Tuesday, May 13, 2008

History of Parliamentary Sovereignty

In The People's House of Commons, a recent winner of the Donner Prize in public-policy books, the political scientist David E. Smith expresses his ambivalence about the rise of parliamentary officers in Canada. Part of the appeal to Canadians of the auditor-general, the ethics commissioner, the chief electoral officer, and the rest, he suggests, lies in the fact that they are not politicians. They seem impartial, non-partisan, above the fray, and we like that.

But the officers are unaccountable. They are much like civil servants (though reporting to Parliament not to the government). Smith is aware that delegating too much authority to unelected officials undermines the accountability of the democratic process.

Alarming new case in point: the ruling of the Parliamentary ethics commissioner on the implications of a libel suit launched against Liberal MP Robert Thibault by Brian Mulroney. The libel suit could take care of itself, even though one may suspect it is one of those nuisance suits (like Stephen Harper's against Stephane Dion) that is unlikely to go all the way through the courts to a verdict.

We could mostly ignore that, except that the ethics commissioner has now ruled that as a party to the suit, Thibault can no longer participate in House of Commons proceedings related to Mulroney or to the whole Mulroney-Schreiber affair. Thibault, of course, was front and centre in the Mulroney-Schreiber parliamentary hearings during the winter.

This has to be a misjudgment by the Ethics Commissioner. If parliamentary debate can be silenced or skewed simply by throwing down a libel writ, Parliament will be even less useful than we feared. Parliamentarians need to assert their privileges here. Free speech in the House of Commons!
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