The Liberals are counting on you not caring about Parliament.
Photo via The Canadian Press.
Friends, Romans, countrypersons: lend me your ears. I bring you glad tidings on the eve of the vernal equinox. Our emperor has returned from his pilgrimage to Hindustan, and the spring rites will soon begin. How joyous are our hearts! But before Persephone can be roused from her winter’s slumber, there must be a sacrifice. The fruits of prosperity won’t blossom without their yearly drop of blood.
This is admittedly a fanciful lede for a story about Parliamentary committees. But that’s the imagery that sprang to mind when I read Susan Delacourt story on how the Liberals have made a late-winter tradition of flouting committee reports about a major social policy.
In 2016, the federal government barrelled over the recommendations of a joint Commons-Senate committee formed to study assisted dying legislation. Last February, Justin Trudeau unceremoniously dumped his promise to bring in electoral reform—against recommendations from the all-party committee to either put it to a referendum soon or otherwise keep plugging away at it. Now the Liberals are poised to do it again—only this time with pharmacare.
Never mind that the Standing Committee on Health is about to release its report on pharmacare. We don’t know what they’re going to recommend and it doesn’t matter. The feds have decided to form a pharmacare advisory council chaired by former Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins, a winking deke to the left ahead of next year’s election. This is the group who will set the real contours for drug reform in Canada—which, conveniently, Finance Minister Bill Morneau has already declared will not be universal. Maybe expect a low-rent national mirror of the Ontario Liberals’ pharma plan, and try not to get sick after you turn 24.
Anyway, governments blowing off committees all the time seems bad, to me. It‘s a huge waste of time and money to have MPs put thousands of hours of labour into writing reports that no one will ever read or care about. That’s why we have universities.
It also undercuts one of the few genuinely democratic mechanisms in Parliament. Committees are where politicians from all parties discuss things with each other more or less like adults. They speak to experts and advisors about the policy areas they’re studying. Affected citizens get the chance to have their concerns and experiences and demands read into the official record. Our parliamentarians marshall all this information together and offer the closest approximation of fair, representative, democratic, and enlightened policy that our profoundly imperfect system can produce. Flouting their recommendations on major policy questions is not only grossly undemocratic, but it will result in comparatively sloppy, ineffective, and/or inequitable legislation. We will keep getting bad laws and shitty governance, driven by policy makers and private interests that can never be held accountable. The PMO may as well be a princely court, which I’m sure suits the prime minister’s aesthetic tastes just fine.
Not that shrugging off the tedium of parliamentary democracy is unique to Trudeau II. Donald Savoie has spend decades chronicling the PMO’s tendency to accumulate increasingly broad and kingly powers. The slow erosion of responsible government in Canada started long before Trudeau I sent soldiers into Montreal. Stephen Harper wasn’t super fussy about the democratic process either—you may recall that his MPs were given instructions on how to deliberately obstruct committee work. Loosening democratic constraints is the inclination of every prime minister who has wanted to “get things done” for good or for ill. The rules of Canadian parliamentary democracy are largely all unwritten, and unchecked executive power has a tendency to grow. More than anything, Justin Trudeau is just being pulled along by the inertia of a presidentialized PMO.
But this evolutionary stage in Canada’s institutions comes in a historical moment where political and social discourse is dominated by the language (and conceptual limits) of corporate branding. What is a brand? An empty signifier, a hieroglyphic of something real that you invest with feeling. It is an image, an emotional mirage. Brand loyalty is a psychological glitch subconsciously exploited by marketers from our first breath to our last. Branding is a magic trick meant to keep you buying Ibuprofen for a premium when a generic bottle will do. Everyone enthusing over politics as a “marketplace of ideas” forgot that real marketplaces are mad and chaotic, full of loud noises and bright colours and bold lies and the only concern is to make as much money as possible before someone dies of lead poisoning and the bubble finally bursts.
That’s the spectacular politics of late capitalism for you. While the most striking case of institutional degeneration is when an aggressively stupid reality TV star became King of America, bullshit finds a natural home in Canada’s House of Commons. Appearing as all things to all people is a structural necessity of electoral politics in a country as large and diverse as this one, and it has historically been the Liberals’ greatest power.
There are a thousand examples, like the aspirational “feminist” subsidies in Budget 2018 (instead of an a childcare program), or the straight-faced declaration that they can build more bitumen pipelines while at the same time meet their 2030 climate targets. They offer up the glimmering image of a thing as an object of conspicuous social consumption instead of a serious-minded attempt to comprehend and tackle policy problems. What you see is rarely what you actually get.
For a long time, Trudeau’s power was located precisely in the emptiness of his brand. You can make all kinds of things appear in an empty space. Because of his royal blood, he is a pure signifier of “Liberal”, which is in turn a signifier for “progressive” and “Canada” and whatever else the focus group suggests might work that week. But to paraphrase the great Canadian philosopher Neil Peart: eventually, the prime minister’s spacious personality starts coming off as merely spaced.
The year 2018 has not been a great one for the prime minister so far. The India trip looks more and more like it may have been the high water mark for his international celebrity politics schtick. He’ll survive, but it should be taken as a warning. The same thing can happen domestically, especially if the Liberals continue to very visibly break high-profile promises and drive Stephen Harper’s steamroller over parliamentary procedure.
Then again, Liberal strategists are probably banking that most Canadians don’t actually care: that no one pays attention to Parliament, that everyone already expects politicians to lie and break promises, and that in the final analysis, fear of Prime Minister Scheer and doubts about the NDP will keep Trudeau’s #RealChange coalition together for 2019. I’m not going to speculate about whether or not they’re right.
The emperor wears no clothes, folks—just a thin halo of Hope and Hard Work. Bow before his bare resplendent balls.
Follow Drew Brown on Twitter.