Legislate like you give a damn

CTV.ca rounds up the closing silliness in Parliament as the place shuts down for the summer. Canada’s MPs and senators might as well have had a shaving-cream fight and stuffed one another in lockers, by the sound of things.

On the environment file:

With the passage of the Kyoto bill the Conservatives are now legally obligated to implement the Kyoto Protocol on climate change as of noon Friday — a task the federal government steadfastly claims is impossible.

The Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act was originally introduced by Liberal MP Pablo Rodriguez. Its provisions:

  • The government has two months to come up with a blueprint for how it will meet its commitments under Kyoto;
  • Within 180 days, the government must bring in regulations to “ensure that Canada fully meets its obligations” under the protocol.

Kyoto requires Canada to achieve a six per cent cut in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2012 — an objective Environment Minister John Baird argues would cripple the economy.

But interpretations of Rodriguez’ bill vary widely. House Speaker Peter Milliken ruled the legislation doesn’t require the government to spend money, though the bill states the required plan must include “spending or fiscal measures or incentives.”

Baird used Milliken’s decision to back up his argument that the bill is basically meaningless.

Government House leader Peter Van Loan also played down the significance of the bill.

He said the proposed legislation could only be considered by Parliament because Rodriguez said “it wouldn’t involve the spending of a single penny.”

But he said the government can’t be expected to meet the Kyoto targets without spending any money.

…”I think scientifically there are no barriers for the implementation,” Liberal Senate Leader Celine Hervieux-Payette told CP. “They will comply. It’s a bill, it’s an order from Parliament. They may not respect the accord but I hope they will respect the bill.”

This story is roughly right: Kyoto actually requires Canada to achieve [deep breath] a six-per-cent reduction from 1990 levels in average emissions over a period running from 2008 to 2012, which in practice pretty much means hitting the target in 2008 and then staying there for four years.

The argument over whether the bill requires the government to spend money matters only because if the bill does require that, then it’s probably a confidence measure and the Conservatives have lost and the Canadian government has fallen and nobody’s noticed. If it doesn’t require the government to spend money, it doesn’t mean much.

The argument doesn’t matter because, as nobody’s mentioned, the bill isn’t a law until the Governor General signs it, and she won’t sign it until the prime minister puts it in front of her, and he’s not going to be doing that, so it’s all moot. Which you’d hope one of the parliamentary leaders quoted in the story would know.

My point: Imagine what these people could do if they actually cared.

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2 responses to “Legislate like you give a damn

  1. David:

    My huge problem with Canadian legislators is their inability to work collectively toward the greater good. Every debate in the House of Commons eventually seems to distill into a series of ad hominem attacks so far removed from the actual issue as to be frivolous. The main argument against proportional representation being used in Canada is that it would eternally produce unstable minority governments. This presupposes that minority governments are unstable. The Scandinavian nations operate on PR and almost always have minority governments, yet because they live in a culture based on collectivism, minority status is not a hindrance to progress. If only they could all work together instead of lobbing personal epithets across the floor all day. What a shame.

  2. Ontario, where I live, is just beginning to think about stirring itself to consider the question of proportional representation, which is going to be on the ballot in the provincial election scheduled for Oct. 10. The specific system proposed is the same one that British Columbia nearly went for a couple of years ago, with a combination of MLAs (MPPs in Ontario) elected to represent particular districts and some other “list” members elected at large to make the numbers in the legislature more closely match the popular vote.

    My first instinct was to say this thing was way too complicated to work, but it only takes about two minutes of really thinking about it to get the hang of it.

    One of the perks of writing editorials and columns for a newspaper is that every now and then people doing important things ask to meet you and tell you about what they’re up to, and a couple of weeks ago we had some people from Fair Vote Canada come by to push the merits of the change. I learned two things that took me by surprise:

    1) The so-called “list” representatives, the ones who don’t represent a district but come in as part of the evening-up process, generally have very unstable positions. The biggest party, the one that does the best in the popular vote, is unlikely to have any “list” MPPs at all — it’s everybody else who’s getting their list MPPs into the legislature so that the winning party’s power isn’t exaggerated. That’s the whole point. So if you’re party’s contending for power, your list MPPs’ top personal priority will be finding an electoral district to get elected in, pronto.

    2) The Fair Vote people insisted that everywhere there’s proportional representation, the system tends to “discipline” parties that get too big for their britches. Yes, the government party is likely to have to depend on smaller parties to sustain itself, but there’ll probably be more than two to choose from (as the Canadian Conservatives have to choose between the NDP and the Bloc Québécois, assuming the Opposition Liberals are going to vote against them almost all the time). If you’re a three-seat party that’s part of the government coalition, well, there are probably other three-seat parties out there whose support the government might chase if you get to be a real pain to deal with.

    The argument is that what really makes things so ugly in minority governments in a First Past the Post system is that the prize of a majority government is still out there, so close that both the government and the Opposition can taste it. They know that if they score a hit in exactly the right spot in Question Period or in TV ads or whatever, they might be able to ride that all the way to four or five years of virtually unchecked power. So they just keep blasting away.

    But if you institutionalize minority governments, put majorities out of reach except in really exceptional circumstances, the incentives work the other way. The only way to get power is to be co-operative, not to crush your foes. So over time, honourable people who do what they say and know how to work in partnerships end up in governing coalitions, while jerks end up on the outside looking in.

    I guess it’s an imponderable whether greater civility is an inherent feature of proportional-representation systems or a result of a particular culture. I’m pretty persuaded by the argument that it comes from the system, not the society, but there’s only one way to find out.

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