In an unexpected move last week, Toronto city council banned the sale of plastic grocery bags as of the end of this year. Every time I find myself on the verge of caring, I remember that we are talking about plastic bags. And whatever side you choose (pro-plastic bag or anti-plastic bag), the decision will rank in historical importance about as high as the bitter fork/spoon and tastes-great/less-filling debates of yesteryear.
If I had a preference, we would have kept the nickel charge for bags, and we probably wouldn’t just up and ban things whenever we’re overtaken by a whimsical urge. But they’re just plastic bags. I can bring a cloth bag to the store, or use a paper one, or use a box or…I find myself dozing off as I try to finish this sentence.
The subject is insignificant, except in one respect: The entertaining and always surprising improv show on display at our city council meetings provides a vivid demonstration that representative democracy is alive and well in the legislative chamber of City Hall. They actually debate things on the floor of Toronto city council, and those debates actually influence the decisions that get made.
Consider David Shiner, a councillor who has voted with Mayor Rob Ford 93 per cent of the time. After listening to the debate on whether to make plastic bags free of charge for all (as the mayor wanted, and as it was before 2009), or retain the mandatory five-cent fee that discourages their use, Shiner was sufficiently moved by the environmental arguments before him to, on the spot, draft the motion banning plastic bags. No one saw that coming, not even Shiner. “I didn’t know I was doing this when I went into council today,” he told the press.
The power brokers from the mayor’s office and the well-funded plastics lobbyists watched in powerless rage as a majority of councillors from across the political spectrum supported Shiner’s leap of conscience. The mayor’s reportedly strong personal efforts to persuade council to make plastic grocery bags free had accomplished the exact opposite of what he intended. Proof once again that council rules this city.
Perhaps the decision was rash, or foolish, or petty. But compare the process leading up to that vote with the gong show unfolding on Parliament Hill in Ottawa this week over Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s massive “omnibus bill.” Purportedly a budget implementation bill, the 400-page piece of legislation makes more than 70 individual changes to Canadian law (some unrelated to the budget).
The bill relaxes environmental regulations, eliminates protection for many fish habitats, overhauls Employment Insurance and pension rules, loosens food-safety protections, disbands an agency that acts as a watchdog on Canada’s spies, frees some government departments from audit rules, limits the work charities are allowed to do, and clears a backlog of immigration applications—among other things. Many other things.
Some of these items appear to be disastrously bad decisions by the government, and some are very likely sensible new laws. You might assume that sorting the good from the bad would be a matter for Parliament to hash out through a careful debate and by voting on each item. But the whole mess has been presented to MPs as a mega-package only requiring a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down. Moreover, MPs say details about what services the bill would cut have not been given to Parliament, so the members are in some ways being asked to vote blind. And they are given only two options: approve all 400 pages or defeat the government.
The opposition was trying to delay the vote on the omnibus bill this week, but there has never been any doubt about the results: The debating and voting processes in Parliament under this majority government have become purely ceremonial. The institution of parliamentary democracy in Canada—based on the premises that the government answers to Parliament and MPs supervise the Prime Minister and his government—has become nothing more than a tightly scripted puppet-show written, produced, and directed by Stephen Harper.
What we have at Toronto City Hall may often seem like a comedy verging on farce. But it is better and more democratic than the tragedy unfolding in Ottawa.