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Parliament Prorogued

Thursday, December 4th, 2008

Whither Parliament?

In a gesture that thumbs his disdain for institutions of democracy, Stephen Harper has convinced the Governor General to prorogue Parliament. On a scale of zero to ten referring to corwardice, this is a ten.

Not since the imposition of the War Measures Act by Pierre Trudeau in 1970 have Canadians seen such a brazen anti-democratic move on the part of the prime minister. In his day, such a move was seen to be contemptuous of Parliament as Trudeau moved single-handedly to control the levers of government. While Parliament still sat during that time, it was powerless.

In the opinion of many in his day, Trudeau had overstepped his reach to apprehend an insurrection in Quebec but his move was to take drastic measures against a violent terrorist group that was threatening to destabalize the largest economy and population base in the country. 

But at least there really was a violent uprising taking place in Canada’s largest city. Stephen Harper, on the other hand, has taken an equally strong measure- to have Parliament suspended for no reason except to save his own political skin.

There has been no threat to the democratic institutions of the country. Indeed, it is democracy in action: the opposition has finally come together, after being provoked for two and half years, to defeat the government. The rage and fury came so suddenly that Harper simply didn’t see this coming. In reaction, he has acted in a typically Harper fashion, thumbing respect for alternative views and traditions refused to listen and negotiate and demand that the parliamentary sandbox be closed for seven weeks.

In these next seven weeks, Harper thinks he’s going to find a way to weaken the opposition coalition. He thinks that he is going to find a way to get the opposition parties to agree to his new budget. Good luck. Harper has shown his utter contempt for Parliament, for the other parties, and for the plurality that our Parliament represents. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander: Harper is going to get nothing out of them.

The Governor General was in an impossible situation but given the constitutional precedent both in Canada as well in Australia, her choice was probably the most logical. Conflicts resulting in final arbitration by Governors General have taken place in the past and it is clear that to change as little as possible is the best alternative. To fire a prime minister and government unwilling to go and to invite a weak coalition to govern in its place would be seen as inappropriately interventionist. To dissolve parliament and call for new elections would have been even more so.

But the onus is on Stephen Harper and why he made this request of the Governor General to prorogue or suspend Parliament. Who has provoked the opposition for several years? Who, when the other parties are vulnerable to funding, proposed to close the tap at this most critical moment? Harper’s blatant move to hamstring the opposition whose job it is to keep the government honest by cutting off their funding in a bogus economic statement, was stunningly bad political judgement and contemptuous beyond measure.

So what is to happen now? Well, we should all simply stop and take a breath. We are Canadian, after all. Are we looking at the first step of a Chilean Pinochet-like take over? There’s no Conservative party organization intimidating people in the streets. How about similarities to the end of the Weimar Republic? Again, there’s no Conservative apparatus ready to take over the institutions of State. This is Canada. We will have our Parliament back. And it will re-assert itself to the doubt of no one.

Don’t forget that Brian Mulroney forced the GST bill through the Senate by invoking a very, very dusty and unknown clause that allowed for the Senate to be ‘stuffed’ by extra members.That too was an anti-parliamentarian move but once the GST was passed we all got on with our lives and the Senate survived. Yes, we still have the GST but those extra members retired and the Senate’s normal membership is once again 105.

And Pierre Trudeau’s War Measures Act was repealed and Canada returned to its old self shortly thereafter.

But we cannot trust that the checks and balances we take for granted will work for the time being. We cannot trust Harper will act like a benevolent dictator when his history as prime minister has shown him to be anything but benevolent. We must be vigilant, to ensure that Ottawa does not become a dictatoriat. No decision can be made that spends money. No decision can be made that extends Canada’s influence into the world. We must do what we can to ensure that Stephen Harper, a dictator for the time being if in name only, manages to accomplish very, very little.

Once Parliament resumes on January 26th with a budget to follow, do not be surprised to find that the government is defeated the following day anyway. The coalition government will have its day for a short while before the Governor General is forced to dissolve this Parliament and Canadians will once again go to the polls- and if one were to lay a bet on the timing, that would be in the middle of November, 2009.

Harper will not be able, as William Lyon Mackenzie King did in 1926, to argue that the Governor General became embroiled in partisan politics to win that election: his cowardly advice to prorogue Parliament was accepted as the first action. The second action will be to accept the coalition. The final act will be to return to the voters.

In the next year we will see much change. A new Liberal leader and quite possibly a new Conservative leader- for if there were ever a moment in time for the more progressive wing of the Conservative party to make its move, it would be now. The Bloc and the NDP will still be there- as ever, but nonetheless we are finally seeing the beginning of the end of the impasse between the leading parties in Ottawa that has plagued our politics for almost half a decade.

As an afterthought, to provide some balance in her decision, the Governor General should order a stop to the Conservative’s extra-parliamentary advertising deriding the opposition at this time too. Parliament is her council as much as it is Canada’s official forum for political discourse and allowing Harper to close down the only forum the opposition has to denounce this unprecedented move but allow him to continue to undermine Parliament in partisan ads is simply wrong.

As another afterthought, since the leadership of Canada is now seriously in question, it should be the Governor General, and no political officials who should go to Washington for the inauguration of the new American President. It would be disgraceful for Harper, a dictator if only in name, to make an appearance at that time.

Some might say that all this is much ado about nothing. But democracy is a fragile thing. In Parliamentary politics this is definitely the wrong direction. Stay tuned…. this is going to be quite the ride.