Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Security and Parliament

In the wake of the killings in St-Jean and Ottawa last week, the government is moving to empower security services to act with less restraint -- even to have the legal right to act illegally, somehow.

It was heartening the other day to read Benjamin Perrin argue that "our laws are up to the task – we must resist the urge to overreact in the coming days."

That's doubly heartening because Perrin is connected. He's a recent legal counsel in the Prime Minister's Office. You expect all those guys to be ready-aye-ready cheerleaders for the boss. But of course Perrin is able to speak frankly because he is now Professor Perrin, out of the PMO and working at a law school.

He reminds me of all those retired MPs who tell Samara there has to be more independence for MPs. Somehow they get the faith after they leave the job.

If the government proceeds rapidly with these security changes, it's easy to foresee the opposition leaders rolling over with some token protests. It's hard for a political party leader to stand up against the stampede of popular opinion in the midst of a crisis -- particularly on the verge of a national campaign.

That, actually, is what parliaments are for, standing up against stampedes in the midst of hysteria, reining in poll-driven leaders. Some years ago I profiled Adam Tomkins, a British scholar who sees the value of parliaments that are able to review and contest the doings of government, parliaments in which even government backbenchers understand the difference between the government and the legislature:
Tomkins cites the British anti-terrorism law passed in the wake of September 11, 2001. He thinks it is terrible legislation, brutal and nasty and rushed through by a majority government in a climate of panic. But he notes that, even under those circumstances, Parliament sought independent testimony on the matter, formed independent judgements and imposed significant changes on the bill the government wanted.
It was not the leader of the opposition who led that effort. It was backbenchers, government backbenchers as well as opposition ones, who saw bad legislation and accepted their responsibility to make it better. Because they could, and because it's what parliamentarians are there for.
This sort of thing happens all the time in real parliamentary democracies where leaders are accountable to caucuses and governments are accountable to legislatures.

We don't even have the language to discuss this kind of thing in Canada. Our journalists and columnists cannot even comprehend the possibility of backbenchers -- somewhat insulated, as leaders are not, from last night's polling data -- who have minds of their own and might act on principle to restrain and correct over-reactions by government.  They'd start writing columns about coups d'etat and leaders too weak to discipline their flocks.

Indeed, it is difficult to imagine which Conservative backbencher might stand up and say, "You know, Benj Perrin is right. We don't need to pass panicky new laws; the government needs to use the ones it has better."  And be taken seriously, and build a bloc of support within caucus, and start to generate interest among some opposition backbenchers.

Not having that kind of parliament, we don't really encourage that kind of parliamentarian.  But it has to start somewhere. And every MP takes an oath to serve parliament, not to kiss the leader's ass.
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