Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Harper paying a price for shutting down Parliament

Stephen Harper has been widely thrashed for shutting down Parliament. Here's why you should be mad too.

Prorogation, it's called. MPs were scheduled to be sitting now. There were 36 bills, including crime bills the Conservatives had said were essential for public safety, waiting to be passed. They're dead now and will have to start their path through Parliament and the Senate at square one.

MPs had questions about the Afghan detainee issue, the economy and jobs, deficits, climate change, airport security. Those are all silenced.

It's convenient to get rid of elected oversight if you're the head of the party in power.

It's also undemocratic.

Harper didn't defend the decision when it was announced. His communications manager said the Conservatives wanted time think about the economy and watch the Olympics. They apparently could not do those things while doing their main job. (That's kind of disappointing, since MPs just got a raise taking their base pay to $158,000.)

Anyway, it's common practice, say the Conservatives. Which is not really true, as we'll say.

Some of the sharpest criticism came from The Economist, a London-based global newsmagazine for smart people. Its editorial position has much in common with Harper's platform - support for free markets, globalization and private enterprise. (Though it is also socially progressive, seeing no conflict between the two positions.)

An editorial in the weekly suggested Harper must think his cabinet ministers too dim to cope with the business of Parliament and watching the Olympics.

And it rejected the claim that past prime ministers had frequently done the same thing. "In almost every case, they did so only once the government had got through the bulk of its legislative business," the editorial noted. Past prorogations were brief; this time Parliament will be shut down for more than two months.

The shutdown shields the government from democratic scrutiny and looks like "naked self-interest," The Economist wrote. Canadians might soon decide their government is not in good hands, the editorial concluded.

A group of more than 150 Canadian academics with "expertise in the principles of democracy." also weighed in.

They noted our system rests on a responsible government overseen by an elected opposition.

Harper was undermining democracy for partisan gain, they wrote. If the Conservatives a break, they could have adjourned the session until a later date, the academics added. Parliamentary committees would have then kept working and the bills wouldn't have died.

So why not adjournment, if the government needed to "recalibrate"?

Despite the bluster and attack tactics, the Harper Conservatives were facing tough questions on the treatment of Afghan detainees. The issue was not the actions of Canadian troops, who were doing their job. The focus was on whether the government failed to take reasonable measures to ensure prisoners handed over to the Afghans weren't tortured. And, as critically, whether the government had been honest with Canadians.

And adjournment would not have triggered the appointment of five senators to fill vacant seats; that can only happen when Parliament is prorogued. Appointing five loyalists would mean Conservatives would outnumber Liberals in the Senate. (Though not hold a majority.)

That's on top of the questions about Canada's role in the Copenhagen climate talks, joblessness and the claim that the budget can be balanced without tax increases or deep spending cuts.

It might not have seemed much of a gamble for the Harper tacticians, who could have concluded Canadians don't pay much attention to Parliament and how democracy does - or doesn't - work.

But an Ekos Research poll found a majority of Canadians were aware of the decision to prorogue Parliament and 58 per cent were opposed. Opposition was strongest outside the prairie provinces; undecided voters also disapproved.

For the latter group, the action raises the kind of questions Harper should not have wanted in the forefront in what could be an election year.

For example, if the Conservatives don't accept democratic oversight now, what would they do with a majority?

Footnote: The decision looks much like a blunder. Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, who was floundering badly, has seized the issue and, helped by the Conservatives' lame rationale for shutting down Parliament, captured some positive attention.


Ed Seedhouse said...

If the Governor General will prorogue parliament for a month for Harper's convenience, what's to stop a longer one, say a full year?

Since Harper thinks that parliament in session leads to economic instability, why not just govern without parliament? Wouldn't that lead to a more stable economy? Wouldn't that be "better" for Canada?

Canadians, who gave no party a majority for, presumably, a reason, should be profoundly insulted by Harper's suggestion that this parliament in session leads to "instability". That is a stunningly anti democratic belief which Canadians should not allow in a democratic system.

BC Mary said...

Apparently that dreadful man who tutored Stephen Harper in these dreadful ways, has also been shocked at the monster he has created.

Saw him (Tom Flanagan) last evening saying it was ridiculous.

Seems like these ex-Reformers have to drive the bus right into the side of the mountain before they know how to stop their wild ways.