Thursday, January 21, 2010

Take Away Harper's Right to Prorogue

Technically, of course, it is not within the Prime Minister's purview to prorogue Parliament, as he is required by law to make this request to the Governor General. The Governor General could refuse, but, as with all monarchical powers, usually does not exert her right to deny Prime Ministers' requests. Effectively then, the Prime Minister now wields power he was not intended to have. We have seen the abuses, thanks to Stephen Harper, that can occur when this power is granted to a Prime Minister. Therefore, it seems only sensible that this power should be taken away from the Prime Minister, and given to those who would stop such an abuse of power.

Jack Layton has proposed to give this power to the MPs in the House of Commons. Only if a majority of MPs were to agree to the suspension of Parliament would Parliament be prorogued. The intent is obviously to prevent Prime Ministers from succumbing to their undemocratic and partisan tendencies.

This is proposal is well-founded and is the right approach to take, but it is nevertheless not perfect. Due to the stringent, and some say excessive, party discipline in our parliamentary system, such a proposal does not negate the possibility of an abusive prorogation if the government in power has a majority. In that case, all that the government would have to do is to whip the vote, and it would obtain the prorogation it desires.

Hence, it is necessary to curb as much as possible the potential for party discipline to essentially reprovide the Prime Minister with his power to prorogue. One necessary measure would be to ensure that votes on whether or not to prorogue would not be allowed to be confidence votes.

The ideal would be to give the power to prorogue to an impartial observer, in theory the Governor General. But the Governor General is hampered by constitutional convention, and would potentially face outrage if she were to use her power to deny prorogation. With certain provisions however, it seems a vote of MPs is the closest we'll get to this ideal.
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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

What the House of Commons is now being used for, thanks to Harper

The product of all of Harper's hard work. From the Rick Mercer report:

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Monday, January 18, 2010

Harper's Disdain for democracy continues

Stephen Harper will propose new Senate Reform bills in the next session, according to the Hill Times. It may look to some like Harper is acting to bring more democracy to Canada, after he has exhibited shameful disdain for democracy in prorogation. However, the way in which Harper proposes to bring this reform goes against our form of government just as much as prorogation.

Stephen Harper is seeking to superimpose bills passed by Parliament onto the Constitution, and make them override the clauses in the constitution regarding the Senate. The proper procedure that experts have identified would be to follow the usual procedure for such amendments, namely obtaining consent of 7 provinces with more than 50% of Canada's population.

Stephen Harper may say he wants to bring more democracy with these bills, but if he proposes them, that will be yet another undemocratic action in a growing list.
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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Harper Calls his own Prorogation Anti-democratic

Here is what Stephen Harper thinks about governments avoiding dissent: "When government starts trying to cancel dissent or avoid dissent is frankly when it’s rapidly losing its moral authority to govern."

Too bad for Canadians that that was in 2005. I guess even the great tactician has to change his mind sometimes.
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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Harper on Democracy: It causes instability

It seems that, instead of sticking to his mediocre defences for proroguing Parliament, Stephen Harper has felt the compunction to provide another defence more ludicrous than the rest. In an interview with BNN, Harper first claimed that his move to prorogue Parliament has not hurt Canadian democracy. He followed this willfully blind comment with the following:

"As soon as parliament comes back, we're in a minority Parliament situation and the first thing that happens is a vote of confidence and there will be votes of confidence and election speculation for every single week after that for the rest of the year That's the kind of instability I think that markets are actually worried about."

Harper claimed this so as to be able to purport that prorogation was of benefit to the economy, as it eliminates the instability caused by democracy. This shows either a great lack of political tact, or a profound undervaluing of democracy.

Democracy does not exist to serve the economy. It exists rather to allow the governed to enter into a social contract with their government, which stipulates that they can determine the formation of that government. If this were to interfere with markets, then so be it.

In addition, there is no foundation on which Stephen Harper can base this argument. Canada has been growing at rates faster than the rest of the G8 for the last few years, and all of these have been years of minority government, governments yielding the instability Harper decries. Therefore, it cannot be the case that minority government instability has a negative effect on the economy.

Stephen Harper got his economics wrong, and what's more, provided yet another episode evidencing contempt of democracy in the saga that has been his relationship with Parliament.
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Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Speakers should protect Parliament

Both Houses of the Canadian Parliament, the Senate and the HOC have their own speakers. These speakers have many roles, including moderating debate. However, they also have a role that has progressively become ceremonial, that of representing their Houses to any other bodies, such as the Crown (in Canada effectively the Governor General).

This is the role that they should fulfill in the current parliamentary crisis. This, for once, is a matter in which Parliament, through its two speakers, needs to be represented. This is entirely within the purview of the Speakers, as although this role of representing their Houses has taken on a ceremonial character, they are still the only individuals who could legally fulfill it.

This idea of representing Parliament may sound nebulous, but in this current prorogation it has the potential of being concrete. If the Speakers were to take their roles as representatives of the two houses of Parliament seriously, they should be dutifully appalled by the total disregard, disdain, and contempt for Parliament that this prorogation shows. They should make a public announcement to this effect, calling for the reconvening of Parliament, and solicit the governor general on this issue, and if that is to no avail, then perhaps even the Queen.

Of course, it is unlikely that the last option would have much weight, and neither is it likely that the governor-general would now overturn her decision to allow prorogation. However, what is certain is that it would heighten public awareness of the issue and exemplify the extent to which our democracy is being taken from us.

Speakers used to be killed for the news they brought their sovereign of deliberations within the forums of democracy. It is at such a historic and significant time as now that the Speakers should assume that mantle of courage of their predecessors and defend the institution they represent. It is at times such as these that they should use their legally conferred powers to the true extent of their original intention.
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Friday, January 8, 2010

This Prorogation Should Trigger Reform of Parliament

At a time like this, when our Parliamentary government has been abused, we are made more aware of the disrepair the whole edifice is falling into. The most urgent problem we face is the loss of authority Parliament has suffered. Parliament's committees are ineffectual, and more importantly, Parliament can be cowed into following the Prime Minister's wishes through threats of confidence votes.

One of the roots of this loss of authority is the lack of deliberation that occurs in Parliament. Parliamentary debate in Canada is determined for the large majority of issues on the basis of party affiliation. This, along with the growing impotence of committees, is leaving MPs with a less significant role. Consequently, Parliament is on its way, gradually, of becoming a rubber stamp as there is no doubt as to how MPs will vote.

Party discipline is often essential for efficient government. You need only look to the US Congress to see the rampaging effects of loose party discipline. However, it is still possible to have a Westminster style for of government and still give MPs more leeway. One way this could be done is to require confidence votes to be on budgets and Opposition days. This would prevent the fearmongering by overzealous and domineering PMs who render every vote a confidence matter.

I have by no means examined this proposal thoroughly, or examined others in depth either. However, it is clear that their are problems endemic to our Parliament that should be reformed. And what better time to do this than when the case for reform is being most eloquently put by a PM's prorogation of Parliament?
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Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Economist takes note of Harper's high handedness

The Economist's article on Harper's prorogation of Parliament mentions two interesting ideas that, while they have been cursorily addressed, are deserving of more consideration than have been given them by the media and the public here.

We have concentrated much on the disdain for Parliament that this chronic prorogation represents. However, Harper's case is not just one of disdain for Parliament, it is a desire to make "Parliament accountable to him rather than the other way around." This idea has been grasped, but it is emphasized further when stated this way. It really reveals the sheer incongruity between Harper's actions and democratic principles.

What's more, and this is the second thing the Economist picks up on, Stephen Harper's announcement itself confirmed a disdain for our democratic constitution. He announced, through his spokesman, that Parliament had been prorogued, prior to an announcement from the Governor General. He has effectively taken over her role of approving prorogation. If there were any doubts, this is confirmed by the irreverent manner in which Harper petitioned the Governor General: a phone call. Instead of acknowledging prorogation as within her powers, not his, Harper heavy handedly took control of this.

We see then that Stephen Harper has taken two things unto himself which were never meant for a Prime Minister: Parliament is now accountable to him, and he has taken the power of prorogation from the rightful wielder of that power. He is continuing not only his tradition of avoiding scrutiny and democratic accountability. He is also ensuring through this prorogation that his power continues to grow inexorably.
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Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Liberal MPs to defy Prorogation, Show up to work on Jan. 25

In a news bulletin published an hour ago on, Liberal MPs will meet in the House of Commons or near it in defiance of prorogation. Instead of not showing up on Parliament Hill, they will carry out to the best of their abilities Parliamentary work.

This would not seem to be only a handful of MPs doing so unofficially, as Bob Rae announced that “[Harper] can’t shut down the issues. He can’t stop people from asking questions about the Afghan detainee issue. He can’t stop people from asking questions about the budget. He can’t stop people from talking about politics.” The intention clearly is to keep the spotlight on these issues, whether the government likes it or not.

This was the right move as critics were lambasting the opposition parties for whining about prorogation without even being willing to engage in a mock Parliament. Now that criticism is refuted and the contrast between the Liberals and the Conservatives should emerge, showing the one's willingness to acquit themselves of the duties they were elected to perform, and the other's growing disregard for democracy.

What has to happen now is that the NDP and the Bloc sign on. This will give this form of protest legitimacy. It would give validity to the claim that Parliament is sitting despite being prorogued. It would hearken to the days of the French Revolution when the Third Estate met in the tennis court, in defiance of the rest of the Estates General oppression of the masses.

Only if the other parties join in can this have its maximum impact. Now if only there were courageous Conservative MPs that joined in. They would be doing their country a great service by putting the national interest above partisan politics and party discipline.

This, coupled with the now 79, 310 members strong Facebook group should show the Conservatives that the nation is truly incensed by his disdain for democracy.
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Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Debunking Conservative Myths on Prorogation

As fig leaves covering the real reasons Parliament was prorogued (the Afghan detainee issue and the composition of Senate committees), Stephen Harper and his Conservatives have advanced two myths or half truths regarding prorogation: that is a common procedure and that it is necessary for the government as it seeks to recalibrate its agenda.

While prorogation is common, occurring 105 times, as the Conservatives are fond of reminding us, since Confederation, it is highly uncommon to have such long prorogations This is important because it reveals that prorogation was often a matter of course, necessary, and that it was never used to suspend Parliament for extended periods of time. This is what the Conservatives have done, with 37 days of prorogation.

A look at the length of a Parliament (this is the duration between elections) and the proportion of that Parliament being spent in session bears this out. (Consult this website for parliament lengths and session lengths) With 354 of 416 days of this current Parliament spent in session, the percent of this Parliament spent in session is 86%.

Compare that with Harper's own previous Parliament. For some reason the percentage of the Parliament spent in session was 96%. Notice any discrepancy? The trend continues with further historical data. Previous Parliaments had rates of 100%, 92%, 98% and the list goes on.

So, for Harper to say that prorogation is common is right, but this obfuscates the fact that it has never previously been used to lock out MPS for any substantial portion of the duration of that Parliament.

As for the second myth, that the government needs prorogation to set their agenda for next year, that could not be further from the truth. Consider Harper's own previous Parliament. If that is the case, then why wasn't he proroguing so much, and locking out MPs for months at a time? Either Mr. Harper has to admit that he was previously incompetent in this matter or that he is twisting the truth. And as we know the first proposition is false, it must be the latter.

Shame on the Conservatives for such twisting of the truth. They deprive us of democracy and attempt to convince us that this has been commonplace, and that moreover it is necessary.
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