The Chatter Box: An Insider’s Account of the Increasing Irrelevance of Parliament by Roy Rempel (Dundurn Press, $24.99, 246 pages)

Roy Rempel believes that Canadian politicians could campaign for the right to life until they were blue in the face, but it would not have the slightest impact.

“Individual MPs’ positions are irrelevant,” he told The Interim, “because power in Canada is concentrated in the centre. When the prime minister says that the abortion issue in Canada is decided – that’s it. Issues are never seriously debated in the legislative branch, once the executive has taken a stand.”

Pausing for a moment, he adds: “In fact, the views of the Canadian public on any issue are completely irrelevant in Canada’s moribund political system.”

Rempel, an Ottawa-based consultant who holds a PhD in Canadian foreign and defence policy from Queen’s University and also is a former NATO scholar, was a senior policy analyst in the leader of the opposition’s office under all three Canadian Alliance leaders: Preston Manning, Stockwell Day and Stephen Harper. He left the opposition leader’s office of his own accord in September to complete The Chatter Box.

It is a book that is, in some places, no less critical of his own party’s MPs than the governing Liberals, some of whom are revealed in these pages as lazy, shallow, unprincipled and stupid.

The title refers to the book’s main thrust – an unflattering portrayal of how Parliament has become “increasingly irrelevant,” in one of the author’s favourite phrases.

In Rempel’s eyes, our most senior chamber of democratic deliberation has become a mere talking-shop, a club for hacks, with plenty of perks and no real influence on the country’s destiny. In turn, institutional failings seem to bring out the most cowardly and corrupt characteristics in the men and women sent there to “represent” Canadians.

Rempel approaches the subject from the angle he knows best: foreign and defence policy. This is both a strength and a weakness.

He is especially strong on Parliament’s incapacity to play a role in the current war on terror, as well as the utterly non-serious, pro-forma manner in which the House of Commons debated the Canadian role in NATO’s war against Yugoslavia.

We see Liberal MPs making speeches in the Kosovo debate relying on pre-scripted texts prepared by bureaucrats, merely adding a few phrases such as, “It is my carefully considered personal opinion that …” before reading verbatim from a text written by officials. An amusing appendix to the book juxtaposes these speeches alongside set bureaucratic texts obtained through access to information requests for comparison.

Some passages read like a lampoon of parliamentary ineptitude – except that the quotations are directly from Hansard, the official record of proceedings, and the stories are true.

Rempel lambastes Question Period, or what he calls “the daily farce,” in which opposition parties craft political (rather than substantive) “humdinger” soundbytes for television purposes, while cabinet ministers reply with spontaneous, dismissive one-liners that are frequently non-sequiturs. Because Rempel took part regularly in “QP prep,” he knows of what he speaks.

However, Rempel’s traditional “realpolitik” understanding of military and diplomatic influence, while effective in explaining why Canada’s importance has dramatically declined since the 1960s, prevents him from attaching any importance to Canadian NGOs’ current leading role, with Ottawa’s collusion, in United Nations machinations undermining families, the relationship between parents and children, the right to life, and basic morality in general.

His only allusion to such activities is a dismissive reference to the “human security agenda,” including the International Criminal Court, which Rempel views as naive, but not sinister.

The book will, however, explain for many readers why our “emasculated” parliamentarians (Rempel’s term) fail to reflect Canadians’ interests adequately.

He identifies a “culture of subservience, patronage and punishment” that renders backbenchers spineless under the prime minister’s whips. He calls for greater policy expertise and bigger resources for opposition members and staff. He explains why the committee system fails and calls for more democracy and accountability.

Rempel admits that democratization might have little impact on pro-life issues if too few voters are animated by the right to life. “If you actually had referenda or MP recall,” he told The Interim, “you still might not be able to change (the abortion status quo).”

But one thing is certain, he says. “Under the present system, it will never change, as long as left-of-centre elites control Parliament, the courts and every other institution that influences the debate – and that includes the churches.”