By Christian Leuprecht, June 16, 2020
Political executives have been using broad emergency powers to impose sweeping restrictions through orders-in-council — with little or no parliamentary debate. The federal government has even cancelled the budget it had planned to table and refuses to provide a fiscal update.
According to Finance Canada, by May 2020 direct federal spending announcements related to the pandemic had amounted to $152.8 billion. The Parliamentary Budget Office projects the federal deficit to exceed $250 billion this fiscal year. The Government of Canada’s total balance sheet is now $1 trillion in the red, while total public debt in Canada approaches $3.2 trillion or 166 per cent of GDP.
For June 17, the government has allocated four hours for Parliament to debate $87 billion in supplementary estimates and total spending of $150 billion, including about $6 billion in new spending. The minimal time allocated to debate this year’s estimates makes it the most expensive four hours in Canadian parliamentary history.
A democracy should reciprocate unprecedented restrictions on individual freedoms and unprecedented levels of spending with unprecedented levels of debate and scrutiny. Yet, Canada’s federal government has not only capitalized on the virus to limit democratic debate, but also effectively put the very ability of Parliament to carry out its functions up for debate altogether.
With support from the NDP, the minority Liberal government resolved to impair the regular functioning of Parliament for at least six months. It has suspended normal business in the main chamber, cut the number and frequency with which written questions can be tabled and reduced Parliament to a shadow of its former self: 40 sitting days between July 2019 and June 2020. In scope and duration, the constraints imposed on Parliament by this government are without precedent.
Yet, throughout this emergency, Parliament has proven its capacity to vote on exceptional measures at an unprecedented pace. Indeed, on May 11, the House of Commons administration served notice that it stands ready to hold full sessions of Parliament in remote or hybrid form. The prime minister passed up this offer under the guise of possible health risks of the virus to gathering Parliament, whilst himself joining in select mass public gatherings.
At the same time, the federal government has repeatedly sought exceptional executive powers, acting as if it commanded a majority in the House, initially without even consulting Parliament. Canada is a notable outlier among Westminster parliamentary systems: The United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand have revitalized their Parliaments in all their functions.
Respect for constitutional convention made Great Britain the most prosperous and stable political and economic system in the world for over 200 years. The Westminster system of constitutional monarchy has proven itself over the course of 300 years. In Great Britain, the respect for constitutional convention has prevailed continuously through both world wars and the divisive debate over Brexit.
Although Canada’s government consulted the House of Commons in its initial attempt to legitimize a neutered virtual substitute, the government’s decision to truncate Parliament is arbitrary and defies convention.
Instead of capitalizing on the full diversity of views represented in Parliament to optimize outcomes for all Canadians, the Liberal minority government has gone to unprecedented lengths to subvert Parliament in its core functions of scrutinizing government, authorizing legislation and representing Canadians.
Parliament has a supreme duty to hold the executive and government to account, along with the quality and timeliness of advice provided by the civil service. Responsible government is Canada’s foremost constitutional principle: government is responsible to the people through Parliament.
The speed, efficiency and unanimity with which fiscal and legislative measures have been supported by opposition parties — not just in Canada but across the democratic world — belies the disregard the federal government is showing for parliamentary audit by the duly elected representatives of the Canadian people.
Along with the courts, Parliament, after all, is a democratic people’s bulwark against excesses of executive power.
Christian Leuprecht is Class of 1965 professor in leadership at the Royal Military College, director of the Institute of Intergovernmental Relations at Queen’s University, and a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. His latest book is Public Security in Federal Polities.