Who’s Accountable to Whom?

Written by Harold McNeill on February 6th, 2012. Posted in Editorials

The following is reprinted from an article written by Michael Byers and appearing in The Tyee on January 26, 2012.

I reprint the sections in which the author Michael Myers discusses with a German colleague the Canadian Parliamentary system vis a vis that of the German Reichstag. For the full article link here:

A View from the Reichstag: Who’s Accountable to Whom?

During a coffee break, a constitutional law professor quizzed me about Canada: “Is it true that your government has been shutting down Parliament?”

“Only temporarily,” I replied, explaining that Canadian prime ministers are entitled to ask the Governor General to prorogue Parliament. Stephen Harper first did so in Dec. 2008, in order to avoid losing a fiscal vote and thus his government. He did so again in Dec. 2009, in order to avoid parliamentary scrutiny of documents relating to the practice of transferring detainees to possible torture in Afghanistan. In both instances, the Governor General granted his request.

Nevertheless, Harper’s actions caused concern at home and abroad. As The Economist magazine observed on the second occasion, “The danger in allowing the prime minister to end discussion any time he chooses is that it makes Parliament accountable to him rather than the other way around.”

My German colleague seemed to share that view: “Didn’t the Canadian Parliament respond by declaring the government in contempt?”

“Not exactly,” I replied. The contempt of parliament ruling came later, in March 2011, after the government refused to provide MPs with detailed cost estimates for its crime bills. And while no other government in the Commonwealth had ever been found in contempt, Harper cavalierly downplayed the importance of the ruling, saying: “You win some, you lose some.”

Indeed, his Conservatives won a majority in the election that followed, which suggests that most Canadians were not particularly bothered by the finding of contempt.

“The real surprise,” I explained, “is that Harper does not appear satisfied with the extensive powers that are normally available to a majority government.”

I tell my German colleague about the government’s practice of invoking closure, with a frequency never before seen in Canada, to prevent elected MPs from debating major legislation such as the omnibus crime bill and a bill that will add dozens of new seats to the Commons.

About how, increasingly, the government moves the business of parliamentary committees behind closed doors, so that it can conceal embarrassing documents and reject witnesses proposed by opposition parties without fear of public censure.

Warning, with a smile

Finally, I explain how the Federal Court ruled in Dec. 2011 that a bill to abolish the Canadian Wheat Board was illegal because it violated a statutory requirement to poll wheat farmers first. No matter: the government adopted the bill anyway.

This led Peter Russell, the doyen of Canadian constitutional law, to warn: “Canadians should understand that at stake here is not just a technical point of law, but the integrity of parliamentary government.”

At this point, a wry smile crosses the German professor’s face.

“Professor Russell is right,” he says. “It’s all about understanding. Here in Germany, we sometimes learn our lessons too late.

While we are certainly no where near being turned into a dictatorship and the current government could fall (and will likely fall) in the next election, it is possible that several precedents will have been set by the current government that will be hard to dismantle. 

We should all be concerned when any of our governing parties choose to disregard the building blocks of our parliamentary system.

For Prime Minister Harper and the Conservatives, far to many blocks are being pulled from the foundation.

Harold McNeill 

Reference:  Who’s Accountable to Whom?


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  • Herb Craig

    December 14, 2021 |

    As always awesome job Harold. It seems whatever you do in life the end result is always the same professional, accurate, inclusive and entertaining. You have always been a class act and a great fellow policeman to work with. We had some awesome times together my friend. I will always hold you close as a true friend. Keep up the good work. Hope to see you this summer.
    Warm regards
    Herb Craig

  • Harold McNeill

    November 26, 2021 |

    Hi Dorthy, So glad you found those stories and, yes, they hold many fond memories. Thanks to social media and the blog, I’ve been able to get in touch with many friends from back in the day. Cheers, Harold

  • Harold McNeill

    November 26, 2021 |

    Well, well. Pleased to see your name pop up. I’m in regular contact via FB with many ‘kids’ from back in our HS days (Guy, Dawna, Shirley and others). Also, a lot of Cold Lake friends through FB. Cheers, Harold

  • Harold McNeill

    November 26, 2021 |

    Oh, that is many years back and glad you found the story. I don’t have any recall of others in my class other than the Murphy sisters on whose farm my Dad and Mom worked.

  • Harold McNeill

    November 26, 2021 |

    Pleased to hear from you Howie and trust all is going well. As with you, I have a couple of sad stories of times in my police career when I crossed paths with Ross Barrington Elworthy. Just haven’t had the time to write those stories.

  • Howie Siegel

    November 25, 2021 |

    My only fight at Pagliacci’s was a late Sunday night in 1980 (?) He ripped the towel machine off the bathroom wall which brought me running. He came after me, I grabbed a chair and cracked him on the head which split his skull and dropped him. I worried about the police finding him on the floor. I had just arrived from Lasqueti Island and wasn’t convinced the police were my friends. I dragged him out to Broad and Fort and left him on the sidewalk, called the cops. They picked him up and he never saw freedom again (as far as I know). I found out it was Ross Elworthy.

  • Herbert Plain

    November 24, 2021 |

    Just read you article on Pibroch excellent. My Dad was Searle Grain company agent we move there in 1942/3 live in town by the hall for 5 years than moved one mile east to the farm on the corner where the Pibroch road meets Hwy 44. Brother Don still lives there. I went to school with you and Louise.

  • Herbert Plain

    November 24, 2021 |

    Just read your life account of Pibroch excellent.
    My family mowed to Pibroch in 1942 Dad was grain buyer for Searle Grain Company lived in town for 5 years than mowed one mile East to the farm on the corner of the road from Pibroch and Hwy 44. Bro Don still lives there.I went to school with both you and Louise.


    November 15, 2021 |

    These stories brought back some sweet memories for me. a wonderful trip down memory lane . the photos were great. It has made me miss those days.


    November 15, 2021 |

    Enjoyed your story Harold Dorothy Hartman