Robyn Benson, PSAC

Out in the cold

House of Commons empty.jpg

Parliament is resuming tomorrow, and I don’t have an MP.

I’m one of nearly 300,000 electors in four constituencies whose Member of Parliament has resigned since the 2011 general election, for which Prime Minister Stephen Harper has not yet seen fit to call a by-election.

Under the Canada Elections Act, when a vacancy occurs, a by-election must be called within six months. In the riding of Bourassa, four and a half months have already gone by. In Brandon-Souris, the MP resigned on August 30. Toronto-Centre was left without an MP since the resignation of Bob Rae became effective on July 31. And my own riding, Provencher, was vacated by Vic Toews on July 9.

Had Harper done the right thing, all four constituencies would have had representatives in the House of Commons this month. His unconscionable delay has made that impossible.

Until he does make that call, and the by-elections are actually held, here’s what’s at stake:

First, we have no representatives to be heard in Parliament or to be held accountable. But just as important, if not more so, is that essential constituency work is not getting done. Need help getting EI, your old age pension, a visa or a passport? Having immigration or tax problems? Members of Parliament routinely deal with many individual constituents who encounter such difficulties, assisting and facilitating. MPs also spend time in their ridings, speaking to media and attending public functions, all part of making themselves accountable.

Let me repeat: nearly 300,000 electors and their families have been cut off. We have no one to represent us in the House or at home.

So what’s the hold-up?

It’s not as though Harper is acting out of some political partisanship. The Western two of the four ridings are safely Conservative. His majority would not slide by calling these by-elections.

I suspect that the answer is simple: he’s just not very interested in the House of Commons. Responsible government, which makes the government accountable to the legislature, is a cornerstone of our democracy. But Harper is already on the public record as being, literally, in contempt of Parliament. In fact, a year earlier, he had shown the same disdain for elected representatives over the Afghan detainee issue, provoking a historic ruling by then-Speaker of the House of Commons, John Milliken.

This article in Maclean’s magazine two years back is worth looking at again. There are many reasons for the decline of Parliament in recent years—tough party discipline that takes away an individual MP’s voice, for example. But the concentration of power in the Prime Minister’s Office has clearly allowed this government to ignore Parliamentary debate and carry on as it will—as though the House of Commons didn’t exist. Where actual debate is permitted to take place, it is subject to strict time allocation that doesn’t permit the substance of legislation to be properly reviewed. The introduction of massive omnibus bills, rushed through Parliament and signed into law in the wink of an eye, is an excellent example of the forced irrelevance of our representatives in the House.

So is it too much to suggest that vacancies are simply not that much of a concern to a government that has sidelined the House of Commons in the first place? And to a government that is too remote from the practical concerns of individual Canadians to worry very much about the senior trying to gather documents to apply for OAS, or the new Canadian having a rough time trying to fill out forms online, or the unemployed worker running into problems with an EI claim?

See that picture, above, which accompanies the Maclean’s article? Seems to me that’s the Conservative government’s idea of the perfect House of Commons, one that doesn’t get in the way, what with Opposition MPs wasting valuable if limited time insisting on their say and asking awkward questions. Depriving Canadians of their MPs, though, as I said, isn’t a political ploy or plot. The Harper government really just doesn’t care.

[Photo credit: Adrian Wyld, CP]

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This page contains a single entry by Robyn Benson, PSAC published on October 15, 2013 8:29 AM.

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