Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

Why Have A Parliament At All?

In a sense, it's perfectly reasonable that the government is severely restricting the amount of time Parliament can spend discussing a long list of complex bills that have appeared at various times in various forms in the past and will now, thanks to the Conservative majority, finally become law. The government ignored informed criticisms before. It will ignore them now. So why bother?

Wrap things up quickly, turn off the lights, and the government will at least save a few dollars that can be put toward future purchases of gazebos.

Of course one may complain about the hypocrisy of Stephen Harper and other senior Conservatives who furiously denounced the Chr├ętien government when it did precisely what they are doing now. (Well, not "precisely." Harper has imposed time limits at a much higher rate than Chr├ętien did, even at his most imperious, and he is on track to set an all-time record. But let's not get distracted by trivia, as the PMO flack would say.)

Or one may complain that it's undemocratic. And contemptuous. One may note that almost one-third of MPs have never debated these issues in the House of Commons and, if Parliament is to be something more than a fig leaf covering the prime minister's naughty bits, parliamentarians must have the right to stand up and debate as long as they damned well want.

But these arguments are based on principle and respect for parliamentary tradition. Think that's going to wash with the Harperites? You might as well make your case by quoting the Koran.

There is, however, another reason for thinking this is a terrible mistake. It's one that even Conservatives may care about.

In practical terms, the big issues have indeed been debated, as the government says. Mandatory minimum sentences. Ending the Wheat Board's monopoly. Scrapping the gun registry. All have been discussed at great length, both in Parliament and in election campaigns. Whatever their wisdom, the government has a mandate to proceed.

But the legislation implementing these broad directions is something else entirely. Consider this little story.

A couple of weeks ago, University of Toronto criminologist Tony Doob directed me to a provision buried within the omnibus crime bill.

The government has often said the bill will create a mandatory minimum of six months in jail for anyone who grows at least six marijuana plants for the purposes of trafficking. It's supposedly a measure targeting gangsters, but that, frankly, is nonsense. The legal definition of "trafficking" includes selling, giving, or offering any quantity, so we can be quite sure that most people who fall within the ambit of the law are not Hells Angels and wouldn't know one if they tripped over their big leather boots.

But read the legislation. There is a second mandatory minimum of nine months in jail that applies under certain circumstances. One is when the marijuana plants are grown "on real property that belongs to a third party." So if you grow pot in a condo, it doesn't apply. But grow it in a rented apartment and it does. And there's no cut-off. Even a single plant would trigger the mandatory minimum.

I wrote about this. And the press secretary to the minister of justice responded.

You are wrong, she said. There is no such provision in the bill. To prove her point, she sent a summary of the bill's contents.

I told her she was wrong. And so was the summary. Read the legislation, I said.

No response.

Later, before a parliamentary committee dominated by Conservatives determined to move things along as quickly as possible, hearings were held to discuss the crime bill. Expert witnesses were given five minutes to speak.

One of them was Tony Doob, the U of T criminologist. He raised this issue. And Conservative MP Robert Goguen told him not to worry.

"That's clearly a drafting error," he said. "This happened as a result of when the bill was amended some years ago by the NDP. The section wasn't properly changed to reflect that there should be more than five plants and it's clearly the minister's intent to rectify this mistake."

A couple of points. First, this would still mean renters and owners are subject to very different sentences, which is bizarre. Second, blaming the NDP is like blaming the dog for eating your homework "some years ago."

Third, it is not reassuring that the minister intends to change something whose existence he and his staff were unaware of until critics forced them to see it given that the government is determined to push heaps of complex legislation through Parliament with little opportunity for other critics to find other concerns that other ministers need to know about.

And, no, this isn't just about catching drafting errors. It's about different perspectives, new ideas, reconsiderations, modifications, additions. It's about all the reasons why we have a Parliament, and why the name of that institution comes from the Old French "Parlement," meaning a place to talk.

It's about good government. Conservatives are in favour of that, right?