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, March 31, 2013

Is Politics a Team Sport?

Recently a Conservative MP became the first MP in more than a decade to raise a point of privilege against his own government in questioning why he was denied an opportunity to speak by his own party whip during question period. Whilst the item that he wished to speak about (selective abortion) is rater controversial it was the Government Whip Gordon O'Connor response that was the most revealing. He told House Speaker Andrew Scheer that such matters (deciding who may speak to the house) are the exclusive purview of the parties, and, as such, firmly outside his jurisdiction as guardian of the House.
"Put simply," O'Connor informed him, "this is a team activity and your role is referee ... It is not your job as referee to tell the coach or manager which player to play at any given time." That, he concluded, "is a question for each team to decide."
After a second conservative MP rose to say that he too had been prevented from speaking during the period set aside for members to make a statement about a subject of their choosing. Green Party Leader Elizabeth May remarked that O'Connor's sports metaphor "cut to the core of what is wrong with parliamentary democracy" by characterizing MPs as "teams" simply there to "take instructions from our team boss." She went on to say we are not here as teams, but as representatives of their respective constituents, and mused that, as far as the constitution goes, political parties do not, in fact, exist and that democracy is not a sport.

This incident gives a clear indication of how the conservatives think the 'game' should be played, ignore the rules, sideline the referee and let the captain and coaches dictate what the players can say and do but at the same time pretend that they are all for MPs rights to represent their constituents and speak their mind.
Indeed back in 2010 Peter Van Loan the conservative bulldog in response to a point of order by Ms May about the lack of decorum during such statements said that he found it “curious is her suggestion that somehow it is inappropriate for members of the House to stand up for the views of their constituents” (something she did in fact not say) and “ I can think of nothing more representative for a member of our party, certainly in my case when I talk to my constituents, than to come to this place and let my views be known” “especially when we are talking about members’ statements under Standing Order 31, one which has been the greatest tradition in this House of allowing members the utmost freedom to speak their mind.”
So MPs should have the “utmost freedom to speak their mind.” unless the party whip decides otherwise!
This is not the first time the use of SO 31 and the party control over the list submitted to the speaker as to who shall have the opportunity to speak has come under scrutiny, back in 1993 the House Management Committee tabled a report recommending that the speaker "exercise greater discretion and independence" in choosing the daily SO31 playlist.
The report argued that instead of having the parties control the agenda by submitting lists of approved SO 31-ready members, each caucus would be permitted to designate just one MP to speak on its behalf, with the remaining slots allocated by the speaker. Sadly, the committee's findings were never concurred in, but instead left to languish in neverlandian limbo.
So if it is a team sport which sport does it resemble, Rowing where everybody is expected to stroke at the same stroke and direction as everybody else in the boat as directed by the steersman, Football where players use their best judgement to move the ball towards the goal and everybody gets a kick at the ball or Hockey where tripping up an opponent is against the rules but common practice and taking off the gloves and attempting to beat the shit out of an opponent is considered 'part of the game'. At times it resembles all of these, however it would seem that the referee not only has much leeway as to how he interprets the rules but even when the rules are broken has few options to discipline the players, a caution rarely has any lasting effect and whilst a player can be given a time out it rarely happens and he cannot be ejected from the game not matter what rules he breaks.

Its long past time to change the game, bring in new players and give the referee some power to enforce such rules that currently exist.

31. A Member may be recognized, under the provisions of Standing Order 30(5), to make a statement for not more than one minute. The Speaker may order a Member to resume his or her seat if, in the opinion of the Speaker, improper use is made of this Standing Order
In the coded language of official Ottawa, the lists of who can speak are known as SO31s. It’s a reference to Standing Order 31 of Parliament, which allows that 15 minutes be set aside before question period each day for MPs to stand in the House and make brief remarks about a subject of their choosing.
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Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Silence is Deafening

As our hero Kevin Page is replaced as the Parliamentary Budget Officer by the Parliamentary Librarian 'temporarily' whilst a 'process' takes place to perhaps replace him with a less open and honest individual more amenable to the Harper Regimes obsession to control the message we learn that Librarian staff have been silenced.

Federal librarians and archivists who set foot in classrooms, attend conferences or speak up at public meetings on their own time are engaging in “high risk” activities, according to the new code of conduct at Library and Archives Canada. Given the dangers, the code says the department’s staff must clear such “personal” activities with their managers in advance to ensure there are no conflicts or “other risks to LAC.”
The code, which stresses federal employees’ “duty of loyalty” to the “duly elected government,” also spells out how offenders can be reported.”

It even threatens those express a personal opinion on a limited access blog because it 'can, through no fault of the public servant, become public and the author identified.'

'”For example, in a blog with access limited to certain friends, personal opinions about a new departmental or Government of Canada program intended to be expressed to a limited audience can, through no fault of the public servant, become public and the author identified.”
The public servant could be subject to disciplinary measures, as the simple act of limiting access to the blog does not negate a public servant’s duty of loyalty to the elected government,” says the code. “Only authorized spokespersons can issue statements or make comments about LAC’s position on a given subject.”

We wonder if said employees are allowed to voice an opinion to their friends or family who can 'identify' the individual as a federal employee. Whats next, federal employees will be excluded from voting in an election because they might know too much about how this regime works?

For the most part these individuals are speaking at schools and conferences to speak about how government works and historical information collected by their department over the years, it would seem that this is in conflict with the rewriting of history that the current regime is undertaking. Remember that many of the government web sites are about to be disappeared and only selected information will be moved to the new 'master web site' where it will be easier to 'manage'!

Documents recently obtained under an access to information request that took TWO YEARS to process reveal just how far this regime will go to control the message and promote themselves on the taxpayers dime. Remember for the past several years all public events by any government department has to be vetted by a Message Event Proposal (MEP) submitted before the event to the PMO.

The event was an Oct. 17, 2011, news conference in Halifax to announce an agreement to transform Sable Island, a storied sand crescent 290 kilometres off Nova Scotia, into a national park reserve.
The deal had been meticulously negotiated by Parks Canada with the Nova Scotia government over the course of a year, and proud officials wanted a splashy announcement as a way to celebrate Parks Canada's 100th birthday in 2011.”
The planned agenda had an official delegation that included Kent, Dexter, Defence Minister Peter MacKay, a Nova Scotia MLA and three Parks Canada officials, including CEO Alan Latourelle and another acting as master of ceremonies.
A PCO note said to purge all three Parks Canada officials from the dais, and to find a politician to be the master of ceremonies. The original news release for the event had two paragraphs celebrating Parks Canada's centennial and noting a recent award won by the agency from the World Wildlife Fund.
All of this was purged from the final version, with no mention of Parks Canada except a reference to Kent as the minister responsible for the agency.”

Remember when Harper shut down parliament because it was 'dysfunctional'? I would suggest that it is now much more so but we do not hear him saying so now, he has his majority, he controls the message, our MPs are powerless, and our federal employes are silenced – all is exactly as he wants things. Even retired Conservative MP Inky Mark says democracy is no longer practised in Canada.

They say what they want to say and do what they want to do. After 13 years in Ottawa, that’s what I learned anyway,” Mark said. “Democracy is not as it appears. We go around the world bragging about teaching others to be democratic and we don’t even practise it at home.”

Our Ethics commissioner Mary Dawson is also concerned enough to suggest that “cabinet ministers should be required to publicly report any gifts over $30 because the current reporting threshold of $200 is too high, and accountability too low.
We have to have some kind of assurance to the public that our ministers and public office holders aren’t being bought,” Dawson told the ethics committee Monday afternoon.
We all know by now that our scientists who’s ranks have already been decimated by the closure of numerous research stations and programs have been threaten with withdrawal of funding if they do not play by the rules. Those rules include the requirement to have scientific papers vetted by the PMO before publication and include collaborating colleagues from other countries many of whom have already withdrawn from such arrangements because of this. Even pre-funded and in progress research has been shut down. We are being 'governed by a regime dedicated to removing access to ANY factual information from the public eye in favour of 'approved' newspeak totally controlled by the PMOs fully funded spin department. Look for MUCH more of the same as we close in on the next election date and the budget that will miraculously be balanced just before the election is called, the directive to use that incorrect and sickening term 'The H****r Government' on press releases has already been reinstated.!

It is appropriate that as Mr Page relinquishes his position of Parliamentary Budget Officer over to “the parliamentary librarian, who has—very nice person, smart lady—but no experience on a budget.” that I give him the last word on his view of the choices the Harper Regime will take in providing budgetary information in the future.

Well, I think there are two scenarios for the short and medium term, the next year or two. I think one scenario is somebody gets appointed with knowledge and experience and will continue to fight for the independence of the work of the office. As I’ve said before, we have at least three people in my office that can do that. If that scenario plays out, the office will continue to grow. “

On the other hand, if this office is being unwound as we speak—the fact that the process to replace me as parliamentary budget officer is just really starting and I’m out the door in a week.......... And we have a process to replace me that is completely secretive—can’t tell you their names, trust me it’s going to be fine—and then we find out there’s somebody from the Privy Council Office, which supports the executive not Parliament, actually on the selection committee”
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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Is “Judicial Activism” a Problem?

A guest article by Jared Milne.

For years, conservative writers have been complaining about what they call “judicial activism”. Writers like Ted Morton, Rainier Knopff and Robert Martin sharply criticize judges whose rulings, based the Charter of Rights, make social policy that elected politicians are reluctant to challenge. Social activists use the courts to try and impose changes on society that are difficul, if not impossible to overturn. Issues that would normally be debated by elected officials are now seen as being beyond discussion.
Martin claims that this activism undermines Canadian democracy, since the judges are unelected and not accountable to anyone. Morton and Knopff state that judicial activism divides Canadians, as political opponents see each other less as fellow citizens and more as enemies to be defeated. 
Criticisms like these are why the notwithstanding clause, which allows elected politicians to overturn court rulings in some cases, was inserted into the Charter. It is also why judges who may be nominated to the Supreme Court of Canada are now being screened by elected Members of Parliament, who will recommend which judges should be nominated. These types of safeguards are being used to try and address the problem of judicial activism.
Another major issue in Canada right now are the trade agreements the Harper government is negotiating with China and the European Union. One of the most controversial aspects of both these agreements, as well as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), is the “dispute resolution” mechanism that allows private companies to sue governments for decisions or laws that harm their profits. The companies’ cases are heard by panels of trade lawyers, who can force governments to overturn the disputed laws or pay taxpayer money to the companies as compensation.
Just last year, an American oil company used NAFTA’s dispute resolution mechanism to try and overturn Quebec’s decision to ban “fracking”, a controversial way of excavating oil and gas. Ontario recently imposed a moratorium on new wind farms, which led to it being sued by a wind energy company. The trade lawyers hearing these cases will be making decisions that affect millions of Canadians, directly influencing government policy, even thou they’re unelected and unaccountable to the public. 
Sound familiar?
Some critics have said that a NAFTA lawsuit like the one meant to overturn Quebec’s ban on fracking may not succeed, but the simple fact that the oil company thinks it can do this is rather unnerving. Shouldn’t the decision on whether or not companies can do “fracking” in Quebec be a decision for the people and province of Quebec? And what about the Ontario ban on wind farms? Many people in rural Ontario are protesting what they say are the problems with wind farms-isn’t the government listening to their concerns by imposing this moratorium?
Judicial activism by Canadian judges is said to be a serious problem in Canada. Because of this, we have important safeguards like the notwithstanding clause, which ensures that accountable, elected officials have the last word in many matters. The role of Canadian judges is also firmly placed in the Constitution. However, the unelected, unaccountable trade bureaucrats who make rulings under NAFTA and other trade agreements have no safeguards to keep them in check, or any Constitutional backing for their decisions. If anything, these trade bureaucrats are engaging in their own form of judicial activism, one which is just as bad for Canadian democracy as anything Canadian judges have ever done. 
-This article was originally published in the St. Albert Gazette on February 20, 2013 at http://www.stalbertgazette.com/article/20130220/SAG0903/302209980/0/sag.
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, March 17, 2013

Government Web Sites to be Reduced or Eliminated

Recent leaked documents have confirmed that Tony 'Gazebo' Clements has been asked by King Harper to drastically cut the number of government websites available to Canadians. Initially, the number of sites will be slashed to six, with the ultimate goal of consolidating all online Government of Canada information into one big website.
The Huffington Post reports that a PowerPoint presentation that outlines the federal government's Web Renewal Action! Plan is available in two parts here and here). Scheduled to roll out at the end of this month, the plan will bring about some major changes in how government information is posted and archived online, and not for the better. As they point out one of the first things to go will be printed archival material as per the 2012 budget, such material will supposedly be available in electronic form but given this regimes propensity to 'loose' material that does not give me any sense of confidence that such material will be avalable any time soon or even ever.

In a speech back in November 2012 extolling the plan to “ leveragee technology to challenge the status quo and improve government operations” Mr Gazebo made it all sound really great, “This new (Open Data) site will use the Open Government Platform, initially developed by the United States Government” “it will take our current platform, which is based on outdated code and proprietary technologies, to open source code, implemented and maintained through international partnerships”
In the speech entitled “Modernize the Use of Information Technology in Government” Tony 'Gazebo' Clements gave the following example ”The Treasury Board Secretariat has released data on the financial expenditures of all federal departments and agencies as part of our efforts to make financial reporting more transparent and more accountable.” This is in stark contrast to the comments of our about to be replaced Parliamentary Budget Officer who has had great difficulty in obtaining departmental budgetary information and who's figures often vary greatly from those issuing from the Treasury Board. I would suggest that the PBO website will be one of the first to be “modernized” out of existence and that interested citizens need to copy and save the historical documentation of Mr Pages work before it is disappeared.
As several observers have noted and those of us who have learned to take a very cynical view of any announcement issued by this government will agree, the question is exactly how much information will be transferred to these new sites where “The goal here to be able to access more information, not less,” “Being able to find it in one place means you’re getting the information you need versus not getting all the information you need”. Already several sites have 'disappeared' and no links to the information previously provided have been provided, is this newspeak at it finest?

The is no argument from me that the government web sites and access to information web sites need to be modernized and perhaps consolidated, but I fear that given this regimes past record such consolidation will be a good excuse for 'loosing' much of our historical information – particularly that which reflects poorly on the actions of the Harper Regimes record over the last 6 years. Most departments must already obtain 'permission' to post information to departmental web sites and the centralization of power within the PMO Department of Secrecy and Misinformation will be greatly enhanced by having fewer web sites to monitor.
Remember all those links to government data you have embedded in you posts to let readers know that you are not making thing up? Guess what, this consolidation will negate all those, along with all the hard won links saved to data sources hidden in the depths of some departments web site, and if you think that all this data will all be transferred and an updated link provided on the old site then I have a cottage for sale on the banks of the pristine Athabaska river just south of Fort McMurray !

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Sunday, March 10, 2013

PBO Position Finally Advertised

Just a few days before Kevin Page's contract expires the Conservative government is advertising for a mid-level executive to fill the spot meanwhile the Parliamentary Librarian will take over as interim budget officer.

The lengthy job description suggests the government is clearly looking for a more compliant budget watchdog than Page, who has been a thorn in the government’s side with his financial analysis and reports since the day he was hired to set up the country’s first parliamentary budget office.....the posting clearly wants a negotiator and a consensus builder who can bridge differences in a partisan arena.
“The suitable candidate should possess experience in negotiating and achieving consensus on complex issues among a variety of stakeholders with competing objectives.”
Treasury Board President Tony Clement is quoted as saying “The budget officer of course is hired by the chief librarian, She (L’Heureux) has, I believe, a responsibility to set out the terms and conditions. I see nothing in there that offends the will of Parliament, so as far as I’m concerned it’s a matter that she has the responsibility for.”
Does anyone who knows the Harper Regime really believe that, particularly in that the search committee, who's members we are not permitted to know, are charged with identifying “three candidates to recommend to the prime minister.” That does not sound like a method of seeking an independent and effective parliamentary budget watchdog to me!
It is further reported that the new officer if and when hired will actually have a lower wage scale than Mr Page receives in that he retained his assistant deputy minister salary when hired. “Aside from the pay and level, no ambitious public servants “in their right mind who want to finish their careers in the public service would apply. They would run afoul of the government and end their bureaucratic careers, and if they didn’t “would be vilified by the media,” said one bureaucrat.
Ian Lee, a professor at Carleton’s Sprott School of Business is quoted as saying “The language of job description suggests they’re looking for a labour negotiator or someone to negotiate a peace treaty between warring parties … You don’t negotiate numbers and reach consensus on generally accepted accounting principles”

So to sum it up the Harper regimen is looking for a mid level bureaucrat selected by Harper from a short list provided by a secret committee and she or he will receive less compensation that the current PBO and will require 'negotiating' skills. Negotiating what we wonder, the amount of information to release and keep your job or what departments will not be subject to scrutiny.....like the PMO for instance? They also need an “Understanding of the Parliament of Canada and Canada’s parliamentary system of governance.” It does not say if that means before or after Harper totally destroys it!

And to top it all off we have the Parliamentary Librarian, who presumably is NOT a financial expert in charge of this under budgeted department for however long it takes the private headhunter and the unnamed committee to find someone even willing to take on this job who is 'acceptable' to Harper.

I think we can all see where this one is going!

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Sunday, March 3, 2013

Political Stereotypes

A guest article by Jared Milne.

Right-wing Conservatives are hardworking entrepreneurs who stop at Tim Horton’s for a double-double on their way to work, get up early on Saturday to take their kids to hockey practice, and maintain their homes and their cars themselves. Either that, or they’re greedy corporate monsters who cheerfully destroy the planet and oppress the poor in order to line their own pockets.
Left-wing Liberals, NDPers and Greens are compassionate and interested only in helping the poor and caring for the environment and fighting for social justice. Either that, or they’re snobby elitists and civil servants who look down on honest, hardworking citizens, think they know what’s best for everyone, and love nothing more than spending other peoples’ money on their pet projects. 
Those are the stereotypes Canadians hear on a regular basis, but just how true are they? In my experience, right-wing Conservatives are just as apt to show concern for the environment, compassion for the poor and support for social justice as any left-wing. On the other hand, Liberals, NDPers and Greens are just as apt to be the hardworking hockey parents who drink Tim Horton’s coffee and show entrepreneurial spirit in owning their own businesses. Some people might adhere to the negative stereotypes that I previously mentioned, but applying them to every single person that happens to vote for a particular political party or hold a particular set of beliefs is just plain stupid.

Take former Reform Party leader Preston Manning, for example. He’s one of the most prominent conservatives in Canada, and yet he’s gone on record as saying that there should be a “price on carbon”, and bluntly stating that Albertans need a “wake up call” on the environment. In my own hometown of St. Albert, city councillor Cam MacKay is a card-carrying federal Conservative who spearheaded the move to give severely disabled residents a major discount on public transit. Such actions don’t exactly mesh with the negative stereotypes that Conservatives don’t care about the environment or people in need. Nor do the civil servants I know who can be counted on to vote Conservative come election time-they don’t exactly live up to the stereotype of public servants being snobs who only listen to CBC and love spending other peoples’ money. 
On the other side of the fence, take Susan Thompson, founder of the Canadian nationalist site Vive Le Canada, at www.vivelecanada.ca. She’s a blue-collar entrepreneur founded her own welding company in my home province of Alberta. According to the stereotypes, she should be a Conservative, but she’s a devoted NDPer who’s run for the federal party more than once. Another example is farmer David Orchard, who’s online at www.davidorchard.com. He’s a rural Saskatchewanian who puts a lot of work into maintaining his farm. According to the stereotypes, he should be a Conservative, but in fact he’s a Liberal who’s known for actively criticizing the North American Free Trade Agreement. And this doesn’t even take into account all the other various small business owners who’ve run for the Liberals, the NDP or the Greens at the federal or provincial levels. These people risk their own capital and own their own businesses, and yet they support parties that are generally viewed as left-wing. 
Different parts of Canada also break with these stereotypes. Alberta is often seen as the right-wing and business-oriented province, yet we have prominent Alberta conservatives like Preston Manning and Peter Lougheed (who called for a slowdown in the development of the oilsands) taking stances that, according to the stereotypes, would only be associated with left-wingers. Conversely, Ontario and Quebec are said to be more left-wing and government-heavy, and yet those provinces have noted high-tech industries. A company like Research In Motion might be in trouble now, but how could a company like that have ever gotten so big in the first place if Central Canada didn’t have an entrepreneurial spirit of its own? 
Do some people live up to the stereotypes described? Of course they do. The problem, though, is that the positive stereotypes are often used to make one’s own political group look good, and make the other political group look bad. This is one of the biggest, albeit overlooked, problems in Canadian politics today-the tendency among some pundits and bloggers to demonize other Canadians for their political beliefs, to the point of making it seem as though other people are less Canadian, less Albertan, or what have you, based on their beliefs. Many Canadians readily identify with Tim Horton’s drinkers and hockey parents, for instance, but Tim Horton’s drinkers and hockey parents can just as easily vote Liberal or NDP as they can vote Conservative. Similarly, many Canadians identify with helping the poor and caring for the environment, but Conservatives are just as apt to do this as Liberals or NDPers. 
Instead of judging entire political groups or even entire regions of Canada, we’d all be much better off if we tried to actually see each others’ points of view and get to know one another as Canadians, instead of judging each other based on stereotypes that often don’t apply. 
This article was originally published in a modified form in the St. Albert Gazette on January 19, 2013 at http://www.stalbertgazette.com/article/20130119/SAG0903/301199976/0/sag.
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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