Hail to the Chief


Being swamped by news from the United States, I've had a chance to compare a bit how President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Jean Chretien governs. And one thing that I prefer about the Canadian system is that Jean Chretien has to answer more questions.

In Canada, every day that the Houses of Parliament sit, opposition members get to stand up and ask questions of the Prime Minister and his party. And the Prime Minister and his party have to stand up and answer. It's called Question Period. Oh, sure, the government will duck, it'll weave, it'll dance, but in the sparring and the dancing, we see the abilities of the government and the opposition displayed before us. The opposition has a direct chance to hold the government accountable for its actions. The government has to either argue the merits of those actions, or show that it is deft at slight-of-hand.

There is an opposition in the United States, but it doesn't sit across from the President. The president, as that country's head of state, is a source of power all his own. He stands above the bickering of the House and the Senate. While that allows him to govern, it can sometimes reduce the appearance of accountability. Tom Daschle and Bill Frist have a chance to talk to each other across the floor of the Senate, but nobody cares. In the eyes of the American public, they're not in charge, George Bush is.

Few questions are placed before the American presidents to answer. Most of the questions Presidents face are stage-managed, and Bush stage-manages more than any President in recent memory. Ari Fleischer presents the face of the government to the press, public protests are parcelled to areas away from the president's route and the press themselves are not as fierce a watchdog as the Canadian opposition (and that's saying something). Bush is shielded from the tough questions, and the American public never get to see how deft he is at answering such questions. We can't tell if he's really thought through his position, or if he dances well under an opposition onslaught (either of which I think the American public would appreciate).

But this is the way that the American system has always operated. George Bush is America's King. Nobody gets to ask the Queen of England difficult questions about her governing decisions, either (assuming she had any). However, in Ontario, Ernie Eves has shown that he doesn't want to be the Premier of Ontario, he wants to be the President of it.

Government debate in the Ontario legislature has been limited, of late, and recently Ernie made the unprecedented decision of canceling a sitting of the House, announcing that the upcoming provincial budget would be read in front of television cameras instead.

Some people may say "so what? A budget's a budget. Who cares if it's told as a Tory infomercial or before the house on CPAC?" But the only other time a budget was presented outside of a House of Commons in Canada was by Michael Wilson in 1989. Then, the budget had been leaked (then a significant security faux-pas), and to limit the damage, the finance minister read the document before reporters twelve hours earlier than scheduled. This was a big deal. Questions were raised about the legality of the finance minister's actions. Although the controversy eventually settled down, every single budget since has been presented before the House of Commons. It is the tradition of this country that such a government measure must be presented before the opposition, dropped like a puck in the hockey game of political process.

Eves' move has played right into the hands of the opposition who have already characterized him as "chicken" for being reluctant to call an election and bring his government before the judgement of the electorate. But more than that, it shows a contempt for the legislative process, a contempt that is an extension of Mike Harris' two terms of office. From the first days of this government, the provincial Conservatives have sought to shield themselves from public debate: sweeping changes to the powers of the government were shoved through parliament in a sweeping Omnibus bill, public consultation in government decisions has been limited, and sittings of the legislature in Queen's Park have been cut short. Throughout the Harris Administration, debate has been stage managed and dissent limited; Eves has only shown himself to be more clumsy in this regard.

This may be a normal human reaction, but it reduces the accountability of the government -- ironic, given that Mike Harris presented himself as Mr. Accountability. The Canadian political process is more than just a public election to rubber stamp or reject a government's policies every four or five years. We expect our leaders to sing for their supper. The harder the questions at Question Period, the better for us all. If Ernie Eves doesn't think that the interests of his government is served by such a process, then he'd do well to follow the advice about what to do when you find yourself in a hot kitchen.

I made substantial progress on the Trenchcoat Farewell Project. Trenchcoat 4 is basically done (only twelve more stories to lay out!) and the first 250 pages were looked at again and cleaned up. Proofreading is also going slowly but surely.

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