By suspending Parliament on December 30, 2009, the second December in a row, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was hoping to get some breathing space away from the glare of the House of Commons where his minority government’s every move has been scrutinized.
But it hasn’t exactly been a restful time. Harper’s decision to suspend the parliamentary session has been highly criticized by opposition parties and political observers alike. It has even earned him a strong rebuke in The Economist, which called the prime minister’s reasons to prorogue unconvincing.
Parliament was set to return on January 25 but will now resume on March 3. The first order of business will be the customary Throne speech to open the session, and will outline the Conservative government’s main priorities. Next up, a new deficit-fighting budget. The hope, observers say, is that the firestorm over the calls by a House of Commons parliamentary committee to establish an inquiry into the so-called Afghan detainee affair will have lost steam. Allegations that the government knew that Afghan prisoners transferred by Canadian soldiers were being abused in Afghan jails have proven embarrassing.
In a wide-ranging interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), the Prime Minister dismissed his critics. He described his decision as a “routine” prorogation that was necessary to “recalibrate the government’s agenda” in order to focus on the economy. He even hinted in a later interview that prorogation could become a regular annual occurrence, noting that two- to three-year sessions were a bad idea.
Under attack, Harper was quick to point out that the parliamentary session has been suspended 105 times since Confederation in 1867.
Harper’s harshest critics say his move to stop the work of Parliament was undemocratic. But the prime minister’s prerogative to prorogue Parliament is not at issue, experts say.
Democracy is “elastic,” says Nelson Wiseman, a political scientist with the
At issue is this notion of a “routine” prorogation which sets a dangerous precedence.
Prorogation is usually used when the government has implemented most of its legislative agenda and wants to set a new tone. This was not the case: 36 bills were still making their way through the legislative process.
Harper saw an opportunity to end the parliamentary session, Wiseman says, and he went ahead because he “thinks he can get away with it.”
“It’s technically and constitutionally right to do this but from the point of view of a constitutional purist, it’s a cause of great concern,” adds David Mitchell, head of the Public Policy Forum. “It raises the issue of whether Parliament matters to Canadians...”
Mitchell says it’s not typical to prorogue for lengthy periods of time, and to he sees the progressive erosion of the authority of Parliament as a disturbing trend. Previous Liberal governments and Conservative governments had Members of Parliament (MPs) sit in the House for longer periods.
Harper’s decision to prorogue Parliament in December 2008 was more justified, experts say, because there was a perceived constitutional crisis. Harper feared his minority government would be defeated on a non-confidence vote in the House of Commons. The prorogation provided a much-needed cooling-off period. Harper was able to govern for a year before suspending the session on December 30; this time for reasons that are murky at best.
But Harper’s supporters feel the prime minister doesn’t have “to account for his reasons.” Tom Flanagan, his former chief of staff, now a political scientist professor at the
“He’s not shutting down Parliament,...it’s a delay of 22 days,” says Flanagan.
But by Harper’s own admission, he wants to fill five Senate seats with Conservative nominations in order to pass his crime legislation unamended.
That supposes that the opposition parties will agree to bring back the bills that died when the session was prorogued. But the opposition is in no mood to compromise.
Quebec Conservative MP Steven Blaney says Harper’s decision to prorogue is a “good management principle.” It will allow government to focus on the economy and give MPs more time with their constituents. The government is not ready to abandon its legislative agenda, he adds, but is counting on a Conservative-dominated Senate to pass its bills intact.
Clearly, “the competent tactician with a ruthless streak,” as The Economist put it, wants to bask in the glory of the February 12 Vancouver Winter Olympics and clean up its image after a less than stellar performance at the climate change talks in Copenhagen.
When you look at the bigger picture, that tactics take over ideology.
Harper was elected on the promise of bringing accountability to government. Indeed, one of his first acts as prime minister was to bring in the Accountability Act. After passing a fixed-term elections bill, he ignored his own law, dissolved Parliament and set an October 14 election date in 2008. A proponent of fiscal management, Harper now has to tackle the largest deficit in Canadian history. His crime bills—deemed urgent—have now fallen by the wayside.
It remains to be seen whether Harper’s prorogation tactics have backfired. At least one early poll suggests the Conservatives’ support has dropped. But the Harper minority government is banking that it will be a temporary setback.
*Huguette Young is an AmericasQuarterly.org contributing blogger based in