A blog to give a voice to our concern about the continued erosion of our democratic processes not only within the House of Commons and within our electoral system but also throughout our society. Here you will find articles about the current problems within our parliamentary democracy, about actions both good and bad by our elected representatives, about possible solutions, opinions and debate about the state of democracy in Canada, and about our roles/responsibilities as democratic citizens. We invite your thoughtful and polite comments upon our posts and ask those who wish to post longer articles or share ideas on this subject to submit them for inclusion as a guest post.
Contact us at democracyunderfire@gmail.com

Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Cost of Democracy

With all the signals saying that the spending spree is all but over and the austerity program is about to commence I thought it appropriate that I take a look at some of the costs of running our parliamentary system. I have extracted the main figures from a number of sources and have provided a link to each of them, I no doubt have missed some stuff and its hard to know what to include in such a synopsis. Building maintenance, ministerial assistants and high level civil servants etc etc? Nor is it clear if such cost as the PMO (does the taxpayer pick that up?), advertising telling us what a great job they are doing, and other such expenses unrelated to directly administering a specific program should be included.

That said here is what I have come up with for your interest……..


In looking into exactly what sort of pension our parliamentarians receive I was struck mostly by the ratio of how much they contribute to the “plans” and how much we (the taxpayer) contribute to the fund. I note that there are two funds, the “retirement compensation” fund and the “retiring allowances” fund, it appears one funds the “allowance” that an MP (or Senator) get if he ceases to be a member after less than 6 years and the other funds the retirement pension available (at age 55, or before if they served prior to 1995) to those who have served more than 6 years.
The “contributions” by MPs and Senators to the pension plan is in the order of 10% but the following figures tell how much we contribute by comparison.

2007 / 08 (figured rounded)
Members contribution to RC fund $1.6 M
Members contribution to RA fund $2.5 M

Total member contributions $4.1 M

Government contribution to RC fund $16.5 M
Government contribution to RA fund $5.6 M

Total Government contributions $22.1 M

I do not begrudge these folk a decent pension but that we pay for 90% of it is a bit much given that their salaries whilst in office start at $130,000 (senator) to $160,000 (MP) and can go as high as $180,000 to over $200,000 depending upon their position. Given the economic realities faced by “ordinary” Canadians is it to much to ask for them to contribute say 50%? They currently receive 3% of their annual compensation per year of service to a maximum of 75%. i.e. starting at around $26,000 after just 6 years of service, more if they have served longer or held a ministerial position. Our current PM for instance would receive over $150,000 per year if he retired today!

The source for the above information is the “Report on the Administration of the Members of Parliament Retiring Allowances Act for the Fiscal Year Ended March 31, 2008” where you will also find historical comparisons.

For more information see MPs Salaries, Remuneration, Pensions and Entitlements and this older article from retired MP David Kilgore

Senate Operations (figured rounded)

Senators salaries, pensions, travel & staff $36.7 M
Chamber operations, salaries etc $6.3M
Committees’ expenditures and support etc $8.6 M
Administrative support services etc $25 M

Total about $76 M

MembersExpenses (PDF)

Individual members expenses vary considerably, for the purposes of this article we will just look at the totals for 08 / 09

Members Office (figures rounded)
Office staffing etc $73 M
Other office expense $12.5 M

Services provided by the House
Travel $27.5 M
Printing $10 M
Other $6.5 M

The bottom line

The cost of running the HoC can be found in the Report to Canadians 2009:

Program expenditures: (figures rounded)

Members and House Officers $125 M
(includes salaries & pension contributions)
Office of the Clerk and Secretariat $1.9 M
Office of the Law Clerk $2.7 M
Various Services provided $147.4 M

Members and House Officers (S) $113 M
Employee benefit plans $34 M

Total $425 M

Members expense not included $85.5 M
Members travel expense (not inc?) $27.5 M

Total $543 M

That’s abt $39 per vote cast, or if you prefer abt $23 per eligible voter, put that way this does not seem that bad but remember this does not include the cost of Provincial and Municipal governance, nor the cost of administering the various programs provided by government. It also makes that $1.95 per vote to assist smaller partys with election expenses look very reasonable.

For a comparison of various compensation between the provincial legislatures and the federal legislature see Remuneration-Comparisons.pdf from here. I was unable to find an overall cost of running Provincial Legislatures which no doubt is available individually from each provincial parliamentary web site. However the average BASIC compensation and allowances for an MPP/MLA seems to be about $88,000

Just for interest statscan says there are 3.4 M “public sector workers” in Canada (20% of the workforce) earning an average of slightly over $1000 a week ($50,000 year)
See Average weekly earnings and Employment industry .

Seems to me those folks who are struggling in these hard times might have some difficulty with any austerity program cutting support services whilst such a large portion of our tax dollars goes to politicians and government employees. There would seem to be room for some “efficiencies” here but as in the private sector I doubt whether any reduction in expenditures will start at the top!

The cost of democracy is high but are we getting value for money or simply being scammed? Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Senate Elected by whom?

In recent weeks with the appointment of more “partisan” senators there has been an increased interest in, and discussion of, Senate reform. There are a number of ideas floating around but the main theme seems to be an “elected” senate. Whilst I agree that we should make the selection process less partisan I am not sure that saying that we should “elect” senators is sufficient to address the problem.

As one observer said:-

“If candidates for the Senate are aligned to our existing political parties, they will be dependent on those parties for financial and moral support to be nominated, elected and re-elected once their term is up. If they vote on a bill, contrary to their party’s vote in the House of Commons, they risk being ejected from that party and losing all support needed for re-election. We've seen how ruthless the last few PM's have been when a member votes his or her conscience. If you’re not careful, what you end up with is just doubling the number of sitting MP’s/Senators who are under strict control of one Party leader. They just sit in two buildings.”

I agree entirely, as always the devil is in the details, elected when, how, by whom, under what circumstances, these things make all the difference.

Here is how another commentator sees the current situation:-

“Its mostly a pay-off for cronies and chums that have supported that particular PM's party over the years. The PM usually appoints a few celebrities at the same time; athletes and news commentators to take the spotlight off the fact that its basically cronyism. If you are a good servant of a party, you will be rewarded with a lifetime job where you can show up and sleep.”

Whilst not entirely true that view most certainly is how many see our senate, and it is this view that gives rise to the “abolish the senate” faction, one that those in the corridors of power that want to control everything are glad to encourage. It is not however the whole story and does not reflect (other than the partisan bit) the majority of appointees.

As with debate about proroguing and coalition governments we must be careful to ensure that we know the FACTS and are not basing our views on spin, misconceptions and deliberate misinformation spread by those with a “hidden” agenda.

I am going to briefly try and make sense of this subject, give you some links to further information, and make a suggestion as to what I believe may be the best way to “reform” senatorial appointments.

Rather than repeating here what and how the senate operates I suggest you go to The Canadian Senate: Role, Powers & Operation and for an overview of the many efforts at senate reform see Senate Reform in Canada. This site has much more information on how our parliament operates and I highly recommend it. For more official texts on the subject you can go to the Parliamentary web site.

I urge to read at least some of this material if you are not knowledgeable on this subject for knowledge of the history, operation and previous attempts at reform are essential when considering currents proposals.

Perhaps the most contentious issue apart from the actual changes that may be proposed is whether they can be done without constitutional changes which require either full or partial consent by the provinces. Whilst it is possible that a PM could for instance accept recommendations from provincial governments and legislatures and in turn make those recommendations to the Governor General and not in any way conflict with the constitution it seems improbable that he would do so without some parliamentary ruling pressuring him to do so. However …... “In 2007, the governments of Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland and Labrador, publicly stated that any change to the terms and selection of Senators would require provincial consent, and have requested Prime Minister Harper's government to consult with the provinces before making any changes to the Senate.”

So with all that in mind here is MY modest proposal which one would think would meet with provincial approval and thus could, in the future, be incorporated into the constitution if so desired.

That as and when a senate seat become vacant the appropriate provincial legislature shall by majority vote nominate a candidate for consideration to the Prime Minister of Canada who shall in turn recommend this candidate to The Governor General of Canada for consideration as a Canadian Senator. Should the Prime Minister not accept the Provincial recommendation he shall give full and good reason for his rejection, the House of Commons shall be given the opportunity to debate the candidates qualifications and the Provincial Legislature shall be given the opportunity to publicly defend and support their choice and / or select an alternate candidate.

I offer the following observations in support of this proposal.

1) It avoids the expense and difficulty of requiring a public election each time a senator retires, and the electing of senators during a federal or provincial election which would be even more partisan..

2) It avoids the politicization of a public election campaign and would reflect a variety of political views as represented by the various legislatures involved.

3) It removes as far as possible the partisan choices of the PM of the day from the mix.

4) It ensures that the senators elected are in fact representative of the provinces which they represent and not beholden to the PM of the day or his party.

5) I does not require constitutional change but just an agreement from the Provinces, parliament and the PM (that’s the tough one) to proceed in this manner.

6) A rejection of a candidate as proposed shall be given the full light of day and debated in both the provincial and federal legislatures so that a PM cannot arbitrarily reject a candidate without at least some measure of accountability.

I note that in almost all of previous proposals some form of having all or some of the senators either elected or recommended at the provincial level was included, however non of the proposals was ever adopted perhaps because of other more contentious issues also proposed at the same time. The problem is of course, that any decisions to make the Senate less partisan and more effective must be made by highly partisan MPs, MPP,s and indeed by the senators themselves.

There is much more to say about why we continue to need a senate and why it needs to be a non partisan body reflective of Canada as a whole, about how the existing senators have a much wider range of choices before them than many MPs ……. should they choose to be non partisan. The issue of the length of service, the age of retirement and those generous pensions needs to be addressed also but these must all wait for another post. Stay tuned!

Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Liberal Proposal

As several bloggers and news media have noted the Liberals today sent an open letter to PM Harper, attached to that letter was their proposal re Prorogation. So that we all know exactly what they proposed I have downloaded the over 4mb image pdf, scanned the image and run it through OCR software. Here then is that text. Note to LPC, you have been around government too long, why not provide a simple text copy of your letter or at at least a text pdf, seems you are on the same page as the rest of the bunch in Ottawa in making access to documents as difficult as possible!

The text follows:-

Since the conventional principles of Parliamentary democracy are not secure in the hands of the Harper government, the Liberal Party proposes remedial action to rest ore traditional standards of democratic behavior in future requests for prorogation.

The Liberal Party of Canada will present Motions in the House of Commons to amend the Standing Orders of the House and, if necessary, propose legislation to achieve the following

1. Require the Prime Minister, before making a request for prorogation, to provide written notice of his intention to do so at least 10 days in advance, together With his specific reasons for seeking prorogation;

2. Require the Prime Minister to bring the issue of prorogation, and his reasons for seeking it, before the House of Commons immediately for a full debate;

3. Unless the House otherwise consents, prohibit request for a prorogation Within the first 12 months of any session;

4. Unless the House otherwise consents, prohibit request for a prorogation that would last longer than one calendar month;

5. Unless the House otherwise consents, prohibit request for a prorogation when a vote of confidence has been scheduled in the House; and

6. Allow the Committees of the House of Commons to continue to function during the period of time that Parliament is prorogued

If possible, Liberals intend to submit their proposal to the House Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs for consideration by all parties before bringing forward amendments to the Standing Orders of the House of Commons.

View the letter to Prime Minister Harper
Warning to those without high speed connections this letter of just 8 pages is over 4mb!

I have seen similar proposals offered over the last few weeks and note that this proposal does NOTHING to limit a majority government from proroguing parliament. They could simply have a whipped vote to have “The House” agree to such a move if they wished to avoid difficult questions by the opposition. In my view there needs to be some overall limits upon this recently abused parliamentary convention. Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Talking about Democracy.

As Churchill said “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” In recent weeks I have seen many quotable opinions regarding democracy, government and our current non sitting parliament. Here are just a few for you all to think about.

“It is a small symptom of a grave condition. Our Parliament has become the most dysfunctional in the English-speaking world, weaker and more irrelevant than the U.S. Congress or the parliaments of Britain, Australia or New Zealand.

If Britain is the mother of Parliaments, her Canadian daughter is a fallen woman. Government MPs are cowed; parliamentary committees are too often irrelevant. Three consecutive minority governments haven't strengthened the powers of the House to hold the government to account; instead, they've encouraged new methods by which the Prime Minister's Office seeks to centralize authority.”
John Ibbitson

“This prorogation can be seen as a reflection of the decay of Parliament's relevance that has been taking place over the last generation,”
Peter Dobell, founding director of the Parliamentary Centre, an Ottawa-based institute that promotes parliamentary government around the world.

(Governments everywhere) “suffer from the same malaise: Our elected leaders and representatives cannot overcome their entrenched partisanship to tackle our respective nations' long-term policy dilemmas” because of the “dysfunctional short-termism that sees momentary political advantage trump the common good.”
Prof. Johansson, Victoria University, New Zealand

"It is difficult to take a law-and-order agenda seriously when it is argued with so little respect for facts. Justice above all depends upon truth. As our country’s Minister of Justice and the Attorney General of Canada, your first allegiance must always be to the truth, far beyond any political or partisan gamesmanship. Our system of justice depends upon it. How can Canadians have any confidence in their justice system, if the person responsible for that system – the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada – is prepared to play fast and loose with the truth?"
Liberal Senator Jim Cowan in his letter to Justice Minister Rob Nicholson.

"Let us take care that no temporary fit of prejudice or passion, injurious to our country or disadvantageous to our interests is allowed to force a measure through this Parliament without giving to the people a further opportunity for considering it..."
Senator Abbott in 1890 as quoted by Senator Elane McCoy

“Over the past 50 years, Canadian prime ministers have taken back powers it took 500 years to strip from British monarchs. Harper's current confrontation with Parliament is a rare opportunity to reinforce that the Prime Minister answers to the Commons and, through it, to the people.”
James Travers

"It's deeply ironic and hypocritical to keep the briefing book for the minister of democratic reform a secret. It just shows the cult and culture of excessive secrecy of this government."
Duff Connacher, founder and co-ordinator of Democracy Watch

"Awareness of the threat to democracy must go far beyond bemoaning the fact that young people don't vote. That is the tip of the iceberg of electoral dysfunction. The most effective solution is to approve a change in how we elect members of federal and provincial parliaments. No other single step will have as many salutary impacts."
Elizabeth May in her book Losing Confidence.

“We believe in accountability of elected representatives to the people who elect them, and that the duty of elected members to their constituents should supersede their obligations to their political parties.”
Stephen Harper in the 1988 Reform Party platform

“Democracy requires dialog”
Please join us here at democracy under fire
I will add the best quotes provided to this post as and when I am made aware of them. Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Winter of Discontent

As the fine young man who spoke at the Owen Sound No Prorogue Rally said its hard not to become depressed if one is following the decline of our democratic institutions and more particularly the distain which the current regime is treating the various checks upon the abuse of power. I don’t know if its just the winter blahs or the increase in the number of reports focusing upon such actions but I share his depression of late. The following clips from various sources do little to encourage me given my view that a large part of “Good Government” and a working democracy depends upon the citizens being aware of governmental decisions and actions. It would seem that the prorogation is just a continuation of the efforts to keep the citizens, the press and even our MPs in the dark.

This from The Globe & Mail details that it can take months to respond to Access to Information requests instead of the max 45 day prescribed by law.

In 2006 and early 2007, reporters in Ottawa noticed that documents requested through federal Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) laws were taking longer and longer to arrive.
Information officers in various government departments privately blamed a new requirement, imposed by the Harper government, that requests be vetted by the Privy Council, the departmental arm of the Prime Minister's Office.
T/H to http://harperbizarro.blogspot.com/

Perhaps the following has something to do with it and one wonders why Mr Marleau resigned, was it frustration from being unable to do his job. Certainly his year end report before he left would seem to indicate that the Harper Regime is not alone on this one………

“In closing, I wish to acknowledge the professionalism and dedication my staff has demonstrated through a period of radical change and scarcity. I also want to pay tribute to the memory of former Information Commissioner Dr. John Grace whose impassioned pleas for reform, 15 years ago, still resonate today. Dr. Grace set the bar high in the defence of the citizen’s right to know. Unfortunately, successive governments have chosen to ignore his recommendations and those of the commissioners who followed him. How much longer will Parliament stand by and tolerate this pervasive neglect and the attrition of a fundamental democratic right? “

Then there is this from the Ottawa Sun
OTTAWA — The federal office charged with prying the lid off government secrecy has been without a permanent leader since June and is unlikely to get one for several more months.
Critics argue the failure to swiftly replace this key watchdog is part of a pattern by Stephen Harper’s government of cloaking information from the public.
The post of federal information commissioner hasn’t been permanently filled since Robert Marleau resigned on June 29. The following day,
Suzanne Legault was named interim commissioner for six months. Her position was recently extended another six months

The loss of a number of chairs of “independent” commissions and boards responsible for ensuring that “accountability” is not just a word used to get elected would seem to indicate that a concerted attack upon the much touted “open and accountable” government that this regime said it was going to promote is underway.

Haroon Siddiqui of the Tronto Star lists just a few of the recent losses….
The extent of Harper’s misuse of power becomes clearer when you realize that the Conservatives are replicating some of the worst practices of the Republicans under George W. Bush and Dick Cheney:
Consolidating executive power; eviscerating the legislative branch; operating under extreme secrecy (by keeping an iron grip on information, through endless court challenges and censoring/redacting documents); riding the coattails of the military and questioning the patriotism of political opponents; and forcing out public servants who refused to fall in line.
Count the heads that have rolled in Ottawa:
Peter Tinsley, chair of the military police commission, who initiated the Afghan prison abuse probe – refused a second term.
Paul Kennedy, chair of the Complaints Commission for the RCMP, who criticized the use of Tasers – refused a second term.
Linda Keen, nuclear watchdog, who insisted on safety at Chalk River – fired.
Kevin Page, parliamentary budget watchdog, who rattled the Tories with several revelations – rendered ineffective with a cut of $1 million from his $2.8 million budget.
Marc Mayrand, chief electoral officer, who probed Tory election spending – publicly attacked.
Louise Arbour, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who dared criticize both the U.S. and Israel – refused support for a second term and publicly rebuked.
Jean-Guy Fleury, chair of the Immigration and Refugee Board, who opposed the Tory politicization of appointments to the tribunal – frustrated into quitting.
T/H to roger hollander

Colin Freeze, The Globe and Mail reports on what some of those individuals had to say to the Liberals recently when discussing such matters in Ottawa whilst the Conservatives “recalibrate”!
January 26, 2010
Administrative tribunals are “under attack by the federal government,” said Linda Keen, former chief executive at the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. She recounted how she was “fired” by the Prime Minister and Minister of Natural Resources last year.
“I said at the time this is going to send a chill through federal tribunals,” she said in a videotaped message. “… Are we in an era where tribunals must be more interested in meeting the needs of the government than in doing their jobs?”
More diplomatic was Peter Tinsley, whose term as chair of the Military Police Complaints Commission, was not renewed last year.
The commission made news for probing the Afghan detainee controversy, the same hot-button issue that many observers say forced the Tories to prorogue Parliament this winter.
“The perception has become widespread that something is not quite right in the system,” Mr. Tinsley said.
Too often, he said, political “horsetrading” and unelected staffers play key roles in hiring and firing watchdogs that serve at the whim of the government they are appointed to criticize.
“The potential for abuse itself does not bode well for good governance,” Mr. Tinsley said.
T/H to statism watch

Let us not forget the difficulty under which our Parliamentary Budget Officer is working, given his recent report which substantially disagrees with the ruling regimes numbers can we expect this position to be vacant soon also? Our “independent” electoral watchdogs at Elections Canada are also under almost constant attack for doing their job. These attacks and insidious diminishment of those “checks and balances” is of far greater concern than the recent parliamentary “delay” that has finally woken up so many of our citizens to the fact that our Democracy is Under Fire!

(A personal note here, regular readers may have noted that I no longer use the word “government” when referring to the current regime in power. As I said in an earlier post I consider Government to embrace ALL of our MPs, ALL of the various commissions, boards, support staff and yes all of those civil servants and diplomats working for us. When those in power support those institutions and public servants and are INCLUSIVE we can include them in that description, when they attack them then they are NOT part of government but better described as a “regime” or perhaps an “oligarchy”. Let us all stop using the words “the government” or that highly promoted phrase “the Harper government” when referring to the Conservative Regime that is now in power.)
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