The new Ontario budget is a highly instructive document. And I don’t mean that in a good way.
The first thing it illustrated was the risible level of contemporary partisan shrillness. Let me single out provincial Conservative leader John Tory accusing the McGuinty Liberals of being “addicted to spending,” as if he’d be any different, and federal Tory MP Pierre Poilievre following his finance minister’s undignified pre-emptive criticism with an instant response that plumbed new depths of brazen implausibility by saying “We came today in a spirit of partnership to ask (Premier Dalton McGuinty) to reduce the job-killing taxes he’s imposed on Ontarians”.
The second thing the provincial budget illustrated is that contemporary budgets aren’t accounting documents at all and no one seems to expect them to be. I was 12 pages into my third newspaper Wednesday morning before anyone bothered mentioning total projected spending for the coming year (a surely noteworthy $96.2 billion). Meanwhile, the top “News” item on the Ontario government website that day was “McGuinty government invests in skills” which sounds like good news until you realize it’s ours, not theirs, they’re talking about.
It’s Easter and time for the annual journalistic display of baffled hostility to Christianity. On cue the Roman Catholic archbishop of Ottawa, Terrence Prendergast, pops up with the suggestion that adherents to his church who don’t actually observe its rules should not expect to enjoy all the benefits of membership. A predictable chorus of howls erupted.
The archbishop might be forgiven for wondering why. No one would think themselves entitled to join a chess club but refuse to move bits of plastic around an 8×8 square board. If they insisted on denouncing the game as a colossal waste of time for losers who couldn’t get a date using the Benoni counter-gambit (purely hypothetically, you understand), or showed up and played trumpet instead of chess, club officials would try to reason with them but, if that failed, would insist that they depart. And no one would think it odd. What, then, is so hard to grasp about the Catholic Church being a voluntary organization with rules that are meant to be enforced?
Apparently it’s time to stick a fork in our system of parliamentary self-government. MPs just passed an Opposition money bill and no one cares that there’s no such thing.
Last week the three Opposition parties teamed up to pass Dan McTeague’s private members’ Bill C-253, letting parents contribute $5,000 per child per year to a Registered Education Savings Plan and deduct it from taxable income. It flatly contradicts Section 54 of our Constitution: “It shall not be lawful for the House of Commons to adopt or pass any Vote, Resolution, Address or Bill for the Appropriation of any Part of the Public Revenue, or of any Tax or Impost, to any Purpose that has not been first recommended to that House by Message of the Governor General in the Session in which such Vote, Resolution, Address or Bill is proposed.”
Is there anything unclear about this wording, repeated essentially verbatim in Standing Order 79 (1) of the House of Commons? Apparently so, if you’re an MP or the Speaker of the House. Soon after being introduced in 2006, C-253 was challenged because of 79 (1), but that Nov. 1 the Speaker ruled, “It is permissible for a private member’s bill to introduce a tax exemption, or to propose a delay in the reporting of income. Therefore, I find that Bill C-253 is properly before the House.”
LONDON, England – The symptoms of parliamentary decline are by now unpleasantly familiar. I don’t just mean the way Question Period, regardless of the subject or authenticity of the outrage, often prompts the reflection that brawling alley cats do have a certain dignity.
Consider this list of symptoms from a recent report: the rise of parties and partisanship, the concentration of power in the PMO and the way government business has taken over the Commons, the rise of special interest groups, sensationalist media hungry for sound bites not substance, constitutional changes that sideline Parliament and a habit of entrusting important issues to non-political arms’-length bodies instead of elected MPs. Depressing. But what can you do?
Well, you can start by raising an eyebrow or two on hearing that my list is from a July, 2000, report on the British Parliament by a panel chaired by Lord Norton of Louth. Possibly it does not encourage you to hear your neighbour’s ornate and venerable roof seems to be caving in as well. But if we have these problems in common, it offers a way to get some perspective on their causes and possible cures.