A recent paper by Professor Kristin Good contends that municipalities have, or can be given, legal status within provincial constitutions. It attempts to make the case for downplaying the constitutional division of federal and provincial powers (centred on sections 91 and 92 of the B.N.A. Act) and giving greater significance to the provincial-municipal division of powers. Such an approach, the paper suggests, is more in line with common sense logic about how governments elected by citizens ought to be treated in law and reflects the rising importance of municipal government in various areas of public policy.
Is it too much to hope that we might take advantage of a new decade by turning away from the increasingly divisive and hateful tone of recent years and embracing moderation and civility. I can best illustrate the urgency of the situation by repeating a blog of three years back. It contained a poem from over half a century ago (variously attributed to James Patrick Kinney or Douglas Corlett) that provides a stark and very timely warning of the risks when we let biases and anger rule. I can think of no better resolution than for us to resolve not to think and behave this way in the new decade.
The situation in the U.S. goes from bad to worse. The House has approved two articles of impeachment against Donald Trump. The case now goes to the Senate for a trial, but the Senate majority leader, Republican Mitch McConnell, is opposed to having any witnesses called, and wants the matter resolved quickly. If that isn’t disturbing enough – a trial in which no witnesses can be called – we now learn that some Republicans have already pledged to impeach the next Democratic President, just for payback. The extreme political polarization borders on mass insanity and fears grow about the future of American democracy.
But wait – as they say in all those annoying TV commercials – there is an even greater threat to the U.S., as reported recently in the Globe and Mail. Montana faces a possible invasion of feral pigs from Canada, which have been spotted just a few miles from the border. Apparently the pigs can be difficult to monitor from the air because they bury themselves in mud and also burrow into the snow to make “pigloos.” I am not making this up. Who could? See https://www.theglobeandmail.com/world/article-montana-seeks-to-keep-feral-hogs-from-canada-at-bay/.
So while those in and around Washington ham it up about the impeachment drama and the northwest goes hog wild, swine flu may be the biggest health risk this winter.
Finding a topic on which to blog is never an issue. To the contrary, on any given day there are so many items that catch my eye and call for a response that I usually end up doing nothing.
By way of penance, or as something of a catch-up mechanism, I offer in this blog comments on a variety of recent political issues – ranging from the silly to mendacious to downright dangerous.
In many countries, democracy is under threat because of the rise of extreme populist parties and the increased support for the notion of a single strong leader who will take over and make things better. In addition, the ongoing impeachment hearings in the U.S. provide almost daily examples of a broken democracy in which blindly partisan Republicans and their supporters continue to back a President who essentially bribed a foreign power to dig up dirt on a political rival. Canadians have no cause for complacency however, given the various ways in which democratic practices in this country are being undermined. Consider these two recent examples.
Stifling Debate in Ontario
Central to the exercise of democracy in Canada is the notion that those elected are accountable to their citizens. At the federal and provincial levels, much of this accountability is enforced by the requirement for the governing party to submit its proposals for examination, debate, and approval by a majority of members of the House of Commons or a provincial Legislative Assembly. There are rules (Standing Orders) that dictate how these matters proceed and they need to strike a balance between the rights of the government and of the opposition parties. Unfortunately over the past several decades all three political parties in Ontario have used their time in power to change these rules to restrict opposition parties from carrying out their legitimate role.
The latest assault has been mounted by Doug Ford’s Conservative Government, which has proposed amendments (which it has the numerical majority to pass) that will allow the government to push legislation through multiple stages in one day and to schedule up to 50% more night sittings than currently allowed. These amendments will also prevent anyone from introducing an “adjournment of the House” motion during debates being conducted under time allocations (restrictions). When in opposition, the Conservative Party found this a useful tool, but now that they are in power, they no longer see the value of something that can be used to delay proceedings.
Frontier Justice in Alberta
I vaguely recall, from old Western movies, that if someone was poking around making a nuisance of himself, the common solution was to shoot him, or at least drive him out of town. It appears that this is still the preferred approach by the new sheriff in town, Premier Jason Kenney. His government has just dismissed an independent parliamentary watchdog known as the Election Commissioner who was in the midst of an investigation into alleged irregularities during the leadership race in 2017 that resulted in the selection of Jason Kenney as leader of the United Conservative Party. These investigations involve another candidate in that leadership campaign who may have been in the race for the purpose of attacking Kenney’s main rival for leader, before dropping out to throw his support behind Kenney.
These are serious charges, but their continued investigation is now uncertain, with the firing of person in charge of the investigation. The Alberta Government’s pathetically laughable explanation is that this watchdog’s responsibilities are being moved into Elections Alberta, which can continue the investigation if it wishes and can even hire back the dismissed watchdog if it wishes. The only reason for this move, we are asked to believe, is to save hard working taxpayers some $200,000 a year. But if Elections Alberta is going to hire a new watchdog, as the government tries to reassure us, could happen – then even this miniscule savings in a provincial budget of some $50 billion will not materialize.
This is, or should be, a deeply disturbing development for anyone concerned about the survival of democracy in Canada. A Premier whose past conduct is under investigation arranges to pass legislation – in just three days by imposing closure (termination of debate) three times – to fire the person conducting the investigation.
Policy Making by Dummies would appear to be a more accurate way to describe Doug Ford’s approach to governing. Since taking office, he has announced a wide range of policy initiatives, mostly involving cuts to government services that would adversely affect the most vulnerable members of the population such as those with autism and drug addiction. Funding cuts were announced for children’s aid societies and for legal aid, leaving abused children and women more vulnerable. Class sizes were to be expanded significantly, to make students more “resilient” – according to one explanation offered. The list goes on. As public outcry intensified and Ford’s popularity plummeted, the government announced at least partial retreats on virtually every one of their initiatives.
Andrew Scheer insists, incorrectly, that modern conventions dictate that the party with the most seats takes power following an election in which no party wins a majority. In fact, as numerous articles have reported recently, the governing party (the Liberal party in this instance) is entitled to meet with Parliament to determine if it has the confidence of the House of Commons. All parties other than the Conservatives have put forward progressive policies, and the leader of the NDP has indicated a willingness to support the Liberals while rejecting any possibility of supporting the Conservatives. There is every reason to believe, therefore, that a minority Liberal Government – even one with fewer seats than the Conservatives – would be able to survive votes in the House of Commons (at least for a while).
The Ontario Court of Appeal has ruled that Premier Ford’s action in cutting the size of Toronto City Council in half when the municipal election campaign was already underway was valid. If allowed to stand, this decision represents a major setback for all municipalities – one particularly disturbing after three decades of growing recognition of the role and importance of municipal government that has challenged the narrow and strict constitutional view of municipalities as but creatures of the province.
Canada is allegedly facing a crisis of unprecedented magnitude because our Prime Minister, some 18 years ago, attended a costume party at a private school where he taught, which had the theme Arabian Nights. Also known as One Thousand and One Nights, Arabian Nights embraces stories told by Scheherazade, one of the Sultan’s concubines. The Sultan, after enjoying a woman, would have her killed. To save her life, Scheherazade decided to tell the Sultan a story, without revealing the ending – until the next night. The result was what became known as One Thousand and One Nights.
The seemingly endless SNC-Lavalin scandal threatens to dominate discussions in the federal election campaign now underway, with various commentators arguing that the RCMP should revive and continue their investigation into the Lavalin Affair rather than pausing it until the election is over. What if we re-elect the Liberals and then find that they are guilty of obstruction of justice or other crimes is a question raised by some. To which I reply, what if we defeat the Liberals and then find they were not guilty of any crimes?
C. Richard Tindal, Ph.D is a retired Professor of Government. He taught for 30 years at St. Lawrence College, Kingston and was an occasional Visiting Professor at Queen's University. He has also written and consulted extensively about government.