Of all the possible issues to trip him up—the deficit, stubbornly high unemployment, Afghan detainees—who would have predicted that a four-syllable term for a parliamentary procedure would send Stephen Harper’s poll numbers tumbling? Yet prorogation, the antique-sounding word for suspending Parliament, has done it. Harper’s Dec. 30 decision to send MPs on an unscheduled break until March 3 galvanized dismay over both his leadership style and the state of a democracy in which the Prime Minister feels free to wield such unchecked power. “It’s solidifying a very deep sense that there’s something wrong with the way we govern ourselves,” says Rick Anderson, a long-time advocate for democratic reform who, like Harper, worked for Preston Manning back when Manning’s Reform party embodied a grassroots desire for politics less dominated by prime ministerial power.
Harper, though, never really swam in that populist Reform current. Manning wanted to change the way Ottawa worked in order to give more clout to ordinary MPs, and in turn make them more responsive to voters; Harper was mostly interested in economic policy and conservative ideology. Later, after uniting the right to create a winning new Conservative brand, he proved himself an uncommonly disciplined top-down organizer, first of his party and then of his government. Harper’s underdeveloped populist instincts never seemed a serious liability—until lately. He clearly underestimated the backlash against proroguing for the second time in about a year. In late 2008, he suspended Parliament to avoid being defeated in the House by an opposition coalition. Last month, he resorted to it again, this time, his critics say, to cool the Afghan detainee controversy until after the Vancouver Winter Olympics.
If Harper’s only worry was the ability of the Liberals, NDP and Bloc Québécois to channel public resentment over prorogation, he’d probably have been safe. None of the opposition party leaders has managed to position himself as a potent voice of anger over the shuttering of Parliament. Instead, the movement’s centre of gravity is a Facebook group called Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament, run by Christopher White, a University of Calgary graduate student in anthropology. He doesn’t belong to any political party and his main research concerns an old Calgary graveyard. Still, White’s online network has attracted more than 200,000 members, making it arguably the most successful use to date of so-called social media as a political organizing tool in Canada. “People who didn’t like the idea said, ‘Oh, it’s Facebook, it isn’t real,’ ” White says. “But Facebook is a tool. Use it right and you can effect change.”
He admits that his movement still has to prove it’s more than a forum for Web-wise political wonks to let off steam. A big test will come Jan. 23, when old-fashioned public demonstrations are planned in dozens of cities and towns, in a bid to take anti-prorogation anger off the Web and onto the streets. As well, White says he is now considering next steps. His initial goal was simple: use Facebook to encourage Canadians to write their MPs demanding that they return to work on Jan. 25, as they were supposed to before prorogation. But discussion among his group’s members has broadened to take in all sorts of ideas, including changing the way MPs are elected. White favours proposing more narrowly focused changes to Parliament’s rule book to prevent any prime minister from unilaterally shutting it down. And he’s wary of partisanship taking over. “If we let it just become Harper-bashing,” he says, “we risk alienating some people.”
Conservatives argue partisanship is already at the root of the anti-prorogation fomentation. They complain that past Liberal prime ministers have shut down the House and Senate without sparking anywhere near the current uproar. By convention, a prime minister asks the governor general to prorogue either for an election or when a government has run through its legislative agenda, and thus needs to launch a new session with a Throne Speech. Tories contend that then-prime minister Jean Chrétien did it in 2003 mainly to avoid facing an auditor general’s report on what turned into the sponsorship scandal. But Chrétien plausibly said then that the break was needed to let Paul Martin, who was taking over as Liberal leader and prime minister, set out his own House agenda. Harper can point to no similar watershed moment to justify proroguing now.
Along with the Facebook backlash, the government is being pestered by professors. More than 200 political scientists, constitutional lawyers and other academics signed a letter registering their objection over Harper using “his power to prorogue Parliament for a second year in a row in circumstances that allow him to evade democratic accountability.” But social-media and ivory-tower griping wouldn’t matter much in Ottawa if the opinion polls weren’t showing that the voting public doesn’t like it either. Among several polls showing the Tories have suffered since prorogation, Ekos pegged Conservative support at 30.9 per cent earlier this month, virtually tied with the Liberals at 29.3 per cent—erasing the 15-point lead the Tories enjoyed as recently as October. “Prorogation on its own would have been the blip everybody predicted,” said Ekos president Frank Graves. “It’s cumulative frustration that has pushed this from issue-of-the-day to significant resentment.”
Graves says the same resilient public respect for democratic institutions that helped Harper so much in the fall of 2008 is hurting him now. Back then, the opposition coalition formed to try to defeat Harper in the House raised public ire because it would have made then-Liberal leader Stéphane Dion prime minister—even though voters had just resoundingly rejected Dion in an election. It turned out most Canadians didn’t like the idea that their votes counted for so little. Similarly, many resent the MPs they elected being sidelined with the House closed. Graves said both cases smacked of “a core level of disrespect for the democratic will of Canadians as expressed through Parliament.”
The question is whether Harper faces only a quick-burning reaction or has inadvertently breathed lasting life into the on-again, off-again push for democratic reform. “We’re not yet at the tipping point, I don’t believe, where we’re moving from moaning about the problem to concentrating on the solution,” Anderson says. He argues that Harper’s misuse of prorogation is only the latest abuse of a system that has for several decades seen power concentrating in the Prime Minister’s Office. “This has been evolving,” Anderson says, “since the introduction of the presidential-style politics by Pierre Trudeau.” And prime ministers since, from Mulroney to Chrétien to Harper, have further centralized power.”
If that’s true, what’s to be done about it? Some reformers call for updating how Canadians elect their representatives. But various electoral-reform ideas were rejected by voters in referendums held in British Columbia, Ontario and Prince Edward Island in recent years. Those bitter setbacks have left some advocates of change favouring more modest steps. White says he hopes his Facebook group doesn’t shift attention from prorogation to bigger ideas, such as proportional representation, that failed to pass in those provincial votes. Manning, who now heads his own Manning Centre for Building Democracy, sees little chance of progress toward what he regards as the most fundamental reform—MPs freed to vote as they choose. “There’s nobody,” he said, “who’s going to champion that.”
After seeming slow off the mark on the prorogation debate, Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals are trying to come to grips with the issue. Veteran MP Ralph Goodale, Ignatieff’s House leader, told Maclean’s that Liberals will spend the next three weeks discussing what to do with experts. “We don’t think prorogation should be used in the deceitful way that it has been,” Goodale said. He said the party is looking at three possible new rules: require that a session of Parliament run at least, say, a year before it can be prorogued; limit how long prorogations could last, perhaps to as little as two or three weeks; or require that a prime minister give notice to the House and Senate, with reasons, before going to the governor general to ask for prorogation.
Put like that, the solutions all seem a bit dry. They aren’t the stuff of big headlines, let alone populist revolts. Maybe that’s fine. “We don’t rely on being on the front page,” White says of his anti-prorogation group. They’d better not: some Conservative strategists are hinting that Harper’s fast, fulsome response to the Haitian earthquake is already burying the prorogation fuss. Experienced advocates of democratic reform, who’ve seen momentum fizzle out before, know it might be so again.