A shadowy head of government tries to head off an investigation into allegations of government involvement in human rights abuses by suspending the legislature for months, cynically suggesting that only “elites” care if there is a functioning government in the capital or not. This may sound like something that could happen in some coup-prone place faraway with weak democratic credentials. Except this isn’t Guinea or Honduras — it’s Canada. As Canada opens its doors to the world for the start of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, the doors of Parliament in Ottawa remain locked to Canada’s opposition parties.
In an apparent attempt to stifle an embarrassing inquiry into his government’s actions in Afghanistan and to try to retain his thin grip on power, Canada’s Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper moved on December 30, 2009 to lock the doors of Parliament until March 3 of this year. Proroguing Parliament, as this maneuver is known, means to suspend parliament without dissolving it, something that Canadian Prime Ministers have the authority to request during a Parliamentary session.1. In a nutshell, what makes this prorogation of Parliament notable, and objectionable in the eyes of the opposition parties and an increasingly large majority of the Canadian public,2 is that the timing smacks of political opportunism: the maneuver fits a pattern in which Stephen Harper’s two successive minority governments have sought to weaken Parliamentary accountability and transparency at a cost to Canadian democracy.
Citing signs that economic growth is slowly returning to Canada and a laundry list of legislative achievements in 2009, Harper has argued3 that prorogation is a “routine constitutional matter” which will give his government “time to recalibrate the government’s agenda both on the economy and on some other matters.” Critics of the government, however, smell another motive. Allegations emerged last year that Canadian forces in Afghanistan had been transferring detained Afghan nationals to the Afghan National Army with full knowledge that they would likely be tortured in custody. The government had rejected calls for a full inquiry into the scandal and had downplayed suggestions of official complicity in the matter before the decision to prorogue was made. The decision to prorogue, which halts the work of Parliamentary oversight committees, therefore prompted suspicion that this suspension of Parliament had been engineered to help the government duck any further investigation of government involvement in the Afghan detainee scandal.
The three principal opposition parties have all denounced the proroguing of Parliament as opportunistic and irresponsible. The centrist Liberals, the largest of the three opposition parties, were quick to call-out the Conservatives for suspending Parliament to “cover-up” the Afghan torture allegations. Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff blasted Harper’s decision in an op-ed4 as an example of “the arrogance of a regime that thinks it can get away with just about anything.” The Bloc Québécois, the national political organ of the mainstream Québec independence movement, stated that in the Bloc’s opinion, Harper “had no legitimate reason to suspend the work of Parliament,” and that Harper has established a pattern in which “instead of facing the music, he prorogues.”5 Jack Layton, leader of the left-leaning New Democrats, accused Harper of “trying to grab power that Canadians refused to give him” in the last election and called on Harper to “unlock the doors of Parliament” without delay.6 The Canadian public seems to be increasingly fed up with proroguing of Parliament as well. A recent Angus Reid opinion poll found that 61 percent of Canadians disagreed with Harper’s decision to prorogue Parliament and that 56 percent thought he had done so for partisan gain. Even The Economist, the international news weekly that’s usually quite friendly to pro-business, centre-right politicians such as Mr. Harper, panned his decision to prorogue as an attempt to “[rewrite] the rules of his country’s politics to weaken legislative scrutiny.”7
Harper has argued that proroguing Parliament is “routine.” Although it has been used in the past, proroguing generally occurs under very different circumstances. Most commonly, the prime minister makes a formal request to the Governor General, the ceremonial representative of the Queen of England, to suspend or postpone Parliament, if and when most of the government’s legislative agenda has been achieved. Prorogation has occurred 103 times in Canada’s history, which averages out to once every 1.3 years. Former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien prorogued Parliament only four times in his ten years as Prime Minister. Harper, by contrast, has done so three times since only 2006. The last time around, in December 2008, Harper prorogued Parliament in order to head off an attempt by the three major opposition parties to form a coalition of the center-left to replace his center-right minority government. In the snowy lull of early 2009, with Parliament suspended and the opposition parties increasingly consumed by their own internal problems, plans for the coalition fizzled and Harper got to keep his job.
If Stephen Harper is gambling that suspending Parliament this winter will once again help him stay in power by deflecting criticism from the Afghan detainee scandal, he’s betting high stakes. Proroguing Parliament means that 36 pieces of legislation still before Parliament this session will be thrown out. Although Canada’s economy is seeing some tentative signs of recovery, the unemployment rate still stands at 8.3%, somewhat better than south of the border but still some 30% higher than it was when, in the fall of 2008, Harper won his last minority government. Meanwhile, detainee scandals notwithstanding, Canadian Forces in Afghanistan are embroiled in the heaviest fighting they’ve seen since World War II. It hardly seems like an opportune moment for the government to put its feet up for a three-month break.
To Harper’s many critics, this prorogation is just one more in a long list of transgressions over four years in office. Harper’s support for the petroleum industry based in Alberta, the cowboy and oil-rig province he hails from, and his reluctance to commit to curtailing greenhouse gas emissions have rankled many environmentalists. More controversial have been accusations of secretive decision-making by the government and an unprecedented centralization of power in the office of the prime minister. Harper also made devastating changes to the Status of Women Canada (S.W.C., a federal organization) which forced an end to funding for research, advocacy, and law reform in pursuit of gender equality. Harper has even angered some of his core supporters, and tarnished his image as a fiscal conservative, by running up large deficits in office.
Parliament must be allowed to continue its work on the pressing issues before it. To do otherwise sends a message to Canada and the world that the government is more concerned with its own political survival than in working as it should for its citizens. With Parliament suspended, debates, committee meetings and the passing of legislation have all come to a halt. The principles of transparency, accountability and representative government all take a hit simultaneously.
Canada has a long-established reputation as a mature democracy with a strong history of recognizing and respecting human rights, in principle if not always in practice. As attention shifts to the hopeful spectacle of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, the world should know that despite this reputation, the politicians running the show in Ottawa are subverting Canadian democracy in a cynical attempt to deflect criticism from their own sanctioned human rights abuses. According to a recent report by Freedom House,8 democratic rights and freedoms have increasingly been under threat across the globe over the past four years. Now, more than ever, the world needs positive examples of countries that take their democracy and respect for human rights seriously. With the world’s eyes on his country, Stephen Harper should help Canada lead by example on these issues by putting his best democratic foot forward, not his worst.