This was to have been the week Parliament returned to work. A comfortable six-week vacation to allow our MPs to recharge their batteries, and then once more to the business of running the country. Unfortunately, the holiday will now last until March. The damage could last much longer.
Parliament last sat on Dec. 10, 2009. It will not sit again until March 3, 2010. Thanks to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s controversial decision to prorogue, Parliament is missing in action at a time when a great many issues demand its attention.
The Prime Minister claimed in one recent interview that a “routine” break of this sort is necessary to “recalibrate” his government. In another, he said suspending Parliament would actually provide greater stability by stifling election speculation. Neither reason is remotely convincing.
Harper’s real motivation was to end embarrassing inquiries into the Afghan detainees affair and fast-forward Parliament to the next federal budget, a topic he feels more comfortable defending if an election is in the offing. It’s a move that serves his party, but not the country.
It’s true that much of the work done by government occurs away from Parliament Hill. Our dramatic support for Haiti, planning the upcoming G20 summit, crafting the new budget and winding down the economic stimulus program are all functions of the executive, rather than legislature. But this does not mean Parliament should be regarded as a bothersome formality that gets underfoot of running the country. The House of Commons remains the ultimate source of law and democracy in this country. It deserves respect.
During these four years of minority government, the Prime Minister has often shown a distinct lack of interest in democratic convention, or even his own commitments. When opposition parties refused to bring down the House in 2008 at a time convenient to his own agenda, Harper did it himself. This in violation of the spirit of his fixed-date election law. Now he’s decided it would be inconvenient to have an election called before March, and so he’s essentially taken away Parliament’s power to make this call through a vote of non-confidence.
We have also heard frequently that opposition parties are to blame for derailing the Harper government’s agenda; in particular, its popular law and order platform. Yet now it is the Prime Minister himself who is being obstreperous. Of the 36 pieces of legislation sent into oblivion by prorogation, nearly half were important changes to the Criminal Code or similar laws. Of particular note is the fact that necessary reforms to the national sex offender registry—the need for which we revealed in a recent Maclean’s investigation—are now on hiatus.
Also lost in the shuffle are significant foreign policy innovations such as free trade deals with Jordan and Colombia. Why abandon all this work?
While Harper has provided generally competent leadership throughout the current economic crisis, he risks throwing all of this away with his cavalier treatment of Parliament. Canadians expect their politicians to show up for work, whether it is convenient for them or not.