Monday, January 11, 2010

A very unusual time in Canadian politics

Is this an unusual time in Canadian politics? Some are asking. Put me down, not surprisingly, in the "yes" column. There is much in the way of evidence. Canadians are showing their discontent with Harper's shutdown of Parliament in polls and of course, the online movement.

Then there are the subject matter experts, going on record with their own objections to Mr. Harper's latest parliamentary shutdown. For example:
Dozens of university professors from across Canada have put their names to a public letter that will condemn Prime Minister Stephen Harper for proroguing Parliament.

The letter, being sent next week to major eastern Canadian newspapers, was penned by University of Montreal philosophy professor Daniel Weinstock and, as of Friday, signed by 75 philosophy, law and political science professors. It accuses Harper of having "violated the trust of the Canadian people [and] thus acting anti-democratically."

"As Canadian university professors dedicated to educating students about the nature, value and different institutional forms of democratic governance," the letter begins, "we are deeply concerned by [Harper's] decision to use his power to prorogue Parliament for a second year in a row.

"In doing this for narrow partisan reasons the PM is not only making cavalier use of the discretionary powers entrusted to him by Parliament and the Canadian people, but these actions actually undermine our system of democratic government."
Not exactly the usual letter writing about a Prime Minister.

Today, we also see a call to strip away from the Prime Minister the powers of prorogation and dissolution: "Give the House the authority."
Mr. Harper's government is certainly not the first in Canada to shut down Parliament to escape embarrassing situations. However, the repeated abuse of prorogation within a 12-month period to avoid censure is unprecedented.

It is time to change the rules and stipulate that no prime minister can advise the prorogation or dissolution of Parliament without a vote to do so in the House of Commons. This is not as radical a suggestion as it may sound, as the British government proposed in 2007 that dissolution should only follow a vote in the Commons.

This change could be implemented informally and quickly, with the passage of a resolution in the House of Commons to the effect that the prime minister would be in contempt of Parliament to advise prorogation or dissolution without being authorized to do so by the House. Such a resolution would preserve the important personal prerogative of the governor-general to either prorogue or dissolve Parliament on her own initiative if necessary. But it would also establish the norm that our MPs should decide collectively when it is time to stop Parliament's work. The decision to shut down Parliament should be made democratically, not autocratically. (emphasis added)
The fact that discussion is beginning to turn to how we must revert to addressing some of the foundational principles of our democracy in the form of constraining the powers of a Prime Minister, that's fairly significant. Throwing dissolution into the mix, beyond prorogation, makes it all the more significant. A vote would now be required, the scenario of Harper seeking a snap election in the spring in the absence of a confidence vote would be prohibited if we were to have such a rule. The 2008 election likely would have been a no-go. No more snap elections at the whim of a Prime Minister unless Parliament agrees. Whether a majority government would ever engineer an election given fortuitous political timing, instead of hanging on for the full five years, that would seem to remain a possibility. But in a minority government situation, Canada's fate for the foreseeable future, a confidence vote would be required for dissolution.

Regarding prorogation, in minority parliaments, well, we could fairly say that it wouldn't have been permitted at the present moment when a Parliamentary order is being defied by the government. It wouldn't have been permitted last year either.

Reigning in these powers to Parliament and away from the Prime Minister would encourage greater cooperation in the parliamentary ethic as well. A Prime Minister would be deprived of their out.

It's an interesting gauntlet to be thrown out into the mix. We'll see if any parties pick it up. There is merit, at a minimum, in picking up on the prorogation prohibition, as a bold response to Harper's latest anti-democratic antic. The times they are a changing, perhaps this might be a good first step in modernizing Parliament.

Seeing widespread expert support for calling out the Prime Minister as distinctly anti-democratic? That's unusual. Discussing the stripping of powers from the Prime Minister? That's a little unusual too.