Sunday, January 17, 2010

Harper's Gamble is History Repeating Itself

This is an older video but with the same message. A dictator in waiting but not on our watch. Canadians have come out of their slump and we want our country back.

A tale of two prorogations
Adam Dodek,
National Post
January 15, 2010

What a difference a year makes. Back in late 2008, very few Canadians could pronounce "prorogation," let alone explain what it meant. Today, prorogation is on the tip of everyone's tongues. Stephen Harper's decision to suspend Parliament till March is the subject of public opinion polls, a growing online movement and threatened protests. Prorogation 2.0 is a very different creature from last year's version. And ironically, this Parliamentary interregnum may be just the thing to invigorate Canadian democracy by reminding us how important we hold our governmental traditions.

Last year's constitutional crisis presented a clash of competing visions of Canadian democracy. The Prime Minister and the Conservatives stressed the fact that they had won a plurality of seats in the most recent election, and called the Stephane Dion-led coalition a threatened coup d'etat. Critics, on the other hand, focused on our Parliamentary system of responsible government, whereby the leading party must obtain and maintain the confidence of a majority of elected parliamentarians.

That was Prorogation 1.0, and the PM won that round when he suspended Parliament at the height of the crisis. But at a cost. The PM's victory in Prorogation 1.0 strengthened the office of the Governor-General. Its incumbent, Michaelle Jean, made the Prime Minister stew for over two hours before granting prorogation.

We are now in the midst if Prorogation 2.0. This time, Prime Minister Harper decided not to visit Rideau Hall in person, but instead, telephoned the Governor-General. To the Facebook generation, the use of the telephone seems archaic; to their parents' generation, it seems disrespectful. But hardly as disrespectful as the manner by which this government has treated Parliament and its officers.

In Prorogation 2.0, Prime Minister Harper's winner-take-all vision of Canadian democracy is losing. Last year, people were angry about the coalition. This year, they are angry with the government for preventing MPs from working. Canadians want their representatives to be productive, and they want the opposition to hold the government to account.

Prorogation 2.0 may turn out to be a serious strategic error for the Prime Minister on two fronts.

First, if the goal of this prorogation was to avoid further embarrassment on the Afghan detainee file, prorogation might have been unnecessary. The detainee issue --or any other for that matter -- was unlikely to get much attention during the Olympics. The quest for gold in Vancouver would have trumped the quest for truth in Ottawa. By proroguing Parliament, the Prime Minister made it look like he has something to hide. He likely has only deferred his government's day of reckoning on the issue.

The second potential error is far more serious for the Prime Minister and his party. This is the miscalculation by the Prime Minister and his advisors in thinking that Canadians do not care about archaic constitutional terms such as "prorogation."

They made a similar calculation in flaunting their own misnamed fixed-election date legislation in 2008, and they were right then. Whether they are correct now is doubtful.

In 2003, another Conservative government made a similar calculation regarding another archaic constitutional convention. Former Ontario premier Ernie Eves decided to brazenly ignore centuries of constitutional tradition and have his minister of finance deliver the budget outside the Legislature. The ill-fated Magna Budget marked the beginning of the end of Eves' Conservative government.

Three senior ministers in the Prime Minister's Cabinet served in the Eves government. If Prorogation 2.0 keeps up, they may be finding themselves watching a rerun of a movie they have seen before.

I have always believed that Canadians have a strong affinity for our Constitution and our constitutional traditions. Sometimes, they have a strange way of showing it, more often demonstrating complacency than engagement. But like a jilted lover, Canadians have the ability to turn on a first minister who seems to have ignored their longstanding democratic relationship. Prorogation 2.0 may be a wake-up call for all our elected representatives not to take Canadians for granted.

(- Adam Dodek teaches public law at the University of Ottawa's faculty of law, common law section. )

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