In our system of government, the prime minister and his cabinet have an extraordinary amount of power.
Ask Stephen Harper. In 2002, Harper declared that Parliament “has ceased to be a legislative body. (It) doesn’t have much to do with governing the country. All it really does in the democratic sense is confirm the choices of the prime minister.”
Ask Gordon Robertson, a former clerk of the Privy Council, who made the same point a couple of years later. “With the lack of checks and balances, the prime minister in Canada is perhaps the most unchecked head of government among the democracies.”
Most of all, ask the people. A Nanos poll released last year found that most Canadians believe “the prime minister’s office (PMO) under Stephen Harper has too much power.” That power, the pollsters found, needs to be reduced.
But in our system of government, we do have some modest checks and balances on the executive’s power. We have the Senate, which can slow down legislation. We have the MPs themselves, who can vote. We have the media, who can shine a light on wrongdoing, and hold the PM and his ministers to account.
And, up until this week, we had the Speaker of the House of Commons. The Speaker — young Conservative MP Andrew Scheer — initially seemed like a good choice to oversee the legislature. And that is a very, very sad development for Scheer, and also for our democracy.
The sordid facts, by now, are well known. The Conservative Party of Canada covets the Montreal-area seat of Liberal MP Irwin Cotler, one of our greatest living Parliamentarians. The Conservatives hired a right-wing political firm, Campaign Research, to contact voters and spread lies to the effect that Cotler was on his way out. The Tories have admitted they did this, and they’ve admitted — belatedly — that they shouldn’t have.
Cotler, who has been Canada’s minister of justice, and is considered the finest legal mind on Parliament Hill, brought a complaint about the Conservatives’ disgusting, covert, dirty tricks campaign against him. In a detailed submission, filled with lots of compelling facts and legal precedents, Cotler argued that his rights as a parliamentarian had been violated.
Over Conservative protests, Speaker Scheer agreed that he had jurisdiction to hear the complaint. He also agreed with Cotler’s summary of the facts, and he agreed that wrong had been done. It was “reprehensible,” said Scheer. It was a “legitimate grievance.”
And then on Tuesday afternoon, after all that, he shrugged. There was no “prima facie” case, Scheer sniffed, and that was that. There was nothing else he could do, he said.
A lot of people were astonished by that. How can the chief judge of the Commons say he has jurisdiction, say there’s no dispute about the facts, say it’s “reprehensible” — and then do nothing? MPs, who generally never criticize the Speaker out loud, did.
And then, a day later, a new shocking fact emerged: Scheer had used Campaign Research — the same outfit that was at the centre of the Cotler case — himself. In the May 2011 election, in his Saskatchewan riding, Scheer had paid Campaign Research thousands to work their magic for him. And he had told no one, as he sat in his green velvet throne and listened to Cotler make his case. He didn’t recuse himself, or even admit that he was in a clear conflict of interest. He said nothing.
One of Scheer’s flaks later defended the use of Campaign Research. She suggested it wasn’t such a big deal.
That’s b.s. It is a very big deal. And it has actual implications for our democracy, and the checks and balances that keep it upright.
This Speaker has utterly disgraced himself and the office he holds.
If he had any integrity, he’d offer his resignation immediately.
But he won’t.
He’s the PMO’s water boy, and he likes sitting in his big chair.