The trend toward "routine" annual parliamentary resets will prove hard to resist for whichever party ends up in power after the next election.
By Ryan McGreal
Published January 05, 2010
Shame on Stephen Harper, the Prime Minister of Canada, for once again sidelining parliamentary democracy in the interest of raw partisan political expedience.
Almost exactly a year ago, just weeks after an election that granted the Conservative Party a large minority of seats in the House of Commons, Harper prorogued Parliament for a month to avoid facing a motion of non-confidence by a coalition of two opposition parties supported by the third.
He had lost the confidence of the House after delivering a mini-budget update as a confidence motion in which he proposed to eliminate the public, per-vote funding of political parties, a move that would hurt the donation-starved Liberals much more than it would hurt the Conservatives.
When the opposition parties announced that they would introduce a motion of non-confidence and ask Governor General Michaëlle Jean for a chance to form a coalition government supported for 18 months by the Bloc Quebecois, Harper in turn asked Jean for permission to formally end the two-week-old parliamentary session and start a new session on January 26, at which time his party would table a full budget.
Incredibly, Jean agreed to this despite the fact that Harper had lost the confidence of the House, his Government had barely started its business - let alone concluding it, and another Member had the confidence of a majority of MPs to replace Harper as Prime Minister.
Harper took this opportunity to assail the Coalition with false accusations of illegitimacy. He attacked the Liberals for taking up with "socialists and separatists" and called the Coalition a "coup" in the making.
By the time the new parliamentary session began in late January, the Liberal Party had replaced lame-duck leader Stéphane Dion with Michael Ignatieff and cooled its enthusiasm for a coalition with the NDP, swayed in part by the relentless assault of the Conservative Party's democratic disinformation campaign.
After last December's prorogue, observers worried that this would create a precedent of allowing a Prime Minister to play a Get Out Of Jail card to avoid facing the House of Commons. Exactly a year later, we see the same Prime Minister abusing the same de facto power in essentially the same way.
Prorogation concludes a parliamentary session and provides a break before the start of a new session. It does not dissolve parliament itself but clears out any unfinished parliamentary business - bills, committees, investigations - so that the new parliamentary session that begins after the recess starts fresh.
Traditionally, the Prime Minister will request a short prorogue after the government has completed its legislative agenda so MPs can take care of constituency business and the government can develop its next parliamentary agenda.
Harper claims he called this year's prorogue to talk to Canadians about the economy in advance of tabling this year's budget. This is plausible enough, but it ignores the myriad of ways this prorogation unshackles his government from accountability to the House of Commons.
In particular, the prorogation disbands the parliamentary committee into what the government knew about the torture of Afghani detainees and when, an investigation that was proving highly embarrassing for the government after revelations by a senior diplomat that Canada knowingly handed detainees over to be tortured.
In the meantime, Harper avoids having to face Question Period during a period of international press coverage in Canada.
More important, he has a free hand to appoint partisans to the Senate and achieve a majority in Senate committees to smooth the passage of Conservative legislation - including a likely re-introduction of last year's controversial tough-on-crime drug law.
Shame also on Michael Ignatieff and the Liberal Party, that gang of incompetent opportunists pretending to a grand tradition of principled liberalism. It was under Ignatieff that the Liberals distanced themselves from the Coalition, then granted themselves a way out of their promise to topple Harper's government, and finally capitulated with only a lame demand that Harper agree to report periodically to Parliament on how the budget worked out.
This is rather like demanding that a book have pages, or that the sun must rise tomorrow. It's already Harper's responsibility to report periodically to Parliament.
Ultimately, Harper's seizure of additional executive powers to his own office is simply a continuation of a thirty year concentration of power under the PMO that started under Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and continued unabated under Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien.
This newest trend toward "routine" annual parliamentary resets will prove hard to resist for whichever party ends up in power after the next election.
Shame particularly on Michaëlle Jean, the Governor General of Canada who twice confirmed the irrelevance of her office by failing and failing again to hold the Prime Minister accountable to the House of Commons.
The Governor General is an important, if usually symbolic, part of Canada's system of parliamentary democracy. As the official representative of the head of state, the GG is responsible to ensure that the affairs of state are conducted in a constitutional manner.
This includes ensuring that the government - the appointed Prime Minister and his appointed Cabinet - retains the confidence of the elected House of Commons.
Instead she allowed him to thwart the very institution that exists to ensure he maintains the confidence of the elected House.
There is no precedent in Canadian or even Commonwealth history of a head of state agreeing to allow a Prime Minister to prorogue parliament to avoid a motion of non-confidence.
In granting this corrosive power to Harper, Jean has failed the most important constitutional role of her office and should step down immediately.
Finally, shame on the Canadian people for not understanding the most basic mechanisms of Canadian parliamentary democracy. During the course of the 2008 crisis, some two-thirds of Canadians either believed that the Coalition of the Liberal Party and NDP supported by the Bloc Quebecois was unconstitutional or else did not know what to believe.
The Conservative Party, of course, buried the country in misinformation and slanderous weasel words - amplified and broadcast by such luminaries as the editors of the National Post and subsequently diffused into more common use - to confuse and befuddle us into accepting their dishonest, unconstitutional gambit to hold onto power.
But there's no excuse for two-thirds of Canadians not to understand how our own governmental system works. Shame on us for failing in our duties as the citizens of a democracy.
In our indifference to the crippling of the most basic democratic controls in our country, we cede the executive control of our own country to scoundrels and megalomaniacs.
In federal elections, voters elect the House of Commons - a group of 308 elected representatives from every constituency in the country.
The MPs appoint a Prime Minister (usually but not necessarily selected from the House of Commons) who can claim the confidence of the House of Commons.
The Prime Minister in turn appoints a Cabinet of Ministers (usually but not necessarily selected from the House of Commons) who oversee the various federal portfolios and who collectively determine the government's legislative policies.
The Prime Minister and Cabinet together comprise the Government. The government must regularly face the the elected House of Commons in confidence votes to demonstrate that it still maintains the confidence of the elected House of Commons.
This is the most fundamental democratic accountability in parliamentary democracy: the accountability of the appointed government to the elected Members of Parliament.
Normally, the Prime Minister is the leader of the political party with the largest number of MPs in membership. If one party controls more than 50 percent of the seats in the House, that party can form a straightforward majority government, and its leader can safely count on the ongoing confidence of the House.
However, if the Prime Minister's party has less than half the seats - normally called a minority government - the only way the Prime Minister can maintain the confidence of the House is to persuade enough opposition Members to vote along with the Government to form a majority of votes.
This requires a minority Prime Minister to satisfy the demands of the opposition parties on confidence matters. It also means that minority governments are less stable and long-lasting than majority governments.
In the case where a Prime Minister loses the confidence of the House of Commons, the Governor General has the option either to dissolve Parliament and call a general election or to dismiss the Prime Minister and offer someone else an opportunity to gain the confidence of the House and form a new government.
Traditionally, if a government falls in a vote of non-confidence shortly after an election and someone else has a credible claim to the confidence of the House, the Governor General will allow that person an opportunity to form a more stable government before dissolving parliament and forcing another election.
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