicate.

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