11 January 2010

The Politics of Prorogation

In the past year, prorogation has entered into the Canadian political lexicon in a big way. It is a tool that hasn't been infrequently used throughout Canadian history but it has never been used as often or with as much of a self-serving political purpose as it has been by the current Prime Minister, Stephen Harper.
He invoked it at the end of 2008 to stave off the ill-begotten "coalition" that was formed by the Dion-led Liberals, the NDP, and the Bloc Quebecois - the move certainly saved his political skin, as even though many Canadians were outraged at the perceived "coup" or "attempted subversion of our democracy" the numbers were there to remove the Conservatives and establish Stephane Dion as the Prime Minister of Canada. Never mind that there is nothing at all in the Constitution to prevent a coalition government from taking office after it has established non-confidence in the existing government. In order to preserve his leadership, Harper shut down Parliament and staved off the vote that would have ended his time as Prime Minister.
While the heady days of December 2008 will be fodder for debate for years to come--personally, the idea of Prime Minister Dion and Lieutenant Jack is enough to still send a shiver down my spine--what happened in December 2009 was purely unacceptable and a legitimate affront to our parliamentary democracy. The Prime Minister didn't like where the public discussion was going with regards to Afghan detainee torture, the environment, and the economy so he simply shut down the venue. While the New Jersey Devils were able to turn the lights back on after only 48 hours and continue to lose their confrontation, Parliament will not re-open until March, giving Harper two months to avoid facing the problems that his government has created and ought to be held accountable for. Committees are shut down, there will be no Question Period to grill the government on its actions, and the work of government will now be the sole purview of the PMO.

What does all of this mean?
First, it means that all the talk about "accountability" that was so valuable to the Conservatives in the 2006 election has been demonstrated to be just that: talk. For two years in a row now, when tough questions have been asked and answers demanded, this government has attempted to sweep everything under the rug and hope the problem simply goes away. It worked last year, after all. If Irwin Cotler and Michael Ignatieff can't stand up on the floor of the House of Commons to ask why Canada is jettisoning its long-standing support for human rights and long-standing condemnation of torture and instead turn a blind eye to what Afghan authorities are doing to transferred Taliban prisoners, how can the government be held accountable? If the opposition cannot ask why Canada chose a path of obstruction and obfuscation at Copenhagen, how are Canadians to know why their government insists on holding us back from being active participants in finding a solution to a global problem? If John McCallum and other respected economists cannot press Jim Flaherty on job losses, an ever-increasing deficit, and the poor decision-making processes that resulted in our economy being weaker than it should be, how do we get that information to make educated choices about our portfolios and voting preferences?
Second, the practice of proroguing Parliament has now become a tool to be used at a whim. The precedent has been established that if government faces unpleasant and uncomfortable questions in Parliament, it can simply shut down the Parliament and thus avoid those questions. Yes, the opposition parties can continue to rail against these policies in the media through television, Facebook, media releases, and elsewhere but these means are nowhere near as effective as they are when they take place in the hallowed halls of the House of Commons or in a committee. This is where the work of Canada is done, and the excuse that Canada shouldn't work while Vancouver is full of play doesn't hold water. Canadians need only look at how tirelessly the American Congress has been working in recent weeks to finally approve a comprehensive health care reform bill to see how weak and pathetic our own elected chamber has become. What excuse will be used next and meekly accepted by the Canadian public? The Stanley Cup Playoffs? Canadians love their hockey and don't have time for politics! Stephen Harper has often been referred to as a "bully" by his critics - it appears as though he is now content to behave like the proverbial bully does when people stand up to him.

There is an old adage: Democracy is the political system by which the people get the government they deserve, rather than the one they may need. The people of Canada voted for this--twice. The anger Canadians felt towards the Paul Martin-led Liberals in 2006 and their extreme hesitancy vis-a-vis Stephane Dion in 2008 left them to hold their nose and vote for Stephen Harper. Some did so enthusiastically, sure, but on a large scale we are now reaping what we've sown and are seeing the negative traits that we've always known he's had manifesting themselves in ways that are increasingly dangerous to our democracy. Hopefully the swelling of anti-prorogation sentiment will be a clarion call to Canadians that they not only need a better government, they deserve it too.


C.K. said...

You're right, we are reaping what we've sown, or in the case of those who voted for someone other than Harper, they're reaping what others have sown, which really sucks.

The Canadian performance at Copenhagen was like a sick joke, we're far from out of the woods as far as the econmy is concerned, and we desperately need to uncover the truth on the Afghan detainee issue. I hope people come out to the demonstrations on the twenty-third in droves.

No power without accountability!

Allen said...

I agree with those who say we need mandatory voting in this country. I agree with Andrew Coyne when he said on The National's "At Issue" Panel that "we impose very few requirements" on our citizenry. "Sit on juries, obey the law, and pay your taxes."

However, at present, it is unlikely that it will become law, for the simple fact that the Conservatives don't want it because their machine can't deliver the votes necessary to result in even a Minority Government under this system; the Liberals were content, until 2004's legislative changes, to use their powerful machine to deliver votes and money (and, more often than not, Majority Governments) and don't seem to have cottoned on to this being a necessary change; and the Bloc, New Democrats, and Greens will never reach power to enact these changes.

In April 1998, at the Forum For Young Canadians, I had the opportunity to hear a speech by the then-Chief Electoral Officer, Jean-Pierre Kingsley. During the question-and-answer session, one girl asked about mandatory voting. Mr. Kingsley's response was that he didn't believe in mandatory voting, as it was every one's right to decide for themselves whether or not they want to cast a vote. However, he went on to say that he believed if voter-participation numbers continued to decline, he was prepared to go to Parliament and recommend that mandatory voting be added to the Canada Elections Act.

I think it's time we did that.

RGM said...

I know that I'm not up to much that particular Saturday, CK!

Al, I really do often find myself wondering what happened to being a citizen in this country. There was a time when our politicians referred to us as such; now, we are merely "taxpayers." When you think about it, there are two very different connotations to the word with regards to the level of political involvement expected of the people. They ask very little of us, and we get it, and that works both ways, which seems to be just fine for this government and its agenda.
I think the idea of compelling people to vote under threat of a fine of (to use the Australian example $20-$70 isn't the best way to motivate people to make the required transformation from taxpayer to citizen. They may walk in the door and just scratch off the first box they see in order to be done with it. My hope, and likely a baseless one, is that people will realize that voting is a very special privelige as well as a right that can be taken away from us. I'm not a subscriber to theory of democracy as fragile flower, but just as easily as democracy can advance in the world, so too can it regress. You and I were talking a week or so ago about how a certain Western European Republic happily voted away all of its rights - a small but highly motivated minority is all that it takes to triumps over a disinterested majority.