Prime Minister Justin Trudeau makes his way to the Commons this month. In a new book, MP Nathan Cullen argues that all scripts should be tossed away during question period.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau makes his way to the Commons this month. In a new book, MP Nathan Cullen argues that all scripts should be tossed away during question period.  (Adrian Wyld / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILE PHOTO)  

Socializing with the prime minister has somehow become a form of extreme sport in Canadian politics — play at your own peril.

Sen. Stephen Greene became the latest to learn this lesson when he agreed to be part of a group dining with Justin Trudeau on Tuesday night — and suddenly found himself ejected from the Conservative caucus.

Greene was told by his Conservative colleagues that fraternizing with the PM would be an act of “betrayal” or “treason.”

If you think that sounds wacky, proof of partisanship gone mad on Parliament Hill, note that Trudeau’s dinner invitation did not extend to most of the senators who were once part of the federal Liberal caucus.  

Yes, in hyper-partisan Ottawa, the only thing worse than Conservatives dining with a Liberal prime minister are Liberals dining with a Liberal prime minister. The same thing applies to party fundraisers: Trudeau’s mere presence at any such event is now seen as “cash for access.” Maybe that’s why he’s now inviting Conservatives out for dinner. It’s just safer that way.

In all seriousness, there has been a growing sense around Parliament Hill for some years now that partisanship is out of control.  A few years ago, in this same column space, I wondered aloud whether Canada would be better off without political parties.

And I found myself wondering that again this week with the release of a new book on fixing the culture of politics, called Turning Parliament Inside Out: Practical Ideas for Reforming Canada’s Democracy.

The book is a series of essays from MPs representing four of the parties in the Commons and pulled together by Conservative leadership candidate Michael Chong, Liberal MP Scott Simms and New Democrat MP Kennedy Stewart. Green party Leader Elizabeth May lent her voice to the project, too, appearing on CBC Radio’s The Current this week with the three editors to help promote the book.

To kick off that radio interview, host Anna Maria Tremonti asked all four MPs to identify the main problem with political culture in Canada right now. Every single MP said a version of the same thing: that political parties, and the leadership of political parties, exert far too much control over what happens on Parliament Hill.

That theme runs through the book, too, and all the various suggestions — large and small — to chip away at the control that party leaders exercise over duly elected members of Parliament. Many of the ideas have been raised before — taking away leaders’ power to veto candidates, more private members’ bills, and so on.

NDP MP Nathan Cullen, in the chapter he contributed to the book, tells a wonderful, self-deprecating story of why he doesn’t read speeches in the House of Commons anymore and why everyone would be better off if the scripts were thrown away. (Watch question period, any day, and you’ll end up agreeing with Cullen wholeheartedly.)

Some of the ideas in the book are more original and contemporary: using social media and technology to update the work of Parliament, for instance.

Simms, in the final essay of the book, actually proposes a whole new institution, in which backbench members of provincial legislatures would periodically gather in the Senate to convene an “Assembly of the Federation,” to decentralize federal-provincial relations. I’m not sure anyone has the appetite to create another political institution in Canada in these days of high political cynicism, but Simms’s arguments are worth a read. 

Canada’s political problems look relatively tame these days, compared to the ongoing spectacle south of the border and what increasingly looks like a bizarre reality TV show starring Donald Trump.

But Canadians, especially smug or complacent ones, should take note of how the U.S. system of checks and balances has kicked in (at least to some degree) since Trump took power.  Trump hasn’t been able to do everything he wants to do, because Congress, the courts and the media have been doing their job. 

I’ve worried, and I know others have too, that a Donald Trump in Canada would face fewer institutional restraints — prime ministers, especially those with majority governments, have more power than U.S. presidents.  An autocrat in Canada could be very dangerous, and face far fewer impediments to getting his way than the ones Trump has been encountering in the U.S.

The authors of the foreword of Turning Parliament Inside Out — former NDP leader Ed Broadbent, Bob Rae and Preston Manning — also argue that rising global tides of populism should have us all thinking about shoring up our democratic institutions.

The book doesn’t come right out and call for an end to political parties, but you might well be thinking that’s not a bad idea by the time you’re finished reading it. Besides, there are riskier ideas out there in Canadian politics right now — dining with the prime minister, for instance. 

sdelacourt@bell.net

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