Thursday, July 02, 2009

On fresh starts

Preston Manning argues in an op-ed in the Globe today that "It's time for a fresh start in Parliament." I'd agree, although (predictably) not with some of the prescriptions Mr. Manning offers! It's just so difficult to accept criticism of partisan zeal from Conservative quarters. This is a government that knows few bounds in that regard. After the last few months of Conservative negative personal attack ads, we're now on to slimy 10 per centers being disseminated across the country. Remember that parliamentary manual on how to obstruct parliamentary committees, Mr. Manning? We could go on.

Some of Manning's appeal for a fresh start has to do with media coverage, he argues that legislative achievements are not getting their due in the press. I'm sure the appeal for the media to hold some kind of psycho-analytic retreat on how they can be more positive will go over swimmingly. If the media are negative, they're a symptom, not a cause. And media coverage seems to be a secondary consideration to many other more pressing issues in any event.

At first glance, his pitch on confidence votes might seem interesting to some. He suggests narrowing their usage as follows:
...some agreement to alter the “confidence convention,” so the only condition on which a government could be defeated in the House would be on an explicit motion of no-confidence moved for that purpose.
It's interesting, once again, to see narrowing of defeat options being advocated from Conservatives, just as Mr. Harper did last week. That would be in their electoral interest, certainly. And this could be interpreted as a dig by Mr. Manning at Mr. Harper inasmuch as such a move would cramp Mr. Harper's style, the confidence vote having been used by Harper for partisan purposes, not for the good of the legislative body and its work. So in that respect, perhaps one might be tempted to consider such a move. But with so much of what Manning suggests, what's really needed on this issue is not a changing of the confidence rules, but a change in who is able to deem what is a confidence vote and what is not. For many years we've survived in this country with the confidence vote measure being typically restricted to budgetary matters and extended to some important measures that go to the heart of a government's mandate. We trust our leaders to handle these constitutional conventions according to the respected traditions. There's flexibility there that we shouldn't lightly discard. It's Mr. Harper's responsibility that he's made it into a partisan plaything.

What's also missing in Manning's piece are issues like those raised in the Star's Sham-ocracy series. What about restoring confidence in the access to information system such that the government can't stifle access to the extent they're presently doing? What about opening up MP's expenses to the public (not to conduct witch hunts, they assure us it's all well-run in any event) and getting it online? There are a whole host of democratic reform initiatives that could be looked at as part of a practical slate of changes.

And the larger point, we need leaders who will respect the institutions of government and not treat the opposition like they're enemy territory, that will not treat the media like it's an irritant and that will not treat the courts like they're to be ignored. That will be positive, that will inspire us, give us a national vision. That would represent a fresh start.