Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff spoke at Concordia on January 12 and fielded students’ questions on prorogation – as well as the tar sands, the war in Afghanistan, and the seal hunt – as part of a cross-Canada campus tour.
Ignatieff, speaking about Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s decision to prorogue Parliament, for the second time in two years, from December 30 until March 3. Critics have viewed the move as an attempt to postpone a vote of no confidence and escape censure regarding recent political controversies.
A majority of Canadians, 53 per cent according to a Toronto Star-Angus Reid online poll, oppose prorogation.
Ignatieff expressed that Harper’s sudden decision is an affront to Canada’s democratic norms.
“Mr. Harper gambled on the cynicism of the Canadian public,” said Ignatieff. “He thought no one would care if he shut down Parliament. He gambled wrong…. In our idea of democracy, it is Parliament that’s sovereign, not the prime minister…. Any prime minister with respect for democracy must use [prorogation] in the most sparing way possible.”
Despite his criticism, Ignatieff has no power to remedy the present situation. Since Harper’s Conservatives retain more parliamentary seats than any other party, he is constitutionally authorized – with the consent of the governor general – to postpone the reopening of Parliament.
“This system works when the prime minister accepts that his power is constrained,” said Ignatieff.
In order to reverse prorogation, the Liberals would have to topple the government by forming a coalition with other parties.
However, after his ascension as the leader of the Liberal party last year, Ignatieff refused NDP leader Jack Layton’s proposal to form a coalition against the Conservatives. “What I felt missing was political legitimacy,” said Ignatieff, speaking on his decision.
According to Robert Tesolin, co-president of NDP Concordia, Ignatieff’s decision to support Harper’s government last year following his first prorogation of Parliament may have emboldened the prime minister to once again suspend it.
“To a certain extent, [Harper has] acted with impunity because he’s seen that it works. He thinks that his adversaries will let him get away with it,” Tesolin said.
However, Lawrence David, VP External of Concordia’s Political Science Student Association, supported Ignatieff’s decision to avoid forming a coalition with other parties. David argued that the creation of a coalition during the 2008- 2009 crisis would have formed a weak and unstable government due to its necessary alliance with the Bloc Québécois – a party he felt would necessarily undermine the coalition’s agenda by rejecting anything contrary to a sovereingtist position.
“The Liberal party felt it was to their benefit to form a strong party on their own. By forming a coalition, they would empower lesser parties in the eyes of their constituents,” said David. “Their priority is to build a power base.”
As recent polls suggest a decline in popularity for the Conservatives, the question remains as to whether Ignatieff will be able to capitalize on popular discontent to rally support for his party.
David indicated that widespread outrage against prorogation offers “the perfect opportunity and launch-pad to do so.”
Certain students, however, remain pessimistic about the possibility for a revival of political interest in the Liberal Party. “They’ll be forced to tacitly or openly support the government,” said Tesolin. “There’s no way they can come close to forming their own govern–ment…. [Ignatieff] is at the helm of a sinking ship.”