Shutting down the House: we don’t like the place much anyway


The architecture of Parliament Hill suits the traditions of the place perfectly. It’s all shadowy neo-Gothic, niches and eccentric carving. There’s none of the classical balance of Washington, so suggestive of calibrated power and constitutional clarity.

No, our Parliament Buildings announce themselves by their design as home to accrued convention, rather than precise rules. Don’t look for clear lines here defining what’s allowed and what’s not. You’ll need to learn where the underground passageways lead, figure out how the place works.

That’s the way it is with British parliamentary practice: centuries of political evolution taught us how to govern ourselves. Our democracy rests at least as much on convention as it does on our Constitution. And that is why the Prime Minister’s resort to shutting down Parliament—proroguing it, to use that nicely mysterious word—is so troubling.

Of course there’s no law forbidding him from delaying the return of MPs from their scheduled resumption of sitting on Jan. 25 to his preferred date of March 3. But Stephen Harper has (again) violated the time-honoured understanding that a new session of Parliament should be launched with a Throne Speech only when the work of the last one can reasonably be said to have wrapped up.

That’s obviously not the case now, as his own officials have made clear by promising to reinstate much of Parliament’s interrupted business—especially criminal justice legislation—when the new session starts. The excuse that the government needs a break from Parliament to consider new economic measures for a March 4th budget isn’t convincing: there’s never been any need before to silence the House for annual budgetary planning.

So what’s happened is that Harper has suspended Parliament because it suits his partisan purposes. He’ll hope to smother the Afghan detainee issue and set up a spring session more to his liking, perhaps even setting the stage for an election. Meanwhile, what’s left of tangible respect for the legislative branch from the executive is dangerously diminished.

How is it possible for a prime minister to show so little regard for Parliament? I believe it’s largely the result of a long period in which political debate in Canada has tended to discredit the core institution in our inherited form of representative democracy. The notion that MPs in the Commons for some reason can’t possibly perform as we’d like them to has underpinned most discussions of democratic reform for a couple of decades.

First there was the long infatuation with direct democracy—referendums and plebiscites and MP-recall mechanisms and such—ushered in by the Reform party. Then came the vogue for proportional representation, with its assumption that MPs only really represent those who actually cast a vote for their party, rather than—quaint notion—everybody in their ridings. And through it all there has been the resilient hope for a parliamentary renaissance built on Senate reform, of all things, as if the House were beyond repair.

It’s not. Fixes for specific shortcomings in the functioning of the House can usually be found. For example, the current impasse concerning turning documents related to the detainee issue over to MPs might be settled by creating a special committee parliamentarians sworn in to hear national security secrets. Many observers have floated promising ideas for improving the tone of Question Period and the functioning of Commons committees.

But all this depends on the executive branch, the Prime Minister and cabinet, showing decent respect for parliamentary tradition. And that means, above all, accepting the Opposition’s role as valid and integral, an idea that evolved in Britain, with the term “His Majesty’s Opposition” coming into use as a convention in the course of debate in 1826.

The Harper government has adopted a position dangerously close to the notion that opposition questioning of the government on any matter relating to Afghanistan is somehow inherently disloyal. As far back as 2007, the Prime Minister himself accused the then-Liberal leader Stéphane Dion of caring more about the Taliban than for Canadian troops. In recent weeks government ministers have made a habit of recklessly equating defending their own handling of the detainee file with defending the behaviour of Canada’s troops in Kandahar.

That’s not just an obnoxious debating tack. Implicit in the ploy is the notion that the Opposition shouldn’t be pressing the government in the first place on the most serious questions of foreign and defence policy. As if to do so is inherently disloyal. It’s a throwback to the 16th and 17th centuries, when British MPs were permitted to ask about local or private matters, but the big questions of state were out of bounds.

There is no quick fix to a national atmosphere in which proper regard for the House, which calls for something approaching reverence for its conventions, has been deteriorating for so long. We’ve gone on too long talking too often as if the House doesn’t deserve respect. Given that lazy habit in our discourse, it’s not surprising that the Prime Minister believes he can slam the doors on the place without paying any political price.

Filed under:

Shutting down the House: we don’t like the place much anyway

  1. I'm not sure that it is a true convention that parliament may only be pro-rogued when everything is wrapped up. There's certainly no convention about being underhanded with the rules and letting the public accpet it or not.

    • I've decided there's nothing underhanded about it. Harper just needs some Olympic photo ops, and they expect it will take almost three months to get a photo of him looking good on skis.

  2. The Liberals/elites are afraid of facing Harper in an election, so they resort to whining when he uses tactics perfected by the Liberals/elites when they were in power.

    There was no similar outrage when Chretien shut down the Somalia inquiry when it began to get close to important people in the bureaucracy and government. There was no similar outrage with Chretien's close relationship with the head of the RCMP, while the RCMP was being horribly mismanaged. There was no similar outrage as the Liberals/elites shifted the locus of debate and regulation of important issues and the details of new laws from the Parliament to the courts and the executive branch.

    Where is the outrage from the media at the CIA rendition flights that Chretien and Martin allowed to refuel and transit Canada as they took their "cargo" to be tortured outside of North America?

    The handling of detainees only became an issue for the elites when Harper was transfering them, not when Chretien was transfering them to the Americans (to face "enhanced interrogation" as advocated by Ignatieff in his book), nor was their any criticism of Martin's transfer agree which cause all the trouble. The Liberals/elites created the detainee problem in Afghanistan. Harper fixed it. They are merely complaining about the speed with which Harper fixed Martin's detainee mess.

    Where are the media's questions to Paul Martin on the detainee issue, and the totally inadequate agreement that his government negotiated?

    There is no problem that cannot be solved by a non-confidence motion, and with the speech from the throne and the budget, the Liberals and the elites will have plenty of opportunity to express their non-confidence and outrage in a method other than whining.
    The problem of Harper can be solved with a simple non-confidence vote, but the elites are terrified that they will lose an election.

    • The government shuts down parliament on a whim, and you call the opposition the "elites"?

    • The Cons are in power, dude. If anything these days constitutes elitism on a grand scale, it's knee-jerk antiliberal reactions like yours.

    • The military assistance in Afghanistan came at the request of the American government of the time. Their detainee policies are supported by the Bush admin. Chretien was politically shrewd enough to save hundreds of Canadians asked to die in Iraq. Where's the media on that? I doubt you know elitism from a Bartlett pear but I personally think the Red Green leadership alternative is what you want. What are you suggesting? The best candidate for PM must avoid higher education? Wait a minute…that is George W. Bush. Sorry! You couldn't possibly have a clue who was close to Chretien. One thing is for sure though. You're apologizing for this quack and that's all we need to know about you're embarrassing pixie PM mentor and his aversion to governing.

    • "The problem of Harper can be solved with a simple non-confidence vote, but the elites are terrified that they will lose an election."

      But Harper prorogued a year ago when he faced a confidence vote.

      I would like to see an election as I think the Conservatives would, at best get another minority. I would then hope that the opposition would defeat the throne speech and form a coalition government.

  3. Brilliant piece. As saddening as the state of affairs you outline, but brilliant.

  4. Excellent piece.

    I simply do not understand why the Opposition parties are not being more proactive. Fear of an election? They owe it to the Westminster system to call Harper's bluff on dissolution.

    • It's always worth asking what Chretien would do. Not that Iggy has shown a scrap of equivalent political instinct.

    • Or why, holding the majority of seats, they don't simply pass legislation removing the power to prorogue from the PM and grant it to a parliament.

  5. Execellent piece shouldIsellyourwheat. Unfortunately, Liberalism sells and that's why the media is so friendly with them.

  6. I'm a Tory, and I disagree strongly with shouldsellyourwheat (although I don't mind if he sells his wheat).

    I didn't vote Conservative to get better Liberal tricks. I voted Conservative to get rid of the tricks entirely.

    A mistake I won't make again.

    • Yeah I agree totally. Liberals with blue signs is what we got, and that isn't what I signed up for.

  7. .

    It is somewhat troubling to see Canada drift ever further from democracy towards a Presidential system.

    This is even more amazing as our Southern neighbours are seeing a return to Government by the people as the Senate and Congress exercise their power.

    Strangly it is the weakness of very able intellectuals that is pushing change.

    Obama tends ot try to convince everyone that his common sense policy is the right one.

    Ignatieff and his weak adivisors appear unable to trap the sly slippery Harper into a real power struggle in which Harper could really be put back in his box.

    Harper needs to be pushed into corner were he has to stand up and be counted they may have to vote down the budget by adding so many anti Reform spending increases. He will have to be a complete poodle or call a confidence vote.

    If Harper calls a vote of confidence he will lose both the vote and the election.

    Similarly the opposition cannot force the people back to the poles. They have to grab the government or trap Harper.

    Ignatieff needs to realise this there is more than one way to skin a skunk.

    • Canada is not drifting towards a presidential system. The President rarely has tight control over the Congress members from his/her own party, and the President doesn't get to decide when Congress sits. We're drifting towards something worse.

    • Why is it strange? About four years after Americans embraced the 'me' generation and elected ronny reagan, we brought in our own 'less is more' in Mulroney. Five years after the Americans brought in a moron guided by the maniacal, we grabbed a clever maniac to be our leader. We wisely gave him just minority powers but give Harper credit, he and his hatchet gang is going great-gangbusters on the public institutions and our own integral defence of same. One just has to wonder and realize what an amazing and underrated leader Lester Pearson was — thrown into a minority after minority against desperate and occasionally possessed opposition, he still worked the levers of power to bring about what most Canadians now consider as positive change.
      What will we say years after these dark days have passed?

  8. Cretien and Ed Broadbent still have more wisdom and statesmanship than either Layton or Ignatieff!
    I believe the only way forward is for the Opposition parties to get together now – announce before a vote of non-confidence how they are going forward – and let the voters decide!
    Any plan that trumps Harper's sole card – that the centre left voters are split four ways – and while they continue to be – he will always have more seats – but never a majority – is a winner!

    • What are the real chances of this happening? Isn't the issue now toxic among the opposition's players? It'll take some real leadership to bring this about…any sign of this on the horizon?

      • Working on it!
        Real leaders got behind this obvious "Step 1" before – along with leadership candidates like Bob Rae…
        A lot of the old school Liberal hierarchy will see it as heresy – but most of those are being squeezed out in AGMs quietly going on around the country now anyway…
        I'd say 50:50 right now…

  9. About that Afghanistan mission: Shouldn't we, ya know, demand that Parliamentarians stick around to press the Government on what the plans are for 2010-2011 and post 2011? According to the Beeb, things have gotten a bit messy just as Harper's boys have decided to focus on Olympic photo-ops:

    — Eight Americans working for the CIA have died in a bomb attack in Afghanistan, the worst against US intelligence officials since 1983
    — Taliban militants beheaded six men they suspected of being spies for the government in the southern province of Uruzgan, police said
    — Four Canadian soldiers and a journalist died in a roadside bomb attack in Kandahar, in the most deadly attack on Canadians in the country for more than two years
    — Two French journalists were kidnapped in Kapisa province, north-east of Kabul, along with their Afghan driver and interpreter, reports say

    Sure, the 30 plus pieces of legislation that will die with prorogation might be important, but what about the longest war in Canadian history? Oh, yeah. Not important. Hockey, that's all that matters now. And patriotism. That's all we can expect to hear about for the next 3 months.

    • Agree. How fortunate for Harper that 4 Canadian soldiers and a Cdn journalist died yesterday. Takes the heat off Harper's prorogation. I'll likely be slammed, but I'm really getting tired of everyone calling all of the 'soldiers' heroes. I feel for the soldiers and their families. But, they signed up, they were not conscripted. I have 2 brothers who chose a career in the military, mostly because it gave them a way out of 'semi-poverty'. Most American soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afgan have done the same. To name a highway a highway of heroes is ridiculous in my opinion. And, to call anyone who is against our involvement in Afgan a Taliban sympathizer is just utterly disgusting. I'm totally disgusted with the apathy of Canadian citizens but that's what its all about – the dumbing down of the electorate. Harpo learned well from Rove, Cheney, Rummy and Bush, et al.

  10. The PM doesn't have the power to prorogue, only the GG does. That's where the problem is.

  11. Ahem, don't you mean "Libs with blue signs and massive deficits"?

    • As far as Libs & deficits go, wasn't Chretien something of an anomoly?

      • so what are you gonna do – not vote?

  12. The only reason the Iggy and Jack are out of wack is because Harper will have a Majority in the senate, will not have to listen to them belly ache and they can't accept that the agenda Harper has, was approved by the Population, and may I say the approval of the last budget by Iggy and the last mini budget by Jack.
    If it were so bad, there would have been an election. But its not bad, in fact Harper has done great. Just the Libs and the DP's didn't get any credit. Sorry boys, your belly Aching isn't striking a cord with the Public.

    • I'd bet if Stevie sold his mother to gain a majority you'd be happy with that too. Have you no shame.

    • If IP addresses could speak, lol

      Society as a whole is diseased. The only way to fix it involves more killing than most are willing to commit to.

  13. I commend your concern about the well-being of the Canadian and Allied soldiers in Afghanistan and I know you think that the good opp. parties will show that concern when parliament returns.

    Could you site some examples of this concern in the fall sitting of parliament. I have thousands of examples of opposition angst concerning Taliban detainees and surplus vaccinees.

    • There have been numerous questions about post-2011 from Bob Rae, Paul Dewar, Gilles Duceppe (who caught MacKay contradicting the PMO about whether any soldiers will be deployed post 2011), etc. Here's coverage from this magazine of a post-QP scrum (you know. those things Harper and his Ministers avoid by using the back stairs):


      As with your comment, most questions put to this government are met not with answers, but with snide accusations that those who want to know about Canada's role in this war — how it serves our national interest, even what the heck it is — are simply coddling the terrorists and besmirching the reputation of our brave soldiers.

      Put the talking points down.

  14. "There is no quick fix to a national atmosphere in which proper regard for the House, which calls for something approaching reverence for its conventions, has been deteriorating for so long. We've gone on too long talking too often as if the House doesn't deserve respect. Given that lazy habit in our discourse, it's not surprising that the Prime Minister believes he can slam the doors on the place without paying any political price"

    When cynicism becomes a badge of honour among the populace, what else can one expect? Harper's regime is simply the logical concluding link in a long chain of distain for govt. The fact that much of that distain may be deserved is neither here nor there…does one cut off one's nose to spite one's face.
    It took a while to get into this hole…no reason to think getting back out again will be any easier.

  15. Most , if not all of us, should be mandated to watch daily Question Period when Parliament is in session. Then , each of us should be mandated to write a 300 word essay why they should ever give a red rat's ass why Parliament should ever meet again. I think that the outcome would be that we make the Governor General the dictator of Canada, hopefully a benevolent dictator.

  16. "The notion that MPs in the Commons for some reason can't possibly perform as we'd like them to has underpinned most discussions of democratic reform for a couple of decades."

    The very fact that Harper can dis our system like this is an excellent example of why so many Canadians are so frustrated and unrepresented by the governments. Electoral reform isn't a "vogue" it is something that is seriously necessary.

    I always prefer a minority government because they can do the least harm. In my idea of a perfect world, there wouldn't be parties, just representatives who had to work together (and listen to the citizens who elected them occasionally too.)

    Canadians can no longer afford to give up on our government. If all the disaffected Canadians actually went out and voted, even for the most radical fringe parties, we'd end up with very different results. I especially hate it when we have "majority" governments who act like dictators because they have a "clear mandate" when the votes they have received are actually a fraction totaling far less than 50% of the population.

    The comments here and elsewhere simply indicate just how badly Canada needs electoral reform. http://www.fairvote.ca/

    When a majority government is not elected, whoever holds the most seats is supposed to form the government. Sure sounds like the coalition is that, so it seems that the GG should have passed the baton. I think it is awesome that the four are actually willing to work together.

    Failing that, call an election. ("Majority"party patronage is always much more costly than throwing frequent elections)..

  17. Let’s see. Our MPs’ don’t represent the people in their ridings, on the contrary, they obey the Party in all votes, speeches and actions or they are out. Question period is an embarrassment to any adult, or should be.
    Parliament is currently suspended.
    And this is a bad thing, why?

  18. I am not sure I give a rat's ass for contempt of Parliament, but does anyone realize that Harper just killed the Home Improvement Tax Credit? It was on the order paper when Parliament was prorogued.

    Lots of luck with your tax deductions in April!

  19. Finally! A great article taking Harper to task for his disrespect of Parliament and the Canadian people. He thinks he's being clever but in fact many of us find his wily coyote tactics quite despicable. Canadians deserve to have a functional Parliament led by a PM who governs in the best interests of all, not one who can't get past the partisan politics of electioneering. Interesting to me though, is the fact that voters had to lead reporters to pay attention to Harper's antics rather than the other way around. Better late than never? Maybe, but isn't it the job of reporters to give us the facts of a situation, as this article has so aptly done?

Sign in to comment.