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Beware of the PM's worst political instincts

In the beginning, Paul Martin's position on the democratic deficit was grounded in principle. Now, as we've been seeing in negotiations surrounding amendments to the Throne Speech, principle has given way to political expediency -- the survival of his minority government and preparations for the next election.

Sure, there's always been politics at play in Mr. Martin's proposals to enhance the role of backbenchers. He needed the support of disaffected MPs to carry out his coup against an elected prime minister -- a first in Canadian history. However, the unhappiness that drove some to tears (in the hepatitis-C vote, for example) and others to distraction was the direct result of Jean Chrétien's dictatorial distortion of the parliamentary system.

To remedy the unhealthy situation, Mr. Martin proposed that Canada should import the looser party discipline practised in the Mother of Parliaments at Westminster. By making fewer matters questions of confidence, he correctly reasoned, Canadians could retain our system of government while giving MPs greater latitude in voting their consciences and representing their constituents.

In opposition to Mr. Chrétien, Mr. Martin's principal idea was to reserve "three-line whips," where the PM imposes caucus discipline for major items -- the budget and Throne Speech, in particular. In power, he reversed course in his first Throne Speech debate.

It's likely that Mr. Martin would have won his recent skirmish with the opposition, even if the opposition had had the numbers. Stephen Harper, a fine strategist, would likely have kept a few MPs out of the House rather than bring down the government on a Bloc Québécois subamendment.

Rather than testing his strength in a vote, Mr. Martin blinked. While his spinners worked overtime to dress up the last-minute changes as significant, the deletion of a few words about Jean Charest and Quebec was purely cosmetic.

More disturbingly, as they did after Mr. Martin crumbled to provincial pressure at the federal-provincial health summit, his spinners have been trying to cloak the capitulation in principle. Specifically, they've been peddling the line to Ottawa-based reporters that the Prime Minister is fulfilling his commitment to resolving the democratic deficit. In fact, Mr. Martin is weakening our parliamentary system, by opening the door to American-style government.

Rather than seeking opposition support for its measures on a case-by-case basis, the government is encouraging the opposition parties to engage in U.S.-style legislative log-rolling. This behaviour will come to fruition in the budget, normally a matter off-limits to the opposition parties.

In explaining the differences between Canadian (responsible) and U.S. (representative) government, the late constitutional expert Eugene Forsey focused on deadlock between the executive and the legislative branches. In Canada, we will never experience a complete shutdown of the government, as occurred during Bill Clinton's first term in office, because, as Senator Forsey explained, you'd instead get a new government or a new parliament.

In resorting to ex post facto rationalization of government-by-improvisation, Mr. Martin's men are creating a huge problem -- for him and for Canada. Eventually, their man will be caught in the web of deceit they've spun.

The Prime Minister's spinners are not experts in parliamentary procedures; nor would they be expected to know that the main difference between Robert Bourassa and René Lévesque -- when they split in the 1960s -- was not over the destination of their province but about the pace and method for achieving what amounts to sovereignty-association. However, Ottawa's permanent officials should have warned the PM about the risks of raising Quebeckers' expectations about "asymmetry."

Goaded by the media and the opposition, it was entirely predictable that Jean Charest's government would expect a similar deal in municipal affairs and childcare. No one should be surprised either that Premier Charest has seized the opportunity to make Quebec's long-sought gains in international affairs -- reaching beyond cultural institutions such as UNESCO to include conducting relations with Mexico in the company of the Prime Minister of France.

Unfortunately, the opposition parties in Parliament have not been much help in checking Mr. Martin's worst political instincts -- they, too, are preparing for an election and are looking longingly at Quebec's 75 seats. Nor will they be much help in preserving our parliamentary institutions.

Gilles Duceppe wants to break up the country. Stephen Harper seems to be infected with the U.S. system of government (his proposed independent budget office is another example).

Jack Layton's background is in municipal politics; his proposals for proportional representation are derived from the European experience of social democratic parties, and his proposed "citizens assembly" is imported from the United States via British Columbia.

All of which is to say we will be living in dangerous times between now and the next election.

nspector@globeandmail.ca

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