What are the Liberal notions of openness, transparency, accountability and electoral reform, which the Trudeau government calls Real Change? TML editorial on the Liberal agenda.
The Governor General officially opened the 42nd Parliament of Canada with a Speech from the Throne on Friday, December 4. The 15-minute speech was entitled “Making Real Change Happen.” Just over 1,600 words were divided into seven sections: an introduction, “Growth for the Middle Class,” “Open and Transparent Government,” “A Clean Environment and a Strong Economy,” “Diversity is Canada’s Strength,” “Security and Opportunity” and a conclusion. After the speech was read, the House of Commons began debate on a motion to adopt an Address in Reply to the Throne Speech which will continue until Friday, December 11. The House was adjourned at 5:05 pm after the Government House Leader Dominic LeBlanc informed MPs of the schedule of House business for the coming week.
The Liberals say they can give Canadians reasons to trust the outmoded institutions of the state of the monopolies by instituting reforms under the banner of transparency, openness, consultation and electoral reform. In fact, their reforms appear to be returning to proposals intended to salvage the status quo in the 1990s. In lieu of the required political renewal, these reforms will strengthen, not eliminate, privilege and enforce the prerogative powers of government and monopoly right on the economic and political fronts.
An important question to ask will be whether the measures they propose assist the people or keep political power firmly in the hands of the party and ministers ruling on behalf of the monopolies?
The Throne Speech said trust in Canada’s institutions can be restored by “working with greater openness and transparency.” According to the Throne Speech this means reforming the method by which votes are counted in general elections so that “2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system,” establishing a “merit-based” appointment process for Senators, and promoting “more open debate and free votes, and reform and strengthen committees.” It also stated that the government will not “use government ads for partisan purposes… interfere with the work of parliamentary officers… [or] resort to devices like prorogation and omnibus bills to avoid scrutiny.”
The agenda outlined in the Throne Speech was said to be “the result of conversations with Canadians, who told the Government – plainly and honestly – what they need to be successful.” Which Canadians these were is not clear but the Liberals appear to have been referring to their campaigning before and during the election, which does not bode well for the conception of consultation they are advancing. The Speech stated that Canada “can be even better” by “being smart, and caring – on a scale as never before.” Canada “succeeds” because “here, diverse perspectives and different opinions are celebrated, not silenced,” said the Governor General.
The Throne Speech stated that “the things that matter most” to Canadians are “growing the economy; creating jobs; strengthening the middle class, and helping those working hard to join it.” The ways to do so outlined in the speech were a “tax cut for the middle class,” a new Canada Child Benefit, changes to “enhance” the Canada Pension Plan and “strengthen” the Employment Insurance system, working with the provinces and territories to make “post-secondary education more affordable” and to “develop a new Health Accord.”
The Throne Speech also emphasized the importance of “public investment” in “public transit, green infrastructure, and social infrastructure,” but did not state whether this investment would be in publicly owned and controlled infrastructure or the privatized and publicly financec infrastructure which has been heralded by Liberal ministers.
The Throne Speech contained no mention of manufacturing or its ongoing destruction, nor of the need to restrict monopoly right or reform the Canada Investment Act. Workers, their role in creating the value on which society relies or their rights were not mentioned. Postal workers pointed out that restoring home mail delivery cut by Canada Post under the Conservatives was not mentioned, and earlier on December 4, Public Services and Procurement Minister Judy Foote stated the government would not fully restore home mail delivery.
The government’s promises towards Indigenous peoples, its pledges to accept 25,000 Syrian refugees, its pledges to support veterans and its support for the CBC and Canadian culture all come under the heading “Diversity is Canada’s Strength.” The Throne Speech said that the government will “undertake to renew, nation-to-nation, the relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples” based on “recognition of rights, respect, co-operation and partnership.” It says it will do this because “it is both the right thing to do and a certain path to economic growth.” In an interview with CPAC after the Throne Speech, Indigenous Affairs and Northern Development Minister Carolyn Bennett stated that the essence of this approach will be wider consultation with Indigenous peoples regarding the actions of the government. Bennett said the government will be beginning “pre-inquiry engagement” with families and organizations this month to prepare for its Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.
The Throne Speech also places together “security” and “opportunity.” The first priority outlined was for the government to “strengthen its relationship with allies, especially with our closest friend and partner, the United States.” The government will also “renew Canada’s commitment to United Nations peacekeeping operations, and will continue to work with its allies in the fight against terrorism.” The government will “invest in building a leaner, more agile, better-equipped military.” There was no mention of Canada’s participation in war in Iraq and Syria nor the Liberals’ promise to end Canada’s bombing campaign in those countries which continues to this day. Alongside these points the Throne Speech says “the Government will negotiate beneficial trade agreements, and pursue other opportunities with emerging markets.”
Consultation, openness, transparency and reform
In conclusion the Throne Speech says, “the Government will make real change happen.” After stating that this is what the government will do the speech says that this “is the inevitable result when Canadians work together.” That the government says it will do various things is based on its claim to a mandate to do so. The Liberals’ election to government is said to constitute a mandate to govern on behalf of the electorate, even though the electorate has no means of exercising control over the policies which such elected members will seek to implement. Because it is a majority government the Liberal Party can govern alone and the individual representatives do not have the power to effect policies either despite pledges to allow more “free votes.”
In this regard, the Speech from the Throne and Liberal agenda are an admission of Canadians’ lack of political power and this absence points to the need for the people to build their own political forums for empowerment.
Despite this the government is giving the impression through sleight of hand that Canadians participated in formulating the government’s policies and the mandate to implement them derives from this participation. In a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office Justin Trudeau said the plan outlined in the Throne Speech “was developed by listening to Canadians. It reflects their priorities, interests, and ambitions.” Trudeau said that his government will work with “greater openness and transparency” which will include “consulting on and implementing electoral reforms.” In fact, the practice of consultation Trudeau refers to is a feature of the political crisis in which Canada’s institutions are mired and delineates a process whose aim is to preserve the status quo. The government has the power to consult in many forms and can do so according to its own agenda and framing of the issues. Once views and proposals have been given the people have no mechanism to ensure that these views are heard much less translated into government policies or legislation.
What are the Liberal notions of openness, transparency, accountability and electoral reform, which the Trudeau government calls Real Change? Herein lies the essence of the matter when it comes to understanding the Liberal agenda. Hardial Bains sheds light on this matter in the book A Power to Share where how these mechanisms are used to keep the people out of power is discussed.
“Another mechanism used to hold on to power, also much touted today, is the notion of transparency. Aimed at giving the impression of glasnost and openness, it is defined as the right of the government to withhold as much information as possible from the people in the name of national interest or security. People are not privy to what goes on in government, how decisions are made, who makes them or participates in arriving at them or how they are implemented. Governments speak about inclusion and there is legislation which is said to provide freedom of information, but broad discretionary powers give the government sole authority to decide what is in the public interest. There is no mechanism in place which can ensure the entire decision-making process is known to the people, let alone to guarantee their participation in it, or that they have the final say. Present proposals to have, for example, an open process for arriving at the budget, will merely be a showpiece in which the government decides what is discussed, how it is discussed and what is decided. It will not change the current practice in any substantive way and the proposal is merely made so as to make the government and its budget credible.
“The notion of transparency goes along with that of accountability. In fact, there is no mechanism to make the elected representatives or the government accountable to the electorate. The only recourse provided to the citizenry is to vote an unpopular government out of office at the next election. It is interesting that both transparency and accountability serve their purpose when they divert attention from the fact that it is in all cases the government which commands the process. They are merely part of the tinsel and tassels with which the executive power wraps itself to cover up the fact that it is the sole decision-making power.
“All of these means are used to ensure that the electorate is deprived of its right to participate in governing society. You either join the political elite by becoming one of the power-brokers, or you are at the receiving end. These are the choices. Neither has anything to do with participating in government to ensure that the society functions in the interests of its members and that the path for progress is opened up, guaranteeing the life of present and future generations, as well as protecting the environment for their benefit. […]
“As a result of the absence of political power in the hands of the electorate as well as the mechanism to empower them, the chasm between the electorate and the elected has become so wide that it is not possible to overcome it without changing the political process.
“This chasm is an objective problem facing society. It is not a matter of transparency and openness, or inclusiveness, or parliamentary or electoral reform, all of which are aimed at making the present system appear credible. The demand for the democratic renewal of the political process surfaced in the first place as a result of the electorate abstracting absence – being able to conceptualize what is missing in society so that people could exercise control over their lives. This thing that is absent, which eludes the grasp of the electorate, is empowerment, the mechanisms which will enable the electorate to open the path for the progress of society.
“The end of feudal privilege and power which was cemented by the new political mechanism did not end the domination of privilege and power over the polity. The system of ‘equality of opportunity’ which the new rulers instituted gave rise to the concentration of wealth at one pole of society, and of poverty at the other in an increasingly dramatic way. In the course of this, the unequal distribution of political resources also became entrenched and has given rise to a system of political power which has become more and more concentrated in the hands of the few, and was further and further removed from the grasp of the people. The tendency is towards its ever greater concentration.
“Reforms to the system which are being implemented in the name of transparency, electoral reform and accountability are strengthening this tendency, not reversing it. Today, there is no reform of either parliament, elections or anything else which wrests power from the executive, whether it be a British style parliamentary system or an American or French style presidential rule. This reveals that the relationship between the people and this political power is an anachronism since it is not consistent with either the democratic notion of sovereignty being vested in the people, nor the human right of all human beings to participate in governing their societies.”
- On December 7 and 8 the House will continue debate on the Address in Reply to the Throne Speech. On December 9, the House will consider a Ways and Means motion related to the Liberals’ proposed changes to personal tax rates followed by the House resolving into a Committee of the Whole for the presentation and approval of the government’s supplementary estimates. December 10 will be the first and last day allotted for the Official Opposition during the fall 2015 supply period. December 11 will be the final day for debate on the Address in Reply followed by the adjournment of Parliament until January 25, 2016.
The use of December 9 for supplementary estimates and a Ways and Means motion and the ground rules for the debate, including limits on speaking time and the kind of votes which can take place, was unanimously approved by the House before it adjourned on December 4, which the Government House Leader said was a result of discussion and agreement which went on between the parties.
- Bains, Hardial. A Power to Share. 1993. p. 34-35.
Source: TML Weekly, December 5, 2015 – No. 38