Supersize that Parliament?
This morning, on my way to Centre Block for a meeting of the Commons committee on Procedure and House Affairs, I spotted the sprinklers spraying the lawn on Parliament Hill. (See pic at right.)
I put the picture up on Twitter, and immediately got a little shower of indignation. How dare they waste water in November? What about aboriginal reserves with no access to fresh water? (a not-unworthy point, by the way, if this was just a late-fall act of landscaping vanity.)
For the record, I tend to agree with one Twitter correspondent who suggested that this was probably an attempt to clear the pipes before the winter freeze.
But it tells you something about the mood out there -- every time Parliament does anything, even splash some water around, it's seen as a net loss to Canadian citizens of some sort, or in general. This mood has been around for a while, fed in large part by the current members of government -- especially the old Reform Party wing -- who have cast everything in Ottawa as wasteful and extravagance.
Jean Chretien seemed to enjoy defiance of this popular-opinion tide, raising pay and pensions for MPs in the 1990s and saying repeatedly he would make no apologies for the political profession.
But his Liberal leadership successors have been less successful about standing up for the nobility of the institutions. Former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff devoted a good deal of energy to casting Liberals as defenders of Parliament during prorogation, and as critics of Harper's brand of democracy, and the party ended up with 18 per cent of the popular vote in the last election. Jack Layton and the NDP, meanwhile, campaigned on the "Ottawa is broken" slogan, and reaped huge electoral rewards.
The lesson for Liberals? In modern-day politics, it's better to be an outsider. Even if you've been part of the system. (Layton was the longest-serving federalist leader in the last campaign, incidentally, but presented as a fresh, new face to politics.)
And that's in large part why you're seeing Liberals opposing the idea of adding 30 MPs to the House in the next election -- which was made clear at today's committee meeting. And even though Bob Rae said only last week that the party would stand firm against populism and "bumper-sticker" politics, it's not that hard to slap this policy position on the back of your car: "No more MPs."
As someone who's mildly fond of this battered old Parliament (most days), I find it somewhat regrettable that it's politically toxic to stand up for the institution. But in politics, as at the big-box store, the customer is always right. And the customers don't much like Parliament. Would you be interested in buying an extended-service plan for that politician?
***Postscript and an Update ***
Did Stephen Harper really once believe that Parliament should have fewer MPs? Why yes, he did. Some quotes and links below. (some read aloud this morning by Liberal MP Marc Garneau; these first ones from a dissenting report written by the Reform Party opposition MPs, including Harper, in 1994) Here's that report: Download ReformPartydissentingreport1994
“A smaller House offers considerable cost savings, less government and fewer politicians, and clearly this is what Canadians want.”
“Advancements in communication technology have allowed downsizing and increased efficiencies in the private sector but also must be realized by government.”
"Canadians are already amongst the most over-represented people in the world.”
“Mr. Speaker, we have offered to meet with the government any time to negotiate a reduction in the number of members in the House, and the government has refused to do that.” (Stephen Harper, March 23, 1994)
Mr. Stephen Harper (Calgary West): Mr. Speaker, I am glad to hear the government supports the independence of the commissions which have now virtually completed their work at a cost of over $5 million.
Surely killing the process is not a serious priority for this government. Could the Acting Prime Minister assure the House that the only reason left for stopping this redistribution again would be to follow the suggestion of my party echoed by the Minister of National Revenue that the number of seats in the House of Commons be capped or reduced?
Hon. Herb Gray (Leader of the Government in the House of Commons and Solicitor General of Canada): Mr. Speaker, the suggestion of the hon. member is one that deserves to be looked at by the House of Commons procedure committee.
Before one makes a decision on that, one has to consider the impact of capping or reducing the number of seats on the expectations of people in certain parts of Ontario where populations have grown and the expectations of people in the province of British Columbia where populations have grown for additional seats.
In the Ontario election last night premier-elect Harris defeated the Liberals partly by proposing that there be a 25 per cent reduction to the number of seats in the Ontario legislature. If the government is not willing to at least let the redistribution go ahead, would it consider combining the redistribution with the modest 10 per cent reduction to the number of seats that the Reform Party has proposed?
Hon. Herb Gray (Leader of the Government in the House of Commons and Solicitor General of Canada, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, the increase in seats that would come into effect, not just in the bill he is talking about but in the redistribution process that was interrupted by it, is provided for in a formula in the Constitution of Canada.
This government does not propose opening a new round of constitutional discussions. I am surprised my hon. friend wants to take up the time of the country with a new round of constitutional discussions. I am sure the people of Ontario and British Columbia would be most displeased and disheartened to learn that he does not want them to have fair representation in the Parliament of Canada. (Hansard, June 9, 1995)