Saturday, January 16, 2010

Weekend prorogation reading

There's a must read this weekend that others are appropriately drawing attention to as well: "Only in Canada: Harper's prorogation is a Canadian thing" The report looks at other parliamentary democracies around the world on the subject of prorogation. Guess who's blazing a trail in using prorogation to avoid accountability? That would be us. And only us. An excerpt and then some comments below.
Take a look around the world.

Go searching for the last time a Westminster-style parliament was shut down to free its leaders from unwanted censure or scrutiny — and you'll end right back in Canada, where you started.

It turns out, no other English-speaking nation with a system of government like ours — not Britain, Australia or New Zealand — has ever had its parliament prorogued in modern times, so that its ruling party could avoid an investigation, or a vote of confidence, by other elected legislators.

Only three times has this happened, all in Canada — first in 1873, when Sir John A. Macdonald asked the governor general to prorogue Parliament, in order to halt a House of Commons probe into the Pacific Scandal. Lord Dufferin gave in to the demand, but when Parliament reconvened Macdonald was forced to resign.

No prime minister dared use prorogation to such effect again, until Stephen Harper convinced Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean to suspend Parliament in 2008, so the Conservatives could evade a confidence vote.

About 12 months later, he did it again. Harper claims he shut down Parliament to "recalibrate" his government, but his critics say he did so to escape the rising pressure of the Afghan-detainee affair and its investigation by a House of Commons committee.

"The Canadian Parliament is more dysfunctional than any of the other Westminster parliaments . . . in Australia, New Zealand, the U.K. and Scotland," says Robert Hazell, the director of the prestigious Constitution Unit at the University College of London. "No other parliament has been prorogued in recent times to rescue the government from a political difficulty."
It goes on from there, reinforcing how the two Harper initiated prorogations of the past year have brought our parliamentary democracy into disrepute. Ned Franks wittily refers to Harper as "King Stephen the First of Canada," to emphasize the impact. "Uncharted territory" is another term Franks applies to the developing situation, wondering about the implications of the pattern Harper has followed. Such musing is warranted given Conservative public statements about resorting to the tactic on an annual basis. The above report is a very useful read to counter the point being pushed elsewhere this weekend that what's been done is routine.

One other note, there was a minor bit of back and forth on twitter earlier this afternoon about Chretien's prorogation of Parliament in 2003 so I thought it would be worthwhile to deal with that here, in the interests of clarifying a bit and not letting the point fester. Here's how a CBC timeline references that event:
Two days before federal Auditor General Sheila Fraser is to release her report on the federal sponsorship program, Chr├ętien prorogues Parliament; his October 2002 ethics bill dies on the order paper.
You can read some back and forth between Chretien and Martin people here on that timing. Chretien maintains he would have been happy to receive the report but a transition was desired by Martin. So there is that notable context to that particular exercise of prorogation. A transition in government from one Prime Minister to another, albeit of the same party, would explain a prorogation and the need to implement a new agenda, set of priorities under a new government.

In any event, the Chretien example doesn't detract at all from the present egregious examples. That prorogation didn't "avoid an investigation" or a vote of confidence. We all know there was plenty of investigation of the sponsorship issue by multiple entities, none of it stopped by the exercise of prorogation, the way the present Afghan Commons committee has been stopped in its tracks. Chretien's prorogation may have delayed that particular report, but it certainly didn't prevent it. And again, deflecting to past exercises doesn't in any way resolve or excuse the present difficulties with Mr. Harper's own abuses in the here and now. There is broad recognition of the distinctive nature of Harper's prorogations.

It should also be noted that Liberals have committed to discussing prorogation at an upcoming forum on democratic processes with a view to making a recommendation on that issue.

Irrespective of the preceding detour, the verdict of Canadians on Mr. Harper's actions is rolling in and as we've seen this week, the majority of Canadians seem to feel it in their bones that this prorogation is patently wrong. They have plenty of company in expert opinion and the comparative international perspective.