Wed, Dec
30
2009

The Real Canadian Coup d'Etat

Harper Prorogues

Today, sources within the Prime Minister’s Office announced that Prime Minister Stephen Harper was going to ask Governor General Michaelle Jean to prorogue parliament, suspending its sittings from now until March. The move would kill several pieces of legislation that Harper himself called critical; they would have to be reintroduced in March. In return, the move would allow him to restructure various senate committees to reflect the new Conservative majority he expects to appoint to the senate next month. It would also theoretically stop the work of various house committees, including those investigating what the government knew about the transfer of Afghan detainees in possible contravention of the Geneva Convention.

It’s important to note that, if the composition of the senate committees were really his issue, Harper could resolve this problem far earlier than March. He could, in fact, prorogue parliament in one day. Shut it down, appoint his senators, restart, and issue a new throne speech. That he isn’t doing this; that parliament is to be out of session for two whole months, is a telling statement of what it is he truly wants to avoid.

The title of this post is hyperbole. However, it is the exact language used last year by Conservative supporters when the three opposition parties reached an accord to vote to defeat the minority government, and replace it with a working coalition by parties that had together collected over 62% of the vote. Conservative supporters, displaying a shocking lack of knowledge for or disrespect of our constitution, our history and parliamentary tradition, used this phraseology with impunity, along with other words like ‘treason’ and ‘traitor’, even though the coalition was not illegal, and indeed was a proper expression of democracy by members of parliament, elected by popular vote within their ridings, who held the majority of seats of parliament. But that fact meant little to Conservative officials in their war of words.

Here, now, we have a prime minister who seeks to suspend the work of parliament — not, as it could have been argued last year, to establish a seven week cooling period before facing the prospect of changing a government in the middle of an economic crisis, but to thwart the work of various committees asking questions in the name of accountability. This is a prime minister who has defied the principle of parliamentary supremacy, ignoring a direct order by vote of parliament to turn over uncensored documents to a parliamentary committee for investigation, in order to save his own political skin. Whatever high ideals the move to suspend parliament last year might have had, they’re not present here. The move is nakedly political, and shames our democracy.

Why should we care? Well, Conservative supporters should care because every action taken here justifies any future excesses taken by a Liberal government. Jean Chretien prorogued parliament four times during his thirteen years in office; not one of those times was this done to avoid a no-confidence motion or to restructure senate committees. Even so, his action was seen as an arrogant dismissal of the work of parliamentarians in a parliament that did not sit long enough to do the work of the people.

That Paul Martin even thought of proroguing parliament to try and avoid the no-confidence motion that was going to bring him down was rightly seen as the affront to democracy that it was. In four years, Stephen Harper has prorogued parliament in a pace that makes Chretien look relaxed. If any Liberal in the future tried to suspend parliament indefinitely, to avoid accountability, or defeat within a minority parliament, the Conservatives would have no moral high ground on which to object. Indeed, Stephen Harper would have been the one to set the precedent for such appalling behaviour.

Step by step, this prime minister who campaigned on establishing a new era of transparency and accountability, has sought to strip away the very checks and balances he promised to reinforce. If Canadians are cynical about their political institutions, it’s because political accountability has been removed by successive Liberal and Conservative governments, and we should care about the actions taken here because Stephen Harper clearly wants to make the situation worse, not better.

In the end, I expect that parliament will be prorogued. As much as I would like Governor General Michaelle Jean to refuse Harper’s request, I can appreciate that, traditionally, her hands are tied. There is no precedent, since Lord Byng, for a Governor General to refuse a direct request by a sitting prime minister. It’s out of her hands, but it’s not out of the opposition’s hands, who are just as much representatives of the people as the government is. Stephen Harper wants the opposition members to go home, stop asking questions, and stop doing the work of parliament. They don’t have to.

Andrew Coyne, no Liberal shill, takes this idea and runs with it. The opposition parties would do well to follow his advice:

what will Parliament do now? If historical precedent is any guide, it should meet anyway. Let those MPs who wish to do the people’s business convene on the usual timetable, and let those with other loyalties) disport themselves as they may.

If MPs are barred at the doors to Parliament — and wouldn’t that be an interesting scene — let them meet somewhere else. A tennis court would do nicely.

Mr. Ignatieff, this is your moment. You either step up, or you let the prime minister walk all over you. And if you do the latter, and Mr. Harper gets away with his anti-democratic acts, ultimately, you will have no one to blame but yourself.


Further Reading

Counterpoint

  • Stephen Taylor, co-founder of the Blogging Tories: “The case for prorogation is constitutional.The case against it is political.”. I have to say that Stephen’s argument mostly comes down to: “we do this because we can, and Canadians don’t care enough to stop it,” which, I have to say leaves the cynicism of this move quite plain. Stephen Taylor has essentially agreed that the move is nakedly political, and while from a pragmatic point of view, this might be valid, Stephen should be aware that he has surrendered every right he had to criticize future Liberal governments should they choose to act the same way, or worse.

P.S. Stephen: the case for the coalition last year was at least as constitutional as the so-called case for prorogation, here. Indeed, at the time, the opposition parties didn’t taint the process with a potentially unconstitutional move as Stephen Harper has done here, by defying an order of parliament ahead of proroguing it.


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