Taking the measure of the new Parliament

2006 textes seuls

Editorial - Parliament is back in business. It meets today to elect the Speaker of the House of Commons, whose task it will be to keep the fractious parties in line, and tomorrow the Governor-General will open the session by reading the Speech from the Throne. Since Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made much of his government's determination to concentrate on five priorities -- preventing crime, lowering taxes, guaranteeing waiting times for health care, funding child care and increasing government accountability -- there is a chance that the Throne Speech will be sharp, focused and informative. That would be preferable to the tradition of delivering speeches so vague, so self-congratulatory and so tedious that the Queen's representative of the day deserved a hefty bonus simply for getting through them.
The Harper government deserves high marks for its principled stand on Afghanistan, confirming the decision to join with other countries to fight the Taliban and start rebuilding a desperately shattered nation. Yet the government has sent mixed signals about whether it will hold an early debate on the Afghan mission. On March 20, Mr. Harper said, "I think the population needs information on our mission. I have not refused a debate. I have simply said the decision [to send troops] has been taken." In other words, he said, he would not allow a vote on the current mission.
But that is exactly the debate Parliament should have, and there should be a vote -- on a necessarily non-binding motion, since the National Defence Act gives the cabinet the authority to deploy troops -- on whether the troops should be in Kandahar. The government has an excellent case to make. It is in Canada's interest that our soldiers be fighting to deny the terrorists a base and to bring stability to a dangerously unstable country, and to be part of an international operation on both counts. The Liberals, who committed troops to the fight, would doubtless agree. But a recent poll indicated that 40 per cent of Canadians don't think the Canadian Forces should be in Afghanistan, and it is the role of the Commons to air any doubts through Canadians' elected representatives. A full and honest debate is crucial to address questions and explain Canada's motives, with a vote on a motion that would tell the country, and the men and women fighting for it overseas, just how strongly Parliament stands behind this operation. Mr. Harper and Foreign Minister Peter MacKay have worried that such a debate might sap troop morale. More likely, the positive outcome of any vote -- and the very fact that Parliament argued seriously about the goals and merits of the troops' presence in Afghanistan -- would buttress morale.
The Liberals have served notice that they will fight the Conservatives on the way daycare is funded and tax relief is provided. The Liberals favour the personal income-tax measures they introduced in government, while the Tories plan to replace those measures with a cut in the goods and services tax. If they truly wish to serve the interests of Canadians, both sides will conduct an orderly debate, each articulately dissecting the other's case and defending its own, so that people might better understand the choices being made. If, however, the parties wish to make Canadians wonder why they even bother to vote in elections, they will continue to score cheap points and drown each other out as they have in so many past debates.
On the question of accountability, Mr. Harper has sacrificed the high ground on more than one occasion since becoming Prime Minister. He welcomed David Emerson into his cabinet soon after Mr. Emerson's constituents elected him as a Liberal. He appointed the unelected Michael Fortier to the Senate to take cabinet responsibility for Montreal. Disregarding his own vow not to overrule the Ethics Commissioner on investigations into prime ministers, he refused to co-operate with the commissioner in the Emerson case and said the official had no jurisdiction to find him in an ethical breach in the matter. (In the end, the commissioner found no breach.)
There is also a worrying and wearying tone of hostility to the press, and by extension to the people who count on the press to tell them what's happening on the Hill. The latest cat-and-mouse game, in which Mr. Harper has denied reporters their traditional access to ministers as they leave cabinet meetings (see editorial below), was followed by British Columbia Conservative MP Colin Mayes's statement last week that journalists should be jailed if they "twist information." Mr. Mayes retracted the comments on Friday, saying, "I fully respect the freedom of the press."
That's a relief. The media aren't out to get them. The media are out to cover them. Press coverage in a democracy is a good thing. Perhaps Mr. Harper should hold a Commons debate on that, too.

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