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.

Looking for more?

Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.