Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Forsey on the filibuster

What can the past tell us about the current controversy over the Conservative government's massive budget bill which is much more than a budget bill?

Here is Eugene Forsey writing in 1982. A Mr Westell had complained in the Ottawa Citizen about the 'constant warfare' in the House of Commons. Westell was saying what one finds some saying today, about the need for more decorum in the house, about the terrible partisanship of political debate.

Nonsense, said Forsey, in a letter to the editor of the Citizen. He suggests that perhaps Westell wasn't old enough to recall Laurier or Borden or Meighen or even King or Bennett, but that parliament was just as divided in their day. Forsey recalled fondly watching 'Arthur Meighen, from 1922 to 1925, day after day, week after week, disembowelling Mackenzie King and his Government....' And surely Diefenbaker, between 1963 and 1967 didn't sit 'in the House with his lips bottoned, or opening them only to utter buttered platitudes or twittering remonstrances..'

So on the practice of filibustering, here is Forsey again: 'Mr. Westell's idea of what Parliament should do between elections is nonsense, and subversive nonsense. It would give the Government almost carte blanche between elections. It would substitute plebiscitary democracy for parliamentary democracy. Parliament, between elections, has not simply the right, as Mr. Westell concedes to "scrutinize" and "criticize" administration and legislation, it has the duty to fight to the limit of the possible and the proper, any legislation which, in its judgement, calls for such action. This duty, of course, falls chiefly to the Opposition, and it can involve, on rare an dextraodinary occasins, obstructions, filibustering.'

In other words, 1) don't construct false and nostalgic ideas about the better days of politics, and 2) recognize that parliamentary government is all about debate and argument.

Canadians elect a parliament, not a government. We don't tell the MPs who aren't with the party in the majority to just go home - better luck next time. We'll see you again in 4 or 5 years, and in the meantime, we'll just call on you when we need to speed up our application for a passport. There's a little more to parliamentary democracy than that.

1 comment:

  1. This commentary is most welcome, at a time when understanding of our democracy is so urgently needed and so often lacking. There is much more to say on this, and a fair bit is in the book "Eugene Forsey, Canada's Maverick Sage", just out from Dundurn Press. In the book I offer my father's legacy back to Canadians - his knowledge, humour, integrity and example. If he were still here he would responding to this himself! Thank you!