Book Review: Ours, All Ours

Parliament is all we’ve got. Not media or military, not cabinet or courts, not public service executives or the diplomatic corps. Only Parliament stands between us and the wolves, yet it goes unrecognized and unloved. “Dissatisfaction with Parliament is not new,” writes Jonathan Malloy. “We need to step back and consider the matter more carefully,” he adds. Yes, exactly.

Professor Malloy skilfully documents the myths of Parliament. There are many. One is that MPs are helpless, broken automatons with failed marriages who are reduced to jellyfish by mean tweets. Wrong. Many “flourish in the position,” he writes.

“Long-standing parliamentarians can exhibit an almost effortlessness in the job, fielding travel, constituent queries, parliamentary questions and a myriad of other demands with a cool equanimity,” writes Malloy. “There can be a certain world-weary resignation to such characters but also sophistication and wisdom.”

Another myth is that MPs’ influence is ever dwindling and reduced to nothingness. Wrong. Professor Malloy documents the Conservative caucus ouster of Erin O’Toole as Leader of the Opposition, “a striking change and possibly important shift in Canadian party dynamics” under provisions of the Reform Act.

There is a myth that MPs are Mother’s Little Helpers and Parliament must be a place of quiet consensus, not merely a squawk box. So wrong. “Scrutiny is the traditional heart of Parliament,” writes Malloy.

“The medieval origins of Parliament had little to do with coming up with ideas itself,” explains The Paradox Of Parliament. “Rather it focused on scrutinizing the ideas and actions of the state, voicing grievances, and holding the government to account. The great moments of English constitutional history involve establishing Parliament’s power of approval over government actions, and scrutiny of those actions.”

Professor Malloy is a thoughtful correspondent. Paradox Of Parliament is excellent. He chronicles our only elected national institution in all its grief and glory, plainly, without apology or censure. He leaves the impression he loves the place.

Take scrutiny: “Scrutiny is thus about examining government actions, not initiating the actions themselves,” writes Malloy. “And it is most importantly – though by no means exclusively – about money.”

“Scrutiny is also deeply political and it serves little purpose to deny or ignore this,” he writes. “MPs are not disinterested evaluators. They are human and ambitious – for their ideals, for their parties and for themselves.”

“For the opposition the purpose of scrutiny is always to nail the government to the wall, to embarrass and humiliate it, in the hope of electoral gain and replacing the government or at least surpassing the other opposition parties. For the government it is to defend its actions and to deflect and dilute criticism, and ideally squelch it entirely. For individual MPs on both sides, it is to build profiles and careers.”

This is as crisp a depiction of Parliament as you will never read. No “buts,” no “ifs.”

Paradox Of Parliament is penetrating and good-humoured. Malloy calls our chamber of 338 delegates a “boiling pot of regional grievances” where MPs are less orderly than in Britain, but less rowdy than Australia “with ejection of members a regular occurrence.” It is all ours, 100 percent Canadian. It’s all we’ve got.

By Holly Doan

The Paradox of Parliament, by Jonathan Malloy; University of Toronto Press; 304 pages; ISBN 9781-4875-50882; $45.95

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