The Harper Conservatives didn't start the demolition of Parliament, but they have taken it to a whole new level. The question facing Canadians now is whether Commons Speaker Peter Milliken's historic ruling last Tuesday is too late to save the furniture.
The ruling was powerful and unambiguous. Here's an excerpt: "In a system of responsible government, the fundamental right of the House of Commons to hold the government to account for its actions is an indisputable privilege and, in fact, an obligation...No statute or practice diminishes the fullness of the power rooted in the House privileges..."
And here's the reality — a far cry from those noble words. Canadians have had four parliamentary crises in 16 months: the December 2008 coalition non-confidence threat; the subsequent prorogation; the December 2009 prorogation; and now, the government-opposition standoff over access to Afghan detainee documents. The first three created major new precedents and built on each other to dangerously weaken Parliament's supremacy over the prime minister.
The 2008 prorogation established the right of a minority prime minister to shut Parliament to avoid defeat. That prorogation enabled the then-illegitimate minority prime minister to trump the will of the majority of MPs by unleashing a month-long nationwide media campaign of fear and loathing. The 2009 prorogation established that the same minority prime minister could close Parliament simply to avoid accountability.
The fourth crisis — whether the Harper Conservatives will obey the Speaker and compromise with the opposition over the documents — has still to unfold. The portents are not good.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper says he will comply with the Speaker's ruling if it does not break any of Canada's laws or breach national security. He has it backwards. Parliament is the supreme law of the land, not its statutes. As for national security, no less a personage than Canada's chief of defence staff, Lt. Gen.Walter Natynczyk, told CBC News last Thursday that he would have no objection whatsoever to MPs seeing the Afghan detainee papers. "Not at all, not at all," he said when asked specifically if he had "any fears of people pouring over these documents."
Nelson Wiseman teaches Canadian government and politics at the University of Toronto. Theoretically, he says, Parliament's powers are virtually unlimited. In fact, should the government continue refusing to supply the documents to MPs, the Speaker could summon the RCMP and order them to go into the offices of the prime minister and cabinet, seize the documents and bring them to Parliament.
"Parliament is all-powerful," Wiseman continued in an interview. "If Parliament wants, it can shut down its proceedings to the press, it can refuse to have its proceedings broadcast, it can expel members."
Power, however, is now concentrated in the PMO. "It's all-powerful. Policy announcements are no longer being made in Parliament but out on the hustings. Budgets are now being revealed outside. Parliament has been continually downgraded.
"(Harper) released his fiscal updates outside the House and turned them into media events, hiring outside parties to do all the staging," Wiseman said. "One event cost over $108,000. He turned them into free media for the Conservatives..."
Powerful as Milliken's language is in his landmark ruling, Wiseman fears the Liberals "are going to cave" and if they don't, the NDP will. Both are afraid of an election.
"What Harper has established, he has now been PM for four years, he has run the government as if it is a majority. It's very hard to point where Harper has had to bend on anything...He has cover on the fiscal conservative side from the Liberals...His own party is in awe of him...(In 2008) he went on television and convinced enough people and media that elections aren't about electing a Parliament, but electing a prime minister...For certain, if we have another election, he'll have another free ride."
The Harper Conservatives' ancestor is the populist Alberta-based Reform Party. It preferred presidents to Parliament. Should Harper once again intimidate Parliament, Canada will find itself metaphorically reconnecting King Charles I with his head, re-establishing, after 361 years of parliamentary democracy, the divine right of a Canadian "king."
Frances Russell is a Winnipeg author and political commentator.