A Fitting Way To Honour Jack Layton

Jack Layton was a politician and a partisan, to the bone, but he didn’t treat politics as a dark art. With his famous smile and boundless enthusiasm, he won people over, in his party and others, and got them to work together in pursuit of shared goals.

There is a fitting way to honour such a man.

Since the beginning of the year, the Public Policy Forum and the David Asper Centre for Constitutional Rights at the University of Toronto have been bringing constitutional experts together to discuss the production of a sort of pocket guide to Canadian parliamentary governance. That may sound like a trivial thing. It’s not. The Canadian system, inherited from Britain, is largely composed of unwritten rules. This project would put those rules on official paper for the first time.

It is essential that that happen.

Over the last several years, parliamentary politics was not an honourable jousting tournament governed by shared norms and mutual respect. It was an anything-goes gladiatorial contest. Remember the constitutional crisis of 2008, when the opposition parties formed a coalition and the prime minister called on the Governor General to prorogue Parliament to avoid a non-confidence vote? From that ugly moment on, the fundamental rules of Canadian parliamentary governance were critical to the daily political battles – and the parties fought over what those rules were.

I won’t rehash all that here. But what was absolutely clear then, and essential to bear in mind now, is that many of the claims made about how the system worked were shamefully self-serving. To hell with centuries of precedent. To hell with scholarship. To hell with the future. Partisans said whatever suited their political needs that day.

Some were guiltier than others. But blame isn’t the point. Indeed, it’s a barrier to moving ahead. So let’s set it aside.

Canada now has a majority government and the furious debates about when Parliament may be prorogued, the legitimacy of coalitions, when elections must be called, and all the other questions which consumed us so recently have receded into the distance. We ceased to think about them the morning after the election and they recede in memory, looking smaller by the day. Even now they appear trivial, the sort of thing only scholars care about.

But remember: It wasn’t so long ago that few of us had even heard the word “prorogue” and a battle over a parliamentary coalition seemed about as likely as a foreign invasion. History surprises. Only a fool thinks he knows what the future holds.

If we wish to safeguard the constitution and ensure that Parliament never again becomes a political bear pit, this is the time to act. Indeed, there will never be a better time.

Jack Layton’s death has created “an environment of calm and reflection and common commitment to Parliament,” notes the esteemed University of Toronto political scientist Peter Russell. “It’s a very good environment in which to launch the project. It wouldn’t be a matter of gamesmanship and trying to get rules that favour your party’s interests in the situation that you’re facing. You’d take a longer view.”

Both New Zealand and the United Kingdom have codified the unwritten rules of governance and Russell feels the British model is particularly good. Most of the work was done after an election. The process was public. All parties were involved. The result was a document that represents the basic rules of the system as understood and agreed by all. That’s critical. “It’s no good if it’s just one government’s view of how things are done. Then we have another election and another party gets in, then we’ll have another set of rules.”

The breadth and usefulness of the British guide is also striking. “It covers lots of things, such as the relationship of the civil service to opposition parties, what happens with caretaker governments, which occur whenever there’s an election, the relationship of the cabinet to the courts, what’s proper or improper in communications between cabinet ministers and judges.”

“Most of the fundamental principles can be covered and written down in a way that all parties can agree to,” Russell says. “It won’t cover every precise situation. It won’t be like the NHL rule book, you know, how long can a goalie stick be. It won’t have that measure of precision. There will always be some flexibility, some room for adaptation, some room for argument.”

In February, the Asper Centre hosted a meeting to discuss the idea. Constitutional scholars were there. So were some of the sharper minds affiliated with political parties, including the NDP’s Brian Topp and the Conservatives’ Tom Flanagan.

“They all thought this is something for Canada to take on,” notes Russell.

Will it? The Privy Council Office would have to direct the project, Russell feels. And that won’t happen without an order from the prime minister.

Stephen Harper’s critics – including your correspondent – have accused the prime minister of subordinating everything to winning and holding power. This is a chance to show there is more to the man. This is a chance to honour the memory of a political opponent, to bridge partisan divides, and do something solely for the good of the country. It is a chance to show statesmanship.

“I had a great regard for Jack Layton,” says Russell. Layton understood that “underlying the tough partisan competition, there should be an underlying commitment to the most important principles of parliamentary government.”

This project “would be an appropriate legacy.”