Democracy then and now

The throbbing heart of democracy beats loudly

Stephen Maher, Ottawa, April 28


In March 1641, the British House of Commons passed the Bishops Exclusion Bill, a measure to remove 12 bishops from the House of Lords, something King Charles I opposed.

The conflict, which nobody cares about anymore, led the king to burst into the House with armed men, seeking to arrest five members of the House for treason.

He ejected the Speaker, William Lenthall, from his throne, sat in it himself and demanded to know the whereabouts of his opponents.

On his knees in front of the king and his soldiers, Lenthall refused to say. “May it please Your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me,” he said.

This set off the English Civil War, between parliamentarians and royalists, a bloody nine-year struggle that led to Charles I being separated from his head.

His son, Charles II, took the throne but the struggle went on under other kings, with much beheading, and drawing and quartering, and so on, until James II lost the decisive battle.

Parliament deposed him and brought in William III, who in 1689 signed the English Bill of Rights, establishing that the king could not act — raise taxes or armies — except with the consent of Parliament.

By tradition, in Canada, when a Speaker is elected and first takes his throne, the prime minister and the opposition leader drag him to the throne while he pretends to struggle, a reminder that kings used to behead Speakers.

On Tuesday, Speaker Peter Milliken, like Lenthall before him, asserted the power of Parliament in the face of the power of the Crown, embodied by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Milliken ruled that the House, having voted, has the right to demand that MPs be allowed to look at secret documents relating to the treatment of Afghan detainees, although Harper and his ministers have refused to show them.

It is an assertion of the ancient privileges of Parliament, won at the cost of many heads. “In a system of responsible government, the fundamental right of the House of Commons to hold the government to account for its actions is an indisputable privilege, and in fact an obligation,” Milliken said.

“Embedded in our Constitution, parliamentary law and even our standing orders, it is the source of our parliamentary system from which other processes and principles necessarily flow.”

The particulars of this showdown do not matter as much as the principle that was reasserted against the efforts of the Crown.

Opposition MPs had asked the government to compromise, to establish a security system so they could look at the information.

The government refused, citing national security, and hired retired Supreme Court judge Frank Iacobucci to decide which documents to release.

Milliken said, though, that this reasonable-sounding measure is flawed, because Iacobucci’s master would be the government, not Parliament.

So Milliken gave the government and opposition two weeks to set up a system — reading rooms, solemn oaths and security clearances, just as happens in, for example, U.S. Senate committees.

If Harper wants to play nice, he will make a deal, perhaps revealing secrets in the documents that damage his government.

If he wants to play tough, he can refuse and take the country to an election, campaigning against risking the lives of soldiers.

For all it matters in the great scheme of things, he could campaign against the Bishops Exclusion Bill.

On Tuesday, Milliken reaffirmed the supremacy of Parliament, and that means the throbbing heart of democracy — the people’s house — is safe, and everybody gets to keep their head.

Reprinted courtesy The Chronicle Herald, Halifax, N.S.