Politics

Don’t trust any government

“You should not trust government – full stop. The natural inclination of government is to hoard power and information; to accrue power to itself in the name of the public good.”

The above is not an uncommonly held view; many people share that view and those who don’t tend to only trust governments led by the party they support. When the other side is in power, then, no, they don’t trust government. What is perhaps uncommon is not what was said, but who said it – Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister. It is rather uncommon to hear someone in government telling people not to trust them.

Clegg’s full quote is as follows:

I need to say this – you shouldn’t trust any government, actually including this one. You should not trust government – full stop. The natural inclination of government is to hoard power and information; to accrue power to itself in the name of the public good.

This was from an interview with the Guardian following the introduction of the Protection of Freedoms Bill in the UK House of Commons, a bill designed to repeal, at least in part, many of the infringements on personal rights and privacy introduced by the previous Labour Government.

Clegg offered up another interesting quote further on in the interview:

The coalition cannot function unless both sides are open with each other and that means you have to have a more connected discussion – you have two parties that don’t agree but have to seek agreement, so you thrash things out. There is a flow of information within the government, and of course you are getting a much more assertive parliament. Checks and balances have improved.

This strikes me as being one of the main reasons why a coalition government would be preferable to the minority government situation we have here in Canada at the moment – and more preferable to having a majority government.

One could argue that because each bill has to gain the support of both coalition partners, this leads to watered down legislation that might not be as effective as legislation put forward by a single party in a majority government situation. Forced to comprise too much, the bill becomes little more than window dressing. However, while that might be the case, it doesn’t have to be. Instead, there is an opportunity to put forward legislation that might better reflect the views of a majority of voters since each party will put forward key positions and (one hopes at least), the best of these will be agreed to and incorporated. And by debating the various merits of each coalition partner’s positions, one would hope that even better ideas might emerge. I would like to believe that being in a coalition also gives the partner parties the freedom to move beyond what they think their base supporters might support, and I think there has been ample evidence that the UK Coalition is doing just that.

And as Clegg notes, Parliament is quite assertive – certainly far more so than the current Canadian federal Parliament. This assertiveness is perhaps in large part driven by Labour’s natural antagonism towards the Conservative Party (and their strange sense of betrayal with regards to the Lib Dems), but the Coalition Government also frequently finds itself challenged by its own backbench members. It may, in theory, command a comfortable majority in the House, but it certainly cannot take that majority for granted.

I personally believe that this makes for much healthier politics. Too often, majority governments act like elected dictatorships – able to pass any piece of legislation, no matter how ill-conceived, because their own backbench will not defy party solidarity. Minority governments are traditionally quite unstable, but the Canadian experience of late has defied that trend, with the Opposition rarely opposing, or doing so only symbolically – by allowing a few members to vote against the government, but ensuring that there aren’t enough MPs in the House to accidentally defeat the government.  Canadians are not well-served by this state of affairs and it is all aspects of our political culture which suffers from it.

There is no information flowing within government in Canada. This has been demonstrated time and time again. Both Parliament and parliamentary officers are denied access to documents needed for them to do their job effectively. Nick Clegg’s warning about government’s natural inclination “to hoard power and information; to accrue power to itself in the name of the public good” is one we should all heed. And heeding it – don’t trust the government.

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