Afghan documents deal: Ibbitson, Dobbin, and democratic reform

May 17th, 2010 | By | Category: In Brief
Speaker of the Canadian House of Commons Peter Milliken stands during question period,  Tuesday 11 May 2010. He granted an extension to the parties until Friday after his ruling two weeks ago that the government's refusal to hand over documents on Afghan detainees violates the privileges of MPs. All parties reached an agreement in principle on implementing his ruling by the end of the Friday extension. Photo: The Canadian Press.

Speaker of the Canadian House of Commons Peter Milliken stands during question period, Tuesday 11 May 2010. He granted an extension to the parties until Friday after his ruling two weeks ago that the government's refusal to hand over documents on Afghan detainees violates the privileges of MPs. All parties reached an agreement in principle on implementing his ruling by the end of the Friday extension. Photo: The Canadian Press.

It is no surprise that what you make of the deal on Afghan detainee documents finally cooked up by MPs from all four federal political parties in Canada (at the last minute, this past Friday) depends on who you are and where you sit …

According to John Ibbitson at the Globe and Mail — a still somewhat progressive conservative, maybe, sometimes, etc — “Friday’s accord on releasing Afghan detainee documents … marks the rise of Parliament as a genuine power within government, which is the best thing that has happened in Ottawa for a very long time.”

According to Murray Dobbin — “now living in Powell River, BC” and “one of Canada’s most popular progressive” progressives — the “agreement reached at the 11th hour on the uncensored Afghan torture documents is hardly a victory for democracy. It is precisely the opposite … Now we have a new definition of the absolute right of Parliament — the almost absolute, the not quite absolute, the nearly absolute, the absolute except when the executive branch of the day says no.”

If you must have a more measured and neutral view, try “MPs strike deal on detainee reports … All-party committee will scrutinize Afghan prisoner documents,” and/or (in the other official language) “Détenus afghans — Le Parlement s’entend … Un panel de juristes choisira la façon de révéler les informations.”

Meanwhile, it seems that both Mr. Ibbitson and Mr. Dobbin more or less agree on one thing about contemporary Canadian federal politics. Mr. Dobbin has advanced the bolder version: “A coalition of Liberals and the NDP … is not just one possible strategy to rid the country of Stephen Harper and his wrecking crew. It is the only strategy.”

The more conservative John Ibbitson is more restrained: “There may be further growth to come. With the British precedent in mind, voters in the next election will want to know whether the Liberals and NDP would be willing to form a coalition, should the Liberals win the most seats in a hung Parliament. Whether you would approve of such a coalition may be the biggest factor in how you vote.”

As Mr. Ibbitson has also noted: “Of course, the next election could produce a majority government. If so, Parliament would quickly revert to its former, supine self. Maybe more would get done, legislatively, maybe not. But it would be a loss for democracy.”

Liberal House leader Ralph Goodale, a key figure in the negotiation of the Afghan documents deal, speaks to reporters outside Canadian House of Commons, Friday 14 May 2010. Photo: Sean Kilpatrick / CP.

Liberal House leader Ralph Goodale, a key figure in the negotiation of the Afghan documents deal, speaks to reporters outside Canadian House of Commons, Friday 14 May 2010. Photo: Sean Kilpatrick / CP.

We altogether agree that it is or ought to be all about democracy — and, more exactly, “democratic reform.”  To quote (with another British precedent in mind) the same Ferdinand Mount quoted in this space last week,  the “challenge now is not so much to train power to tell the truth (an uphill task, to put it mildly) as to make sure that it lies in more places.”

In the same diverse spirit we’ve been happy to bump into a new website based out in Mr. Dobbin’s neck of the northern lands and forests called “Democratic Reform in Canada … A home for everyone who believes Canada needs democratic reform. Regardless of your party, your beliefs or your favourite type of reform, this is a place for rational discussion of all the options…and how to achieve them.”

It isn’t just in Parliament in Ottawa that good things are at least gurgling at the margins of Canadian politics today. It’s also among the Canadian people. And we should all be especially happy about that.

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