Civility and the death of Responsible Government

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While most of the country eyes the current hung parliament in Ottawa with a bit of fascination and unease, what has been taking place in Prince Edward Island and its own hung legislature has largely escaped the country’s attention.  It shouldn’t, because what’s happening is nothing short of the complete suffocation of how Responsible Government works, and it’s all being done in the name of “civility” and getting along.

When PEI’s PC leader Dennis King formed government last year, it was with the promise of a more civil tone, and to work together with the opposition.  The problem?  That all of the working with the opposition means that there is almost nobody who is actually doing the job of holding government to account.  The PEI Green Party was more than eager to engage in a form of de facto power-sharing, and while King is being lauded as a kind of “Green Tory” because he’s not been dogmatic about things like trying to fight the federal carbon price as some of his other conservative brethren have been – to which the province’s Green leader will quibble – virtually nobody is actually raising the point that Peter Bevan Baker isn’t doing his actual job.

King has been using some alarming language in the legislature like “we’re all the government” when it comes to criticism coming from the third-party Liberals, trying to blur the fact that even though it may be a hung legislature and no one party has the majority, he is still the premier and leads the Cabinet – you know, the government.  By trying to claim that because there is a minority situation that it somehow changes how the opposition should be doing its job, he is trying to blur the lines of what government and opposition are and should be – in essence, he is advocating for the derogation of Responsible Government in the province.

Since then, the collaboration with the Greens – and on occasion the Liberals – is proving to be alarming.  Press releases are going out where the media contacts are for both the government and the opposition, because “collaboration,” which is not how this works.  A recent editorial from one of the local media outlets on the Island noted that the recent changes to the province’s Lands Protection Act were all done in backroom consultations between the three parties, and it barely saw any debate in the legislature.  More alarming is the fact that the legislature sat for a mere eleven days while bills were rammed through, and when one of the Liberals engaged in stall tactics because he objected to the closure of the legislature before requested documents had been tabled, he was derided as being “disrespectful.”

But our system is based on accountability, which King and Bevan Baker seem to be completely oblivious to.  The fact that deals are being worked out in secret and not being brought up for debate is the kind of thing that runs contrary to how our system operates.  That means that we need to have a robust opposition in our parliamentary system, because that’s where the exercise of accountability happens.  Voters need to be assured that the problems in legislation is being fully explored, or that the request for funds by the government are absolutely necessary, and the place where that interrogation happens is on the floor of the legislature or parliament, or at the committee table (which is less prevalent in provincial legislatures, particularly where they have small assemblies).

The other thing about the emphasis on collaboration is that when everyone is accountable, then no one is accountable.  The opposition can’t simply choose to ask questions when everything goes sideways, because their fingerprints are all over it from the beginning, and that’s what they are inviting.  The fact that King is trying to obscure this with phrases like “we’re all government” really means that because everyone’s fingers are in the pie, nobody can call him out when it goes wrong.  That’s insulation for him, and it’s poison for Responsible Government.

Why this is a particularly relevant object lesson is because of the kinds of rhetoric that we continue to hear at all levels about how people want parliamentarians to work together more, and for there to be less arguing, and so on.  It’s laudable on the surface, but it ignores how accountability happens, which is through the opposition process.  That doesn’t mean that the debates can’t be civil, because they absolutely should be – and by civil, I mean don’t be boorish or insulting for the sake of being a boor.  But simply doing your job of accountability and asking tough questions isn’t being disrespectful or rude – it’s doing your job.  But it’s a job that needs to be done.

Backroom deals are not about civility, and when the official opposition gleefully participates, it’s because they want to get a taste of power and a share of the credit rather than the hard work of opposition politics.  Green parties in this country have shown themselves to be especially craven in this opportunism as a way of trying to demonstrate that they can have governing credentials, to prove their worth in a country where our single-member plurality voting system incentivises big tent parties, and which does a fairly effective job of marginalizing fringe players.  These kinds of deals are also not about being “non-partisan,” as some will also doubtlessly claim – partisanship is not evil, and every party will declare that what’s in their best interests is non-partisan, and their opponents simply oppose for partisan reasons.

It’s about the erosion of democracy because the issues that matter are being hidden from the legislature and the public under the guise of keeping things civil.  We don’t need to overturn nearly two centuries of Responsible Government in this country to rebuild a new kind of Family Compact because it keeps politics “civil.”  Would that Peter Bevan Baker and his Greens take a few history and civics lessons before they undermine the governing foundations of the province, and by extension, the country.

Photo Credit: Journal Pioneer

More from Dale Smith.     @journo_dale

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