Democracy at a whim

Peter
Peter Jackson
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Every now and then, you come across something that makes you say, "Darn, I wish I'd written that."

And then there are times you say - for similar reason - "I'm glad they wrote that."

Every now and then, you come across something that makes you say, "Darn, I wish I'd written that."

And then there are times you say - for similar reason - "I'm glad they wrote that."

Such was the case with a merry little post-Christmas screed in that most stiff-upper-lipped bastion of conservatism, The Economist.

On Jan. 7, under a category condescendingly titled "The Americas," the magazine ran an editorial about Prime Minister Stephen Harper's prorogation of the Canadian Parliament.

As many news outlets reported - and echoed editorially - last week, The Economist piece is a stinging criticism of how Harper basically sabotaged the parliamentary system to shut down scrutiny during a rough patch.

Even the Calgary Herald in Harper's own riding called it "a cynical political play." And since the Economist editorial appeared, polls have registered a downward jolt for the Conservatives.

There are so many aspects of Harper's manoeuvre that ooze cynicism. It was announced Dec. 30, when Canadians had just received news of five deaths in Afghanistan, and when hockey fans were focused on their just-announced Olympic team.

It's a chance for the party to re-energize and re-focus its agenda, Harper told CBC's Peter Mansbridge a few days later.

This, despite the fact that it shuts down all debate, snuffs out the Conservatives' own flagship crime legislation and disperses all parliamentary committees, including the one that's scrutinizing what the government knew about the treatment of prisoners in Afghanistan.

It's just a "routine" procedure, Harper went on.

Routine? When he did it the last time - only a year ago - few had even heard the word before. Everyone was speculating about what's supposed to happen. Researchers dug up historical cases to see what it was all about. International news outlets watched the curious unfolding of monarchic ritual. Even Gov. Gen. MichaËlle Jean must have felt like she was breaking new ground. Will she allow it, or won't she? Only her constitutional adviser knows for sure.

Prorogation has happened before, but not under the circumstances Harper has chosen to invoke it - twice since 2008.

In the first case, he was on the verge of being toppled by a coalition. In the current case, his government was facing continued pressure about its role in the torture of Afghan detainees.

"Mr. Harper has now established a precedent that many constitutionalists consider dangerous," warned The Economist.

"The danger in allowing the prime minister to end discussion any time he chooses is that it makes Parliament accountable to him rather than the other way around."

To make things worse, Harper is now busily stuffing the Senate with more partisan foot soldiers, an act he would have equated with political bankruptcy before coming to power.

One can have petty or partisan issues with Harper and his Conservatives, but there is much more at stake than just the legacy of one man or one administration. Canadians' respect for and faith in the country's political underpinnings are being challenged.

Harper's 2004 vows of leadership and accountability have all but evaporated in a steady stream of media avoidance, underhanded political tactics and misleading advertising. Prorogation is only the latest - and perhaps most glaring - disappointment in a litany of betrayal.

The Economist says much will depend on whether the groundswell of discontent can be sustained until March. Protest rallies are planned across Canada on Jan. 23, including in St. John's, but it will take more than placards to effect change.

"Mr. Harper is doubtless counting on the Winter Olympics to reinforce Canadians' familiar political complacency," it wrote.

"But he has given the opposition, which is divided and fumbling, an opportunity. It is now up to it to show that Canada cannot afford a part-time Parliament that sits only at the prime minister's pleasure."

Peter Jackson is The Telegram's commentary editor. He can be contacted by e-mail at pjackson@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: Conservatives, Canadian Parliament, Calgary Herald CBC

Geographic location: Afghanistan, Americas, Canada St. John's

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Recent comments

  • Jay
    July 02, 2010 - 13:32

    I like how everyone forgets the federal Liberals did it too. Twice. For exactly the same reasons, to avoid the release of embarrassing information. Mr. Jackson reveals his anti-Conservative leanings in this one.

  • Taxpayer ll
    July 02, 2010 - 13:10

    Sure Harper is what he is, but what's the alternative. The country has been looking towards the Liberals now for years now in hopes they would have someone for us to vote in, but alas the federal Liberals keep appointing boobs to lead their party. The country is there for the taking, yet the Liberals can't come up with anyone to lead them to victory. Says a lot about the Liberal party in Canada.

  • Jay
    July 01, 2010 - 20:21

    I like how everyone forgets the federal Liberals did it too. Twice. For exactly the same reasons, to avoid the release of embarrassing information. Mr. Jackson reveals his anti-Conservative leanings in this one.

  • Taxpayer ll
    July 01, 2010 - 19:46

    Sure Harper is what he is, but what's the alternative. The country has been looking towards the Liberals now for years now in hopes they would have someone for us to vote in, but alas the federal Liberals keep appointing boobs to lead their party. The country is there for the taking, yet the Liberals can't come up with anyone to lead them to victory. Says a lot about the Liberal party in Canada.