Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Alberta Version of Democracy - DIctatorship?

Parliament or a Legislative Assembly is an important place. Here Government presents its budgets and commitments and the House (all sides) are supposed to hold them to account. The opposition – for those parliaments fortunate to have them – also are expected to challenge the assumptions and strategy of government. The backbenchers of the ruling party are supposed to hold the feet  of the government to the fire with respect to their commitments.

MLA’s or MP’s are expected to have a degree of independence. The whips office can issue 1,2 and 3 line whips to require support for the party, but the more often the whips use the lash the less creative MPS’s/ MLA’s are and the less likely we are to attract the brightest and the best.

Committees of the House are just that – committees of THE HOUSE. Not the governing party. Their job is very clear: to hold the Government of the day to account. For example, if the Government says it has a financial crisis and they have systematically looked at all options and have developed a response plan and a budget to deal with it, the relevant Committee should ask some deep and challenging questions: (a) how seriously did they look at all of the options – e.g. a sales tax, progressive income tax, changes to corporate taxes, new fees and charges, new royalty regimes for natural resources, new options for death cuties, new options for stamp duty on financial transactions, targeted fiscal constraints, new investments in infrastructure to generate jobs and tax revenues; (b) does their budget make sense; and (c) are the claims about the budget – e.g. a 9% cut in every area of Government “will have no direct impact on the most vulnerable” – supported by the evidence. The job is to be critical and challenging, offering support only when it is due and supported by evidence.

In this tradition, Parliamentary Committees chaired by Government back-benchers with a majority of Government back-bench members will often draw attention to the stupidity of their own Ministers and will often send back legislation, budget strategies or regulations as not meeting the commitments made or for being, well, just stupid.

But in Alberta, the Committees are now creatures of Government. They are grotesque creatures which the Premier wants to order about. For example, when the appropriate committee restored financing to the Auditor Generals office to support investigative work, the Premier asked the committee to rescind its vote. A sensible committee would have politely told the Premier where to put his request and also reminded him that they are a Committee of the House, not of Government. If the Premier wants to control these committees he would be better off not having them. Disbanding them would save money.

Given the situation in Alberta, there is a good test for our parliamentary system. If the committee meets and does as the Premier asks, then we know they are wasting all of our time. If the Committee meets and reaffirms its original position, then we have something worth keeping. If they do as they are told and don't immediately then all resign we know a lot about the intention of the Government back-benchers – they want a Ministerial position. We also know that they are not good parliamentarians. Its a cunning test of democracy - the Premier is saying "shall we have a democracy" or something else?

You cant have a democracy which looks like a dictatorship. Get used to it.

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