Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/1/2010 (3567 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Having wrested that dangerous and anti-democratic precedent from Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean a year ago, Harper felt free this December to simply phone her to demand prorogation just to avoid the embarrassment of having to produce papers and submit to questions over the torture of Afghan detainees.
Only one other prime minister in Canadian history was granted prorogation to shut down a parliamentary inquiry. That prime minister was Sir John A. Macdonald in 1873, 137 years ago. Macdonald wanted to snuff out the shame of his government's acceptance of bribes in the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Gov. Gen. Lord Dufferin granted Macdonald a summer prorogation. When Parliament returned, Macdonald was censured and forced to resign. The opposition Liberals under Alexander Mackenzie won the subsequent election.
Conservatives are claiming a parallel in former prime minister Jean Chrétien's decision to prorogue Parliament Nov. 13, 2003, saying it also was done to avoid embarrassment from auditor general Sheila Fraser's report on the sponsorship scandal. There were other factors at play, however. The Liberals had a big majority, not a minority, the investigation was finished, not underway and Chrétien was retiring to be replaced by Paul Martin. Chrétien told reporters that when Parliament returned Jan. 13, 2004, "there will be a new cabinet and I will not be a minister."
In the 2008 constitutional crisis, pundits dubbed Canada "a banana republic with snowflakes" and the actions of the Governor General and the prime minister "our Robert Mugabe moment."
This year, the reviews are more scathing — and they and the behaviour prompting them are corroding and debasing Canada's international image. Yesterday, Harper even went so far as to claim Parliament was giving Canada an image of instability and it wasn't a bad thing that it was suspended until March.
Under the headline Parliamentary scrutiny may be tedious, but democracies cannot afford to dispense with it, the respected centre-right British magazine The Economist, noted Harper's "ruthless streak" and said his move "looks like naked self-interest." The magazine also cited other indications of Harper's cavalier attitude toward democratic practice.
"He bars most ministers from talking to the media; he has axed some independent watchdogs; he has binned campaign promises to make government more open and accountable. Now he is subjecting Parliament to prime ministerial whim."
John Ibbitson, Ottawa bureau chief for The Globe and Mail, canvassed the world's other parliamentary systems crafted on the Westminster model and concluded that "our Parliament has become the most dysfunctional in the English-speaking world, weaker and more irrelevant than the U.S. Congress or the parliaments of Britain, Australia or New Zealand."
Writing last Friday under the headline, Few countries can claim such a pathetic Parliament, Ibbitson continues: "If Britain is the mother of parliaments, her Canadian daughter is a fallen woman. Government MPs are cowed; parliamentary committees are too often irrelevant."
No other parliament would tolerate the treatment the Harperites are dealing out to Canada's. One reason is that the party systems in other Commonwealth countries give more power to individual MPs. In Australia and Britain, MPs hire and fire their party leaders; New Zealand's proportional representation electoral system forces coalition-building; and Australia's parliamentary lexicon doesn't even include the word prorogation.
While governments everywhere are determined to control the agenda, Ibbitson concludes, "at least other prime ministers haven't got it into their heads that they can shut down their legislatures on a whim."
The greatest parliamentary scandal of all is that Harper is emboldened to arrogate dictatorial power unto himself simply because he can; because his centre-left opposition is utterly and enduringly fractured and his main opponent, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, is politically inept.
Journalist and historian Paul Adams says the Liberals have not put anything in their policy window for well over a year. "It's a scandal, really. We've had no meaningful debate on the management of the economy, no meaningful debate on the environment, no meaningful debate on Afghanistan." And the Liberals have let go of an issue, adequate pensions and retirement security, they once owned, just when it is moving to the top of the political agenda.
Parliamentary prorogation arises from the mists of British history, when the sovereign enjoyed absolute power to command parliament to convene and to disburse. It's not surprising that an authoritarian like Harper, facing no real threat, feels equally entitled and empowered.
All that's missing are the ermine and purple.
Frances Russell is a Winnipeg author and political commentator.