Tue, Sep
4
2007

The Failure of Our Government to Serve Us Impartially

Tue, Sep 4, 2007

dick-harris.jpg

Whatever happened to impartiality?

I’ve been reading the Wikipedia biography of Lucien Lamoureux. Elected as a Liberal in the 1962 election, Lamoureux served as Speaker of the House of Commons from 1966 to 1974. Wikipedia calls him the longest serving speaker in the history of the Canadian House of Commons.

What caught my eye about him was a statement that, as speaker, he tried to implement the British tradition of Speakers maintaining no political affiliation, and running in their ridings as independents. In the 1968 election, the Liberals and the Conservatives respected his wishes and refused to run candidates against him (the NDP were not so chivalrous). In the tightly fought 1972 election, the Conservatives felt that every seat counted, and so they broke the previous handshake agreement and ran a candidate in his riding as well. Even though Lamoureux won, and held the Speaker’s Chair for another two years, with the opposition parties not bowing to British tradition, the British tradition was doomed.

I’m struck by how seriously Lamoureux took the non-partisan responsibilities of being Speaker. Indeed, in 1963, just a year after being elected as a Liberal, and serving in the Pearson minority government, he took the position of Deputy Speaker, and stopped attending Liberal caucus meetings in order to maintain his impartiality.

Did Chuck Strahl stop attending Conservative caucus meetings when he was Deputy Speaker? What about his predecessor Bob Kilger (Liberal)? I know you have to take Wikipedia’s open-edited entries with a grain of salt, but the fact that Lamoureux’s move is significant enough to mention suggests its rarity. Whatever his personal political opinions, he knew his task was to serve the country first and his party second.

Some people these days laugh at the idea of being non-partisan or impartial. We are all political individuals, they argue, with our own unique world views and biases (which is true). But when they say that it is foolish to suggest that we can set our partisanship aside and conduct ourselves in an impartial manner, they reveal a sad cynicism in our current state of affairs. True, Lamoureux was a rarity, but not only does he show that it is possible to set one’s opinion’s aside and serve the wider country, he shows that this ability was available not so long ago, and the failure of today’s crop of politicians to look past partisan interests is merely the result of a lack of political will.

Which brings us to our current government, and their appointment of Sharon Smith, the current mayor of Houston, BC, to act as a “liaison to the federal government” for the riding of Skeena-Bulkley Valley. The move was announced by Dick Harris, the Conservative MP for nearby Cariboo-Prince George, saying:

“I know the constituents of Skeena-Bulkley Valley will derive a huge benefit from having direct contact with government, something that they have not had since 2004.”

“Having an MP from the fourth party in the House just doesn’t cut it when it comes to actually getting things done for the folks in Skeena-Bulkley Valley . Sharon Smith with her direct government contact will ensure that things DO get done.”

(link)

Just one problem: the people of Skeena-Bulkley Valley already have a representative tasked with being a liaison to the federal government. His name is Nathan Cullen, MP for the riding, having won it in the 2004 and 2006 elections for the New Democratic Party.

Since then, it has been revealed that this is not an isolated incident. Brendan Bell, the Conservative candidate in the Western Arctic, whenever the next election is called, has been named as a special liaison to the federal government in that riding, subverting Dennis Bevington, the very MP he will run against.

With respect to my conservative friends, this pushes several hot buttons for me. The level of Conservative Party arrogance on display here is unbelievable. It is wrong on so many fronts, it is hard to tell where to start. But after some thought, I decided to start with the example of Liberal MP Tom Wappel.

tom-wappel-2001.jpg

In 2001, Wappel was approached by Jim Baxter, a 81-year-old legally blind-and-deaf veteran and a constituent in his riding, for assistance in obtaining benefits from the government. Wappel rebuffed him in writing:

“I am puzzled. According to my records, you were a past supporter of mine, yet it seems that in the past election you supported the Canadian Alliance candidate. How is that you are writing me for help if you did not think enough of my abilities to justify voting for me?”

(link)

That touched off a firestorm. It attracted national attention to an otherwise quiet Liberal riding and raised a flurry of demands for Wappel’s resignation from NDP, Progressive Conservative and Canadian Alliance MPs alike. Even Liberal MPs were incensed, and Prime Minister Jean Chretien finally convinced Tom Wappel to apologize.

Rex Murphy said it best at the time:

Democractic representation is not to be confused with a filing cabinet in some MPs office with the names of those who are loyal, and those- whether blind or deaf or old or not- who are not loyal.

Mr. Wappel has apologized. The blitzkrieg of outrage since yesterday was obviously too much for the courage of an MP to contain. But it’s only because his charmless attitude is known that he’s sorry for it; only because not even his Liberal colleagues can abide that attitude that he repents. When it was just him and the 81-year-old, as the letter proves, things were so different.

(link)

I have to ask Dick Harris: are you seriously telling me that the Conservative government can, or should, take the issues of an individual voter less seriously if they go through their democratically-elected non-Conservative MP, than if they go through their hand-picked, unelected Conservative “go to guy”? If so, you are functionally little different than Tom Wappel brushing off the 81-year-old veteran.

MPs of all political stripes, including Liberal and Conservative, harshly criticized Wappel for his partisan behaviour, and rightly so. Because Tom Wappel was not elected to serve just the Liberal interests of his riding, but ALL of the interests in his riding. You see, when you are elected as an MP and you take your seat, the banner that you ran under becomes meaningless in terms of how you serve your constituents — ALL your constituents, including and ESPECIALLY those who did not vote for you. When a person living in your riding approaches you for assistance in working with the government, you provide that assistance as a matter of course, even if you are dealing with one of your former opponents. It’s part of the job description. You work for Canadians — ALL Canadians — regardless of their political affiliation.

And the same holds true with the government. This is the government of ALL of Canada, including those parts of the country that did not vote for it. This means responding to and respecting ALL the democratically elected representatives of ALL the ridings, including and ESPECIALLY those that picked candidates who campaigned under a different political banner. If sound government policy requires that a government office or some infrastructure investment be placed in an NDP riding even though you are a Conservative government, then that’s where it goes.

Because anything less is corruption. You told us so in the last election. To do otherwise is to act like a bunch of power-drunk AdScamming Liberals.

And let’s not forget the startling conflict-of-interest that’s going on in the Western Arctic, here. The “go to” guy has absolutely no incentive to work with the democratically elected MP, and indeed has every incentive to try and subvert him. Our governments are not supposed to work that way. To do otherwise is more than just a startling slap in the face of the voters of Western Arctic, or Skeena-Bulkley Valley. This is a slap in the face of the democratic aspirations of all Canadians, full stop.

Regardless of how we vote, we have the right to be well-served by this government. This government works for us, not the other way around.


Further Reading

  • Condemnation from the Vancouver Sun:

    Meanwhile, the Conservative member of Parliament who is chair of the British Columbia caucus has been hard at work trying to profit from the principle that drives patronage, the notion that the benefits of government are most readily available through partisan channels.

    In the face of an ethics complaint, the federal Conservative party says it did not approve of a decision by Dick Harris, the MP for Cariboo-Prince George, to “appoint” a Tory in a riding held by a New Democratic Party MP to act as a conduit to the government.

    But neither has it condemned his statement that people in the Skeena- Bulkley Valley riding would get better service from the government if they deal with the nominated Tory candidate, Houston Mayor Sharon Smith, than they will through their elected MP, New Democrat Nathan Cullen.

    It is also hard to imagine that given the tight, central control Harper has imposed on the party, Harris would have initiated the scheme without having it vetted first by the party brass.


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