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It’s Time for a fresh start in Parliament

Preston Manning, Globe and Mail – July 4, 2009

There is a time for everythingAnd a season for everything under heavenA

time to tear down and a time to buildA time to love and a time to hateA time
for war and a time for peace.–Ecclesiastes

The current session of Parliament ended last week on very much the same
note as it began last fall – with partisanship carried to excess and threatening
to precipitate an unwanted and unnecessary election.

Last fall, it was the Conservative government's threat to abolish party

subsidies that precipitated the crisis, and it was Prime Minister Stephen
Harper's standing that was damaged. Most recently, it was posturing and
brinkmanship by the Official Opposition over employment insurance reform
that precipitated the crisis and, this time, it was Michael Ignatieff's stature
that was diminished.

But as the writer of Ecclesiastes observed long ago, there is a time for
everything. And perhaps this summer could be a time for our federal
politicians, their key advisers and the Ottawa media gallery to take stock of
the perceived dysfunctionality of Parliament and come up with a “fresh start
plan” for this fall. By that, I mean a plan that would restore public confidence
in Parliament at a time when such confidence is sorely needed, especially to
facilitate economic recovery.

At the heart of declining public confidence in Parliament is the conduct of the

daily Question Period, the image of our House of Commons most frequently
shown on television.

So why don't the Speaker and the House leaders get together this summer
and come up with a plan to reform Question Period to make it a credit, rather
than a discredit, to the democratic process?

A starting point for their discussions could be a close examination of the

Question Period procedures in the British House of Commons; the practice
there generally enjoys a better reputation for civility and effectiveness than
that of its Canadian or Australian counterparts.

At the same time, why don't the owners of our major media and the
executive of the Parliamentary Press Gallery get together to discuss
reforming the role of the media in reporting on parliamentary affairs. Media
coverage tends to amplify the negative and controversial dimensions of
parliamentary activity and to dampen or ignore the more constructive

Most of us would agree that one of the primary functions of a democratically

elected parliament is to openly consider and pass legislation. In this regard,
the current session of this minority Parliament has been among the most
productive in Canadian parliamentary history. But you would never know it
from the media coverage over the past eight months.

Since Jan. 26, when the second session of the 40th Parliament convened, 52
government bills have been introduced; of those, 26 have already been
passed and have received royal assent. This legislation has included budget
implementation measures, the appropriation of funds to finance the stimulus
package, free-trade agreements with a number of European and Latin
American countries, Arctic pollution protection and the enlargement of
Nahanni National Park, energy efficiency and the facilitating of electronic
communications, and Criminal Code amendments pertaining to organized
crime, auto theft and trafficking in stolen property.

This output is a major accomplishment, particularly for a minority Parliament

that the public (based on its perception of Question Period) believes
incapable of even agreeing on what day it is.

Achieving this impressive output required significant day-to-day co-operation

among the four House leaders to move the parliamentary agenda along. It
also required constructive contributions from all sides of the House,
participation in endless committee meetings, key testimony from expert
witnesses, significant debates on principle, cross-party co-operation to secure
amendments, and innumerable votes - dull activity by the media's definition
of newsworthiness but absolutely essential to the peaceful and orderly
governance of our country.

As part of a “fresh start” for Parliament this fall, there must be some way of
reforming media coverage of its activities. But given Canada's commitment
to respect freedom of the press, such reforms must come from the media
community itself.

Other “fresh start” measures could include bipartisan or multipartisan co-

operation on some major piece of legislation - perhaps EI reform - or some
agreement to alter the “confidence convention,” so the only condition on
which a government could be defeated in the House would be on an explicit
motion of no-confidence moved for that purpose.
Whatever the content of a “fresh start plan,” its necessity will never be
accepted by politicians until we accept the principle that there are limits to
partisanship that should be recognized and respected by all.

Those limits derive from the fact that voters are never as partisan as the
partisans. They will never love us and our party as much as we do, and they
will never dislike our opponents and their party as much as we may. When
we step outside those boundaries - deifying our own cause and demonizing
that of our opponents – we will lose public support. When we stay within
those boundaries - clearly distinguishing ourselves from our opponents but in
believable terms - we stand a better chance of restoring public confidence in
ourselves, in our parties, in Parliament, and in democracy itself.