Well. I was hoping I’d get to open this column by celebrating the dissolution of the United Kingdom but instead Britain gets to keep on existing for another three hundred years. There is no justice. We were on the cusp of the biggest boom in map-making since the fall of the USSR, but fifty-five percent of Scots decide to scuttle the cartography renaissance. Oh well. We’ll always have Catalonia.
Not that British persistence is all that bad. For one thing, those of us on this side of the pond still have a thing or two to learn from the Mother of Parliaments over in Westminster. In Britain, for instance, the Speaker of the House is freely empowered to tell any government member – including the Prime Minister – to sod off if they’re taking the piss in Question Period. So, under the British system, when federal Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair asks Stephen Harper an extremely straightforward question – e.g. ‘will Canada’s 30-day military adventure in Iraq end on the 30th day?’ – he would actually get a real answer.
But, because this is Canada – Britannia’s awkward, basement-dwelling stepchild – he was treated to Harper’s Parliamentary Secretary, Paul Calandra, reading out an anonymous NDPer’s Facebook comment about Israel. When Mulcair insisted House Speaker Andrew Scheer do something about the fact that the government is blatantly avoiding questions, he was brusquely informed that as long as MPs aren’t actively fighting or swearing at each other, the Speaker’s not inclined to get involved. A solid week of public humiliation eventually forced Calandra to issue a tearful apology in the House of Commons for loving Israel to the point of cognitive damage, but since Question Period in this country is just a politically themed episode of Who’s Line Is It Anyway?, he also guaranteed it would probably happen again.
At least he had the good graces not to call Mulcair’s father a slut on national television. The bar is actually that low.
But as far as lowering the bar on democratic decorum goes, the provincial Tories are putting their federal cousins to shame. Unanswered questions are a local speciality. For instance: what the hell got into ex-Minister Nick McGrath on the morning of March 13th, 2014? Why did both he and Minister Kevin O’Brien – simultaneously and independently of one another – call the Department of Transportation and Works to ask about a roadwork contract held by Frank Coleman’s Humber Valley Paving company? Why did McGrath frantically spend seven and a half hours making sure the contract was cancelled the day before nominations closed in the PC leadership race Coleman was expected to win? Why did he go out of his way to make sure the Premier didn’t know about any of this? Why did he resign if he is insisting he did nothing wrong? And – finally – why, why, why was Keith “Mumbo Jumbo” Russell appointed in his place as Minister of Aboriginal Affairs? You get the picture. Maybe the PR people thought an air of mystery might make the government sexy.
I guess there are some things we were never meant to know, because by all accounts, the Tories don’t seem to be in much of an ‘accountable’ mood. Any hope for a fresh start under Premier Paul Davis was dead on arrival the moment he announced his new Cabinet and appointed Judy Manning as the province’s new Attorney General and Minister of Public Safety (née Justice). It’s not a scandal that she’s not an MHA – although it’s rare, there’s nothing inherently wrong or even weird in appointing an unelected person to the provincial executive. In Alberta, for instance, the new PC Premier Jim Prentice (himself without a seat) just appointed two private citizens as Ministers of Health and Education. It’s all well and good as long as they follow the proper ‘constitutional conventions’ – the unwritten rules determining how democratic government works in Canada. In this case, convention dictates that appointed ministers are supposed to run for a seat at the first possible opportunity (usually a byelection).
But rather than keep with convention, Manning refuses to run in any of the three upcoming provincial byelections and is instead waiting to run in the general election, which could be up to a year away. This effectively means we are facing a situation where the province’s Attorney General and minister responsible for the justice system won’t be sitting in the House of Assembly for either the fall or winter legislative sessions. She will not be able to take any questions from the opposition, participate in any legislative debate, or be held accountable in any way to our elected representatives. This not only violates the most basic rules of how parliamentary government is supposed to work, but it is shockingly undemocratic. It’s a step backwards in a system that already has serious issues with public accountability. It betrays, on the part of the provincial government, either a profound ignorance as to how our political system actually operates, or an active contempt for the democratic process. I’m not sure which option is worse – that Davis and Manning don’t understand what they’re doing, or that they do and just don’t care.
Who knows. Maybe Judy Manning will be the greatest administrator of justice since King Solomon, and God knows you can’t blame Paul Davis for wanting to bring some outside talent into a very shallow pool. But the fact that we’re left wondering whether the Premier is deliberately flouting the country’s basic institutional principles – or whether he’s just clueless – is offensive. If our governments aren’t going to follow the rules of our democracy, then we may as well just call back the British – with the Commission of Government, at least, you knew where you stood.