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, November 25, 2012

Elizabeth May: Parliamentarian of the Year.

When it comes to choosing MP's who have earned special recognition for their contributions in the House the choices, in my opinion, are somewhat limited however that Elisabeth May has been voted Parliamentarian of the Year by her peers clearly indicates her commitment to serving her constituents and Canada as a whole in a respectful and effective manner. Shortly after I started this blog back in 2009 I had the pleasure of hearing Elizabeth talk to the issue of democracy and it was her depth of knowledge and passionate defence of our parliamentary democracy that encouraged me to become a member of the Green Party of Canada. 
After hearing her speak I wrote this:- “Will her presence in the HoC after November have a massive impact upon the democratic process, hardly. Would the presence of herself and a few more honest and open individuals who are equally concerned about our democratic process be a good place to start, you bet. As she said the only way to change things is to elect individuals who realize that their boss is the people who elect them, if that happens to be “a Green” then that too may be a good thing.”
Since she was elected and has been present in the HoC she has indeed shown how one individual can make a difference by sticking to her principals, being active and involved in the daily debates and exposing those who would diminish our democratic processes.

In a recent interview with Aaron Wherry's for article in Macleans she spoke further about the state of our Parliamentary Democracy, below is a small extract..

“I love parliamentary democracy. I am fascinated by procedure. I’m beside myself with the way things are slipping.” What follows then is a 524-word dissertation—stretching from the slightest breach of decorum to the profound questions of power at the heart of our system—on the state of parliamentary democracy in Ottawa.
“I know it sounds small, but you’re not supposed to have members of Parliament standing and waiting their turn because they know when they’re going to be called and they have their speech ready and they’ve got the little podium and they’ve got a written speech in front of them and they’re standing while someone else is speaking. No one is supposed to stand except the person that’s been recognized by the Speaker and until you’re recognized by the Speaker you’re not supposed to stand. I know these may seem like small points, but it’s indicative of a failure to recognize that the respect for traditions in the House of Commons may start with things like one person stands at a time and only when recognized by the Speaker. And as soon as the Speaker stands, the person who’s in full oratory flight is supposed to sit down. Those are things that when you ignore that you also can get away with having a prime minister who ignores all parliamentary tradition and prorogues—well, not all, because Sir John A. Macdonald did it once and then paid for it by losing power—but you’re not supposed to prorogue the House of Commons to avoid a political difficulty. So a failure to respect our traditions of Stephen Harper proroguing twice then launched into Dalton McGuinty proroguing. This is very unhealthy for democracy. Because we are a Westminster parliamentary democracy and tradition and if we don’t pay attention and respect Parliament, then we are allowing the Prime Minister’s Office, which doesn’t exist as an entity in our constitution, it’s not like the executive branch and the White House in the U.S. constitution—the notion of a Prime Minister’s Office as an entity in the machinery of government is simply an invention, but it’s like a cancerous growth. And as the Prime Minister’s Office grows, and this is a trend we started with Pierre Trudeau in a much more innocuous way, it’s not reached its apex, but if we don’t do anything to stop it, what else will the next prime minister do? And as the PMO grows into being the all-powerful decision-maker, leaving cabinet ministers, basically their job appears to be the primary public relations spokesperson for an area of policy they had nothing to do with developing, it’s dangerous to health of democracy. So respect for Parliament, to me, is synonymous with respect for democracy. And I respect Parliament and that’s where the work is happening. I respect … there’s very few ministers who actually, actually I can only think of one, who sit though parliamentary debate on their own bills. And that’s, and should I say for credit where credit’s due, Jason Kenney. When his bills are being debated and when I rise to criticize his legislation, he actually knows what I’m talking about and will make a reasoned defence of his own legislation. But for the most part, it’s like a ritualized form of theatre. And that’s dangerous. It’s not just a relic, sort of an anachronism, that we still have parliamentary democracy. That’s the system. And the problem is PMO, not Parliament.”
Read more of this article

Not wishing to detract from Ms Mays recognition I never the less must note that our controlling and secretive PM was named “most knowledgeable”, this may well be true but I just wish he would share some of that knowledge of where he is leading us and what 'deals' he has made on our behalf so that we and other parliamentarians may make informed choices. With the byelection in Calgary, a long standing conservative riding, becoming increasing 3 way race between the incumbent and the Libs and the Greens perhaps even the most faithful are starting to see behind that veil of secrecy and reconsider their choices.

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Sunday, November 18, 2012

Democracy, the Charter and Ontario Teachers

Here in Ontario there is currently a 'dispute' between the teachers and the government as to what the teachers unions want and what the taxpayers can afford, the government has passed legislation freezing wage levels for the next couple of years of teachers for the next couple of years. In response to this the teachers unions have been very vocal in their condemnation of this action with numerous radio and newspaper ad's. At least two such ad's say that this restriction on wages and benefits “undermines the guarantees made to all Canadians under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms” and is somehow undemocratic. Now I have no great love of large unions, they are in my view just about as accountable and democratic as the Harper regiem but they do have certain rights under Ontario Labour Laws. We all know that when a large union and a large employer lock horns the rhetoric gets heated but I take great exception when a TEACHERS union representative starts invoking charter rights that simply are not true.

The Elementry Teachers Federation of Ontario say:-
“In September, the Ontario Liberal government, supported by the Progressive Conservative Party, passed Bill 115. This legislation is an unprecedented attack on free collective bargaining rights. Collective bargaining gives employees a voice in determining their wages and working conditions, and has, historically, set the stage for the benefits we all now enjoy, such as health care and CPP.
Bill 115 undermines the guarantees made to all Canadians under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. And even though it affects the education sector today, it sets a dangerous precedent for all Ontarians in the future. In fact, the government is already threatening other public sector workers.”

They also say:-
"The Charter also guarantees the right not to be deprived of fundamental rights. It protects employees from being forced to work under terms and conditions which are coerced, dictated, or imposed by the state. Certainly Bill 115 violates these rights on many counts."

"We want all Ontarians to understand that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms exists to protect the rights of individuals, even when governments seek to override them. That is the strength and backbone of democracy in Canada" said ETFO president...

There is no clause in the Charter that “protects employees from being forced to work under terms and conditions which are coerced, dictated, or imposed by the state” it simply says that “Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability”.

The freedom of conscience and religion; freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication: freedom of peaceful assembly; and (importantly) freedom of association.
It does not say anything about work terms and conditions except to say that individuals are free to move elsewhere to seek employment (freedom of mobility) to say that it does is both misleading and adds nothing to the 'debate'.

Perhaps we should all invoke the charter because we are being discriminated against because we do not get 75% of our income when off sick, or excessive number of weeks holidays after being employed at the same organization for a few years or perhaps because our income does not even come close to that of most teachers. Yes, it can be a thankless task and yes it can be stressful but so can many other jobs, and if the 'employer' (that’s us) cannot afford the compensation package demanded then the 'employee' has a choice, live with the status quot (quite generous given the circumstances) or they can always invoke those 'democratic' mobility rights and find a job elsewhere.

We have enough problems with undemocratic actions by government without pretending that this issue is one of them, better that we concentrate on more fundamental issues such as keeping parliament open, access to information, and elections untainted by fraud........and not loading more debt upon future taxpayers.

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Sunday, November 11, 2012

A Western Point of View

A guest post by Jared Milne.
When the federal Liberals governed Canada, Albertans were often frustrated by what they saw as pork-barrelling, a lack of transparency in government, few checks on the prime minister’s powers, and the demonizing of people with dissenting views. That’s why many Albertans were so thrilled in 2006 when the federal Conservatives took power under Stephen Harper. It was an opportunity to clean up Ottawa, to introduce long-overdue changes, and run things transparently.

Since taking office, the Harper Conservatives have done very good work in a number of areas ranging from immigration to the justice system to the military. However, in many areas the Harper Conservatives have done many of the same things they, and Albertans in general, criticized about the Liberal governments.

In 1994, the Chretien Liberals introduced an omnibus bill that not only implemented that year’s budget, but changed several other laws at once. A young Harper protested this, saying it prevented MPs from being able to vote on the different elements of the bills and determine which ones were worth supporting. In 2012, Harper’s government has already introduced one huge omnibus bill that made many drastic changes, even when many MPs admitted they hadn’t fully read it. Now, the fall session of Parliament is set to introduce another big omnibus bill. How are our MPs supposed to decide whether they can support all these changes? Harper quite rightly pointed out the problems with omnibus bills, so why is he doing the same thing now?

Another problem people had with the Liberals was the way power tended to be centralized in the prime minister’s office, taking it away from the MPs whose job it is to keep the government on its toes. Since taking office, Harper has only made the problem worse, refusing to tell MPs how much money various projects are costing taxpayers, prevented parliamentary committees from getting their work done, and unilaterally closed parliament for no good reason. Cabinet ministers now have sweeping powers they never did before, and they usually only exercise their powers with the approval of the Prime Minister’s Office, which has few checks on its own authority.

Albertans used to cringe whenever Jean Chretien called an election at a time that suited the Liberals. One of the first things the Harper Conservatives did after taking office was to set fixed election dates. However, in 2008 Harper broke his own law and called an election anyway, waiting less time than Chretien ever did, even though there was no real reason to send Canadians to the polls in the first place.
Albertans and Canadians in general were angered by the amount of tax money that was pork-barrelled in Jean Chretien’s home riding of Shawinigan, leading to the infamous “Shawinigate” and other scandals. During the G8 conferences in Ontario, more than $45 million was spent on a variety of projects in cabinet minister Tony Clement’s riding. Many of these projects, such as a $17-million community centre upgrade and a $100,000 gazebo, had little or nothing to do with the conference.

Finally, Western Canadians also have bitter memories of the way conservative politicians, and by extension the people who supported them, were almost treated by many Liberals as somehow ‘un-Canadian’ because of their views. However, the Harper Conservatives are doing the same thing with their smear campaigns against Liberal leaders Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, or Conservative Sen. Mike Duffy’s claim that environmental groups who oppose the Northern Gateway pipeline are “un-Canadian.”

How can the federal Conservatives justify these actions? Wasn’t one of the main reasons for the creation of the Reform Party to put a stop to these things? What does this mean, in the long term, for the health of Canadian democracy and national unity? Whatever the answer is to this last question, so far the signs don’t look good.

Originally published in The St Albert Gazette under the title Federal Conservatives Behaving Like Liberals Past posted here with the permission of the author.

Jared Milne is a writer, researcher and public servant living in St. Albert, Alberta. His major interests including Canadian unity, nationalism and history, particularly regarding how Canada's incredibly rich past has affected the present we live in today.

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Sunday, November 4, 2012

Municipal Councils Follow Harpers Lead

I dont often comment upon the actions of lower levels of government here but make no mistake that such proceeding are carried out in an open and accountable democratic way is just as important as it is at Provincial and Federal levels.

In his recent annual report Ontario ombudsman André Marin pointed out that numerous municipal councils are breaking the municipal act by holding 'in camera' meetings for many issues that should be help in public. Indeed I am aware of several councils in my area that do so regularly and have been aware of some that have at times held unofficial “meetings” at the local coffee shop which in itself is contrary to the 'guide lines'

He says the province must put “some teeth” into its government transparency legislation by penalizing municipal councils which break open meeting laws......
“Right now, municipal councils — some of them at least — play loose with the rules because there are no consequences,” he said. “If there was a consequence, such as a fine or imprisonment, councillors would think twice about breaking those rules.”
Since 2008, any Ontario citizen has been able to request a probe into a meeting believed to have been improperly closed to the public. Marin’s office — which has jurisdiction in 191 of Ontario’s 444 municipalities — has received more than 500 complaints.

I start to wonder if its not a case of 'if its good for the goose its good for the gander' and councils see the secrecy and rule bending and breaking going on in Ottawa and think if they can do it why should we not follow suit. It would seem that Mr McGinty was taking notice for as Mr Marin noted it was “bizarre” to be talking about transparency when the legislature is prorogued.
“I find this a little strange that we’re here talking about councils not doing all the right things in order to be public and open when we have a legislature that’s shut down.”

It seems that democracy is under fire from all directions! We MUST defend it where ever these attacks occur because once hidden discussion and decisions become the norm at any level of government then democracy has all but burnt to the ground.

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