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Irresponsible Government: When you absolutely, positively can’t allow committee hearings into your election financing practices …


 

I have to admit that, even as a veteran of the In and Out Committee Wars I and II (Procedure and House Affairs and Ethics, respectively), I’m finding it hard to believe that the government would seriously consider proroguing parliament just to avoid two days of hearings into allegations that the Conservative Party may have played fast and loose with the spirit, if not the letter of Canada’s election spending laws.

I mean, yes; over the past year, the Tories have certainly shown that they are less than keen on the prospect of dragging their dispute with Elections Canada into the parliamentary spotlight. But it’s one thing to hold two consecutive committees hostage for months just to stave off a vote on whether or not to launch an inquiry into the in and out scandal. Dissolving parliament midway through the summer recess, nearly two months before the House is scheduled to return, for no reason other than to escape a few hours of potentially embarrassing testimony?  That’s a whole new level of of political brinkmanship — not so much wagging the dog, but swinging the cat: even if you manage to avoid getting clawed to pieces while it’s spinning in midair around you, eventually you still have to let go.

It would be an absurdly high stakes gamble for what would be, at best, a brief reprieve from the controversy — and very likely not even that. After all, it’s not like such a move would go unnoticed by the press or the public, and the resulting coverage would likely focus heavily on why the Conservatives were so adamantly opposed to the investigation in the first place. There is also nothing to stop the opposition parties from forming an emergency ad hoc extraparliamentary committee, which would be free to go ahead with the scheduled witness list, albeit without the ability to subpoena witnesses or provide parliamentary immunity to reluctant invitees — but with even more media interest than would likely otherwise have been the case.

Beyond that, however, there is a very good reason why Prime Ministers generally wait until the last possible minute to prorogue (which is actually done via proclamation by the Governor General, on the advice of the PM) — one that has nothing to do with political timing, and everything to do with responsible government.

Normally, in the case of, say, a natural disaster – an earthquake somewhere on the West Coast – or an international incident – the September 11th terrorist attacks – a farm income crisis, a meltdown at a major bank, a nationwide transport strike – the House can be brought back on a few days’ notice. Once dissolved, the House cannot be brought back without a Speech from the Throne, which has to be read, and passed before any other business can get underway  — with no exceptions, not even if the country is faced with a crisis that demands immediate action. Given the potential for constitutional chaos should such a situation arise, it’s hard to see how the Prime Minister could possibly proceed with a prolonged prorogation for no other reason than to protect his party from parliamentary scrutiny. This is not chess vs. checkers; this is party vs. country, and if memory serves, Prime Ministers who have conflated the two in the past have eventually come to regret it.  That is, unless Stephen Harper really has lost sight of the big picture, and now sees the powers of the highest office in the land as just another means to the endgame.


 

Irresponsible Government: When you absolutely, positively can’t allow committee hearings into your election financing practices …

  1. Why would you have a hard time believing the government would prorogue? Jean Chretien prorogued parliament in November 2003 to prevent Sheila Fraser’s report from being made public on his watch. It remained prorogued until January 2004. And we all know that Chretien can do no wrong in the eyes of the press.

    Paul Martin dissolved parliament and prematurely called the 2004 election to prevent Jean Brault from testifying to whatever Parliamentary committee was investigating Adscam.

    And how many people are aware of the fact that Jean Brault was the very next witness on the house committee’s witness list when Paul Martin dropped the writ? I don’t recall Martin getting any negative flak from the press for that little attempt to prevent a Parliamentary committee from getting to the bottom of Adscam.

    And of course, the press is fair, right? If they didn’t give Chretien or Martin’s a hard time for subverting democracy, they won’t question Harper either. Right?

    For the record I think it would be a bad idea to prorogue Parliament to avoid the committee hearings. The optics are horrible. I’m just saying that Liberals have gone to such extreme measures in the past to bury their own bodies and have gotten away with it scot free.

  2. Proroguing to call an election is different. Not saying it’s better, obviously – that’s why the Conservatives brought in a fixed election date, after all. But it isn’t quite the same as shutting down Parliament solely to prevent a two-day committee blitz – but planning to bring it back at some point in the future. I’d argue that the 2003 prorogation was also done for different reasons — there was a new PM coming in, and I don’t think it’s that outrageous to give him the chance to deliver his own Throne Speech, rather than just have him show up and carry on with your mandate. This would be the equivalent of proroguing Parliament right in the middle of the Public Accounts hearings into sponsorship, with no intention of going to the polls.

  3. I recall that word around town was that Chretien offered to stay on to receive and act on the AGs sponsorship report so that Martin would not have to be saddled with it.

    The Martinites rejected this, and instead asked Chretien to vacate 24 Sussex earlier than initially intended. This resulted in Martin being behind the big dersk to receive and (over-)react to the AGs report.

    – JV

  4. JV exaggerates the clarity of what the Martin crew wanted at that point. Caucus surrogates for Martin (hi, Dan McTeague) were making an extravagant show of wanting Chrétien gone yesterday. The Martin centre saw the Fraser audit coming and were divided on whether they wanted Chrétien to handle it or whether they wanted to use it to break with the bad old Chrétien days. On the eve of Martin’s coronation they were angrily adamant that they had no preference regarding the date of Chrétien’s departure.

    Anyway the point may well be moot. I’m told, I believe reliably although we’ll find out soon enough, that there’ll be no prorogation this spring or fall.

  5. Kady Where’s the evidence for “this is party vs. country, and if memory serves, Prime Ministers who have conflated the two in the past have eventually come to regret it.”

    It seems to me that Liberals have been doing this for years and it hasn’t hurt them at all. As far as I can tell, many believe that whatever Libs do represents ‘Canadian values’ and anything done/suggested by other parties is ‘partisan’.

  6. Jwl – I don’t think the whole “Hey, let’s save the country and win seats in Quebec too!” idea worked out all that well for the Liberals, although admittedly, it took a few years before that conflation became known. The thing is, proroguing the House *now* – instead of waiting until this fall, if the PM really wants one more Throne Speech before an election – would be for no reason other than to dodge these hearings. I don’t think there’s a similarly blatant example of the Liberals “doing this for years.”

  7. I should probably add that I agree with Wells (although I’ve not been reliably assured of anything) that it almost definitely won’t happen. It would be a Very Very Bad Idea. Hence my post.

  8. Kady I don’t know my parliamentary history well enough to know if there is a ‘similarly blatant example’ but John G seems to.

    I do know that ‘Screw the West, we’ll take the rest’ has worked out quite nicely for Liberals which is what I was thinking of when you wrote conflating party and country doesn’t work.

  9. Well, pitting one region against each other appears to be an all-party tradition. What would make this unique would be that it would be putting the party ahead of the entire country, not just the bits that don’t (or won’t) vote for you.

  10. Dominic Leblanc claiming that there is a threat of prorogation is not evidence that such a threat actually exists.

  11. I have to agree with JWL . I would add though that the threat of a possible pro-rogue is actually more strategic than the actual use of one. I was thinking that maybe my boy Stevie was thinking about doing just that until Dion tried changing the channel on his leadership questions by announcing the ususal Liberal platform of a new gov’t program with the usual tax grab. Now it might be of more value of having a Throne Speech with something really juicy for Canadians and maybe a little gift for the NDP – and a quiet talk with the BQ this could have the affect of pulling the rug out from under Stephanie. It really boils down to what is of more value some small but noisy cohort of anti-harperites and frustrated media getting coverage about a dysfunctional committee or removing the threat of an election this fall – this is getting interesting because it is Stephanie’s last chance – we shall see!

  12. That would make sense, Wayne, except that neither the Bloc Quebecois nor the NDP seems to be particularly interested in playing strategic nicey-nice with the Tories at the moment. Not to mention the fact that we’ve seen no indication that the Conservatives have anything new and exciting in the works that would require – or even give an excuse for – a Speech from the Throne, nor is there all that much money left in the consolidated kitty for anything “juicy” – let alone a gift for the NDP. Finally, proroguing parliament at the normal time — right before the House is scheduled to come back — would accomplish every one of those goals. Also, when you say “threat” of an election – which party do you see as being threatened? Surely not the Conservatives … ?

  13. Kady I think you are letting Martin off on a technicality. The fact that he called an election, costing the country an additional $300 million that wasn’t necessary, was worse than proroguing.

    Don’t forget, he had promised not to call an election before Gomery did his work. Gomery was being stonewalled by Liberal after Liberal, all who could remember no wrongdoing, and at the time was going nowhere.

    In the meantime, Jean Brault was the next witness to testify at the Parliamentary Committee investigating Adscam (sorry, can’t remember which committee it was…Public Accounts?)

    I think Martin saw a chance to squelch Brault’s committee testimonty, go to the polls and win his preordained majority, and was going to shut Gomery down after winning his majority on the pretense that Gomery wasn’t exposing anything new. The house was sitting so he had no legitimate reason to just prorogue; an election, under the pretense of wanting his own mandate, was his only option.

    There were many more examples on Martin’s watch. Withholding opposition days after Brault dropped his bombshell. Rewriting his budget for the 3rd time in 9 days to buy the NDP. Creating a constitutional crisis by ignoring several confidence votes until he could muster up enough time to bribe Belinda Stronach.

    I can’t think of anyone in recent history who was more flagrant about putting “party before country” than Martin.

    And although he finally did pay for it a year later in the 2006 election with horrible media coverage, right up to the election call he got the benfit of the doubt; all we saw from the media were poll after poll telling us how Canadians didn’t want another election so soon after the last one.

    Whatever happened to those polls anyways? It seems they disappered as soon as Harper was elected.

  14. According to pollsters, Canadians never actually *want* an election, but grudingly accept the fact that every now and then, one will be thrust upon them. You may be right on Martin’s motivations, but the fact remains that calling an election *does* give the opposition parties the chance to defeat you. Proroguing for no reason in July does not.

  15. Personally, I think they disappeared because Canadians do want an election. This conservative government, the smallest minority government in Canada’s history, was elected despite just under two-thirds of the voting public wanting someone else.

    That said, it’s funny how now you complain about Martin calling the election too soon, when at the time all we heard were conservatives screaming that he wasn’t calling the election soon enough.

    As for rewriting the budget three times in 9 days to appeal to the NDP.. that, my friend, is what real governing should be. Not this “My way or highway” crap that confidence-man voting Harper is giving us, but real compromise government, where you form coalitions with the other parties and that way get something more palatable to a larger number of Canadians.

  16. “As for rewriting the budget three times in 9 days to appeal to the NDP.. that, my friend, is what real governing should be.”

    Wow…really?

    It’s fine to rewrite your budget 3 times in 9 days…during the planning process. Not after you’ve released it publically. Negotiating it in a hotel room on the back of a napkin at gunpoint to keep your corrupt party in power another few days is your idea of “real governing”? No wonder you don’t like Harper.

  17. Hello Kady : (1) The only party that can threaten an election are the Liberals or an an alliance between the NDP and the BQ (i think i need to add the numbers up again) (2) If I were you I would think again about the amount of money in the Kitty as have you factored in the amount of tax dollars from the increase in the price of Oil of late? after all well more than a million barrels a day to the yanks so a fewpoints of each $ 135.00 probably adds up to alittle bit more than projected last year this time. hmmmm. But most especially you do not think that my boy Stevie and Jack never make nice. You need to study subtlety a little more Kady but then you are so young : did you notice the apology to the first nations awhile back who was thanked by Stevie in the house before one and all : little public things like this have an amazing history, affect and should never be overlooked by anyone really interested the art of politics. As to possible juicy bits in a Throne Speech it could be something like say the biggest income tax break in Canadian History or say the Yanks recognize our Northern Sovereignity of the Nothwest Passage or something along this line that can be pro-rated forwards financially so that the Kitty is left untouched … but between you and me I bet we have more money than you can imagine right now nationally.

  18. Now that is worth a laugh Wayne, did you pull those out of nice warm place?

    The government can’t afford to offer large income tax breaks and you will never see the US giving up on our claim to the Northwest Passage. That oil revenue flows to the provinces, not to Ottawa. Harper and Co have intentionally handcuffed the federal government for years to come, there is not that much money floating around Ottawa these days.

    But hey, don’t let those pesky facts get in the way of your slobbering over Harper.

    BTW, I agree completely Kady, it would be silly to call things off just to avoid a few hours of committee meetings.

    And how could they dare rob the Canadian public of Pierre P’s sound bites?

  19. Sean S: you really do not understand how federal revenue streams work do you? First every barrel of oil we sell results in more money not only for the province but the feds as well through various streams such increased capital gains, increase employment, excise taxes, PST on the existing gas and all sorts of supply chain taxes this means more revenue coming in over what was budgeted. Now as to the Northwest Passage – you and a lot of people like yourself are going to be surprised on this issue .. so just wait as I mentioned it for a reason and I would bet a few loonies right now that shortly (within a year)there might be some news on this. My prediction is that there will be a joint task force setup led by us with the Yanks involved and that in the end it will be treated like the St. Lawrence and other such territorial waters. The reason I proposed it to be in Throne Speech is because it was almost referred to though somewhat obliquely last Throne Speech.

  20. I have been a stounch supporter of MacLean’s, during its locking of horns with the abusive HRCs, but this is too much.

    Frankly, I don’t remember the magazine’s outrage when LIEberal (I used to call them, FIBerals, but they are so good at it, I gave them a promotion) P.M.s prorogued parliament, twice, for dubious reasons.

    The MSM better shake-off its red/orange colours, or they will go the way Dion is taking the LIEberals, down, down, down…

  21. So the general gistof most of these arguments would seem to be ‘but the Liberals did it!’ Okay, so… if <i.that makes you unhappy,shouldn’t you be doubaly angry when your own party does it?

  22. Now, now. Lets not pick on Kady for being so blatantly uberpartisan when she elaborately defends semantics and glosses over decades of Liberal parliamentary games (2004 election to avoid Adscam fallout, Chretien’s confidence motions with a majority government to silence backbenchers, constitutional crisis when Martin refused to classify non-confidence motions as non-confidence motions until he could bribe Belinda to cross the floor, Chretien’s 2-$300 million dollar elections out of spite for leadership contenders) and when the Liberals play party vs country (a constitution that only represents 66.7% of the country, bilingualism everywhere but Quebec, NEP, FIRA, Scott Reid says said “Alberta can blow me” which summarizes Liberal party policy since the 70s, EI, ACOA, Eastern-based supply management, etc, etc, etc).

    In Kady’s mind, the very existence of a Conservative government is actually anti-Canadian. She comes from the school that believes that Canada didn’t have any rights until Pierre gave them to us with the Charter.

    The same line of thinking where the Canadian identity is defined by paying the CBC $2 billion to tell us serfs what is and what isn’t Canadian enough. This boils down to demanding unlimited access to American markets (thanks Brian Mulroney btw) and military protection but being just short of the old USSR when it comes it being anti-american. Without realizing it, she and her friends are happy being the gypsies outside of the gates of Rome (i.e. the US) begging for a sandwich with one hand and giving them the finger with the other. Canada didn’t defend freedom and democracy and fight human slavery, genocide and facism over two world wars in Kady’s world – those were some knuckle-dragging uncivilized barbarians (sorry Grandpa) that were around long before Trudeaupia came into being. This new utopia is the type of place where its perfectly acceptable to fight for women’s rights in Afghanistan until the fighting actually starts. A land where self-appointed world-savers fight for peace by throwing rocks at cops for their love of trade barriers. This crowd won’t being happy until we have an entire new federal department of Being Canadian with Lloyd Axworthy or Sheila Copps as Deputy Minister.

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