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PM’s election threats: a dangerous game of ‘chicken’: ‘One-man army’ Jean Chretien seems willing to relegate caucus to the sidelines

By Marleau, Diane      
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As a Member of Parliament, I take my role as a representative of the people very seriously. Since 1988, I have been privileged to serve the constituents of Sudbury, and to have them renew their trust in me in three subsequent elections. It is both gratifying and humbling to know that members of your community believe in your abilities to represent them in Ottawa, and to participate in and enhance the democratic process.

Recently, the Prime Minister has made comments to the effect that now that his retirement from politics is a short 11 months away, that he “no longer needs anyone,” that he has “never felt stronger” and that if the government caucus refuses to agree to vote his way, he will call an election in spite of the fact he has already announced his resignation as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.

This is somewhat unsettling. What I understand the Prime Minister to be effectively saying is that the notion of collective, participatory democracy is a non-starter — from now, until the day he leaves. This, to me, defies the very notion of the role the elected representative is supposed to play. Instead, the Prime Minister seems willing to relegate his caucus to the sidelines while he proceeds forward like a one-man army.

Moreover, threatening an election after already announcing his resignation, in the midst of the leadership race currently underway in our party, flies in the face of logic and common sense. It also leaves Canadians with an impression that we as a government have grown arrogant with power, and thus adds to the already cynical view people have of their politicians.

I know Jean Chretien; I have had the privilege of being one of his Cabinet ministers, and have been proud of the accomplishments that our government – and Canada – have enjoyed since he has held the office of Prime Minister. I know him to be a man who respects the notion of Canadian democracy, and who takes great pride in his record of achievement throughout his political career. This is why I find his recent threats to call an election all the more troubling.

The Liberal Caucus is made up of extremely capable and intelligent men and women from across our country. They are individuals from varied backgrounds and educations, who ran for office with the intention of participating – to the fullest possible extent – in forming and debating any legislation that comes before the House of Commons.

As elected representatives of the people, are we not allowed to ask questions or to make suggestions on possible legislation? Or are we simply there to stand and vote the way we are told or else?

When the Prime Minister states that he will proceed with legislation, without thought to, or input from, the government caucus, it is as though he is suggesting that the MPs in our caucus are not capable of adding anything of relevance to legislation, that our opinions do not matter. This, I believe, is wrong. The ordinary Member of Parliament must be allowed to debate and to add to any piece of legislation. This is how laws are improved and strengthened: through dialogue and consensus.

Despite the fact that the Prime Minister is retiring in February, 2004, and has announced his desire to leave public life, it does not automatically give him free rein to ignore the will of the elected representative or to negate the advice of his caucus.

It must be remembered by the Prime Minister, and all of us, that no one person received an individual mandate to govern. Indeed, the great success that is Canadian democracy is derived from its collective and responsible government.

At the end of the day, we are all colleagues, committed to providing Canadians with good government and sound policies. We are also, by virtue of holding government office, the stewards of Canadian democracy. This demands of us wisdom and caution – a judicious watch on our powers, so as not to abuse the trust of the electorate. We must, in short, guard against the slow creep of arrogance, and balance the interests of the government with what is in the best interest of Canada.

The Prime Minister says his musings of a possible early election are not threats but “a reality.” The electorate – or at least, members of my own constituency – are asking themselves why go that far?! Why risk the reputation that we have as a government as competent stewards of the nation’s affairs, in order to play a risky game of dice with the Canadian electorate less than two and a half years after they gave us a resounding mandate to govern.

As a Member of Parliament, I take my role as a representative of the people very seriously. Since 1988, I have been privileged to serve the constituents of Sudbury, and to have them renew their trust in me in three subsequent elections. It is both gratifying and humbling to know that members of your community believe in your abilities to represent them in Ottawa, and to participate in and enhance the democratic process.

Recently, the Prime Minister has made comments to the effect that now that his retirement from politics is a short 11 months away, that he “no longer needs anyone,” that he has “never felt stronger” and that if the government caucus refuses to agree to vote his way, he will call an election in spite of the fact he has already announced his resignation as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.

This is somewhat unsettling. What I understand the Prime Minister to be effectively saying is that the notion of collective, participatory democracy is a non-starter — from now, until the day he leaves. This, to me, defies the very notion of the role the elected representative is supposed to play. Instead, the Prime Minister seems willing to relegate his caucus to the sidelines while he proceeds forward like a one-man army.

Moreover, threatening an election after already announcing his resignation, in the midst of the leadership race currently underway in our party, flies in the face of logic and common sense. It also leaves Canadians with an impression that we as a government have grown arrogant with power, and thus adds to the already cynical view people have of their politicians.

I know Jean Chretien; I have had the privilege of being one of his Cabinet ministers, and have been proud of the accomplishments that our government – and Canada – have enjoyed since he has held the office of Prime Minister. I know him to be a man who respects the notion of Canadian democracy, and who takes great pride in his record of achievement throughout his political career. This is why I find his recent threats to call an election all the more troubling.

The Liberal Caucus is made up of extremely capable and intelligent men and women from across our country. They are individuals from varied backgrounds and educations, who ran for office with the intention of participating – to the fullest possible extent – in forming and debating any legislation that comes before the House of Commons.

As elected representatives of the people, are we not allowed to ask questions or to make suggestions on possible legislation? Or are we simply there to stand and vote the way we are told or else?

When the Prime Minister states that he will proceed with legislation, without thought to, or input from, the government caucus, it is as though he is suggesting that the MPs in our caucus are not capable of adding anything of relevance to legislation, that our opinions do not matter. This, I believe, is wrong. The ordinary Member of Parliament must be allowed to debate and to add to any piece of legislation. This is how laws are improved and strengthened: through dialogue and consensus.

Despite the fact that the Prime Minister is retiring in February, 2004, and has announced his desire to leave public life, it does not automatically give him free rein to ignore the will of the elected representative or to negate the advice of his caucus.

It must be remembered by the Prime Minister, and all of us, that no one person received an individual mandate to govern. Indeed, the great success that is Canadian democracy is derived from its collective and responsible government.

At the end of the day, we are all colleagues, committed to providing Canadians with good government and sound policies. We are also, by virtue of holding government office, the stewards of Canadian democracy. This demands of us wisdom and caution – a judicious watch on our powers, so as not to abuse the trust of the electorate. We must, in short, guard against the slow creep of arrogance, and balance the interests of the government with what is in the best interest of Canada.

The Prime Minister says his musings of a possible early election are not threats but “a reality.” The electorate – or at least, members of my own constituency – are asking themselves why go that far?! Why risk the reputation that we have as a government as competent stewards of the nation’s affairs, in order to play a risky game of dice with the Canadian electorate less than two and a half years after they gave us a resounding mandate to govern.

One thing that is worth noting, however, is that it is not simply the Prime Minister who determines when an election will be called. The Governor General alone has the power to dissolve Parliament, and while dissolution is by tradition done upon the request of the Prime Minister, there is no guarantee that under the circumstances she would agree to dissolve the present Parliament.

In certain circumstances, the Governor General can and has, exercised personal discretion in whether or not to accede to the Prime Minister’s request. Under the Constitution Act of 1867, the Governor General has certain basic powers of government. One of these is the ability to appoint a Prime Minister who enjoys the confidence of the House of Commons – this remains one of the few decisions the Governor General makes without ministerial advice. In the event that the Prime Minister did lose a vote – very unlikely, I must stress – there is no guarantee that the Governor General would be willing to dissolve the Parliament – there is simply no pressing issue facing the nation that requires a new mandate, nor is the government unable to function.

When we play the chords of democracy to our own tune, we play with danger. We are entrusted with government – and indeed, with democracy – in order to enact programs and policies that will benefit Canadians in the long run. We are not entrusted with government so that we can play games, threaten our colleagues, and ram through legislation without any real debate or input from those of us who support the government.

I would urge the Prime Minister, as a friend and a colleague, to be judicious in his words about calling an election. We as a caucus are committed to providing good government and to realizing many of the aims and policies he has laid out on the Parliamentary agenda. However, to do so with the knowledge of having the iron fist of Parliament’s dissolution hanging over our heads is disingenuous and makes a mockery of the democracy we are supposed to uphold.

The next 11 months can see many great things happen for Canada. We want to work with the Prime Minister to enact his agenda, and we will do so. It is in the interests of all members of the government caucus to govern well. It is my hope we can do it together, without rancour, so that we can all realize the rich potential this country has in store for itself.

I am confident in our government’s abilities, in the abilities of our backbench and in the strength of our common purpose to move this country forward. It is a confidence that, despite his recent words, I believe the Prime Minister believes himself. The Liberal Party – indeed, the Liberal government – is family. It is as a family that we owe it to ourselves to come together and to work together – disagreeing when necessary, but not necessarily being disagreeable. Backbiting, arguing, threatening and playing the politics of brinkmanship will not move us forward.

However, thoughtful, consistent dialogue, and a willingness to listen to the advice of our caucus colleagues and Canadians, will ensure that we are providing the best possible government the Canadian people deserve.

Diane Marleau is the Liberal Member of Parliament for Sudbury. From 1993 to 1999, she served in the Cabinet as Minister of Health, Public Works and International Cooperation, respectively.

The Hill Times marledo@parl.gc.ca

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