There is always a danger in trying to look for lessons from history when you do so selectively. This is the case with a column by William Watson in today’s Ottawa Citizen. Watson – an economics professor at McGill and not a parliamentary observer, it should be noted – dug through the 1917 Hansard to look over the debates on bringing in income tax (remember, this was the “temporary” wartime measure that was introduced and then eventually became a permanent thing), and discovered that lo, the debate was so much more serious then and nothing like things are today, ergo Parliament was better in 1917 than it is today.
And then I bashed my head against my desk for a while.
This is what happens when you take a look at a narrow slice of history without actually looking at the broader context or picture. It’s easy to take a single debate and declare a golden age because hey, the government of the day was giving complex answers to complex questions, but that’s not to say that there weren’t antics that took place. Remember that this was not far removed from the days when MPs would light firecrackers and play musical instruments to disrupt the other side during debate. Hell, I was speaking to a reporter who was in the Gallery during WWII, and she said that there was far less professionalism in those days, and MPs who got bored would often break into song during debate. This was also the era before TV, before the proceedings were recorded in audio or video and able to be checked, so we don’t know what the transcriptionists missed. It was also an era where I’m sure that time limits for questions and answers were looser than they are now, and where MPs weren’t playing up for the cameras. Does that make it better? Maybe, maybe not. Parliament was also composed entirely of white men, mostly of a professional background – does that make things any better? You tell me. Parliament had very different responsibilities in those days as well, and government was much, much smaller. Patronage ruled the day, and government was more involved in direct hires of the civil service rather than it being arm’s length. Is this something we want to go back to? Watson kind of shrugs this important distinction off because they had more meaningful exchanges about income tax.
Declaring simply that Parliament was composed of “intelligent, informed adults” in 1917, and the implication that it is not so today, is a grossly blinkered view of history and of civics. I will be the first to tell you that the state of debate today is pretty abysmal when it mostly consists of people reading statements into the record, talking past one another, but that doesn’t mean that MPs aren’t intelligent or informed. Frankly, it seems like Watson is longing for the days of the old boys’ club if you read some of his nostalgic commentary. I’m not sure that’s proof that things were better then, and it certainly should be a caution about taking a blinkered view of history.
- The Conservatives got the Commons immigration committee recalled to deal with Yazidi refugees, but they weren’t much of a priority under their watch either.
- The premiers are meeting this week in Whitehorse, and not only is interprovincial trade on the table, but so are healthcare transfers.
- A study says farmers lost out on $6.5 billion by losing the Canadian Wheat Board as they no longer have negotiating heft. Too bad restoring it will be impossible.
- The CNSC is investigating a letter, purportedly from internal specialists, that warns that they are not getting enough information about our nuclear plants.
- It turns out that the public service pay issue has affected as many as 80,000 employees, not the 80ish previously reported.
- Eight CF-18s are headed for a month-long training exercise. The Conservatives say this is proof there is no shortage; the Liberal say it highlights that there is.
- Irving Shipyards’ need to clear companies trying to lobby the government on warship equipment shows the government evading responsibility on the file.
- Senator Mike Duffy has re-hired the same staffers who were responsible for his spending irregularities. Is that Dame Shirley Bassey that I hear?
- Tony Clement wants to move on and not dwell on what went wrong under Harper. Why bother learning from your mistakes when you’re the “experience” candidate?
- Maxime Bernier wants free trade with China. It sure sounds like he’s not concerned about their human rights record.
- Here is an important read about how the Corbyn situation in the UK is out of hand – they no longer have a functional opposition.
- Stephen Gordon fears the Liberal infrastructure spending won’t enhance productivity, but will just be for the sake of spending.
Odds and ends:
The National Post looks into just how much Justin Trudeau uses “uh” in his speeches.