Nobody gets killed for his beliefs in our democracy; nobody is jailed or beaten for speaking his mind. Nevertheless, there are moments when the curtain is pulled back, and we see the interplay of power and subordination in its rawest form — the humiliations, the lies, and most humiliating of all the obligatory lie, the forced confession, in which some poor schmuck is dragged in front of the cameras and required to state that day is night, even when, especially when, the whole world knows that day is not night, and knows that he knows day is not night but has been forced to say it anyway just to rub his nose in it, or rather to rub our noses in it, to assert the primacy of power, not just over poor schmucks, but over truth itself — and it all looks just a little bit Darkness At Noon .
Such a moment came and went last week with the re-education of David Wilks. The Kootenay-Columbia MP had been caught on video telling his constituents of his concerns about the omnibus budget bill, that 425-page ransom note demanding MPs approve amendments to more than 60 bills at once, or bring about the government’s defeat.
A “barrage” of Conservative MPs had similar concerns about the bill, he told the gathering, believing it should be split — “and I am one of them.” Mind you, he went on, there was little he could do on his own. But if a dozen other Tories could be persuaded to vote against it, he would do likewise. “I will stand up and say the Harper government should get rid of Bill C-38.”
Within hours of the video’s appearance, Wilks had recanted. “I support this bill, and the jobs and growth measures that it will bring for Canadians in Kootenay-Columbia and right across the country,” read a statement posted on his website. Of course he does. He always has.
One can only imagine the conversation with the prime minister’s office that preceded this. Wilks would have been reminded not only of how little he stood to gain from this adventure — the possibilities of advancement, now forfeit — but of what he stood to lose: his nomination at the next election, even his place in caucus.
Two things are illustrated by this episode. One, that amid the general decline of Parliament, the most degrading state of all is that into which MPs of the governing party have fallen. There was a time, after all, when even a prime minister had to mind his back bench — or at any rate, when the caucus had not yet been reduced to a mere appendage of the government. We think of them now as more or less the same thing, but they are not, in principle, and did not use to be in practice.
Until the Second World War, before an MP could take up an appointment to Cabinet — I mean an MP of the governing party — he had to resign his seat and run in a byelection. The reason? His role had changed. He was no longer a watchdog on the government, as MPs of whatever party are supposed to be, but had become a member of it. As such he was obliged to seek the permission of his electors — of his bosses, you might say. That is how people thought.
Compare to today, when MPs, at least on the government side, have long ceased to perform any such watchdog role — when those few, indeed, who have not been made a part of the government in some capacity have been suborned into behaving as if they were, handing out cheques and officiating at ribbon-cutting ceremonies just like real ministers of the Crown. Sometimes they have even been given authority to sign off on particular projects: to spend the people’s money, rather than to scrutinize how others spend it.
The abuse of power embodied in the omnibus bill did not begin with it, nor will it end there
The other thing Wilks’s trip to the woodshed should teach us is that the abuse of power embodied in the omnibus bill did not begin with it, nor will it end there. In a parliament worthy of the name, aware of its ancient rights and zealous against their encroachment, such a bill could never pass. The present abuse of power, that is, was only made possible by previous abuses: by the arrogation of powers in the Prime Minister’s Office that are rightfully Parliament’s, the long process of erosion by which the legislature was effectively subjugated by the executive, if not subsumed within it.
Likewise, the bill will quite probably lead to further abuses of power. Contained within it are a number of measures that would take powers that were previously set out in statute, or applied by arms’ length regulators, and vest them in cabinet, or in the discretion of individual ministers: the power to define what is “suitable employment” in the employment insurance regulations, for instance, or to create new categories of immigrants; the power to decide whether a particular energy project should be accepted or rejected, over the objections of the National Energy Board. Perhaps these are individually acceptable, perhaps not: but the more power is centralized in this way, the greater the potential, not just for abuse, but just plain old bad decisions.
Perhaps I am being too kind to Wilks. Maybe when he told his constituents he was prepared to vote against the bill, he was being disingenuous, pandering, telling them what they wanted to hear. But I actually think he meant it, the poor schmuck.