Commentary | Needed: Opposition ménage à trois

On December 30, Prime Minister Stephen Harper quietly announced through a proxy that he would prorogue – or close – Parliament until March 3, after the end of the Olympics and Paralympics in Vancouver. Parliament, which had 36 government bills under consideration before prorogation, was supposed to reconvene after the holidays on January 25. The move will terminate all of these bills and disband all parliamentary committees.

Proroguing Parliament in this way is unacceptably antidemocratic. The move comes at a time when criticism of Harper’s government is mounting; it amounts to a thinly veiled attempt to end debate on the Conservative government’s failure to address Canada’s carbon emissions, to terminate investigations into an ongoing detainee abuse scandal, and to consolidate power in Harper’s hands.

The timing of this action is telling – it brings difficult discussions to a halt just in time to avoid the harsh glare of international scrutiny that the Olympics could bring. Harper claims his government needs the time to “recalibrate” its agenda – but whatever the pretense, now, with so much unfinished business before Parliament, is not the time to prorogue.

By shuttering Parliament for two months, Harper ends investigation of accusations that the government turned a blind eye to the torture of prisoners. Canadian forces have been handing detainees over to the Afghan National Directorate of Security, notorious for its brutal treatment of prisoners, since 2006 – despite six separate reports from diplomat Richard Colvin detailing the dangers of such transfers. Handing prisoners over to authorities likely to torture them violates the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, to which Canada is a signatory.

Prior to this, the Conservatives were already boycotting the House of Commons Committee on the Canadian Mission in Afghanistan’s hearings about the torture. This makes it all the more suspect that their leader has disbanded this committee just as it was about to subpoena his government. The opposition parties’ plan for “quasi-hearings” – unofficial meetings of the Committee with no power to compel testimony or grant immunity – is no serious remedy to this stoppering of democratic accountability.

According to critics, Harper is hoping to ride the Olympic euphoria wave straight to a majority in the House of Commons. The two-month vacation would give the Tories time to distance themselves from their dismal performance at Copenhagen and wash away the bad taste of the detainee abuse scandal with Olympian patriotism.

Sources close to Harper deny this accusation, but the timing of the prorogation points to an even grander design: a full majority in both chambers. Harper plans on naming five senators to the Upper Chamber between now and March, a move which, coupled with prorogation, will give Conservatives control over all senatorial committees. A snap election resulting in a Conservative majority could give Harper free reign. And even without a majority in the House of Commons, with the Senate in his pocket Harper could still force through much of his agenda.

As the Economist points out, these machinations are a part of a larger antidemocratic trend in Harper’s governing style. He has, the Economist writes, “[barred] most ministers from talking to the media; he has axed some independent watchdogs; he has binned campaign promises to make government more open and accountable. Now he is subjecting Parliament to prime-ministerial whim.”

Such tactics undermine Canadian democracy at a time when our forces are engaged in a military mission ostensibly to establish democracy in another country. The prime minister is responsible to Parliament, not the other way around. Parliament does not sit at Stephen Harper’s pleasure, to be dismissed when his government’s embarrassing and scandalous negligence is about to be exposed.

The opposition needs to hold the Conservatives accountable for this – not just through their symbolic residence in Ottawa during prorogation, but also by toppling the government, forming a coalition and restoring democratic leadership in Parliament when it comes back into session in March. The onus lies especially with the Liberals under Michael Ignatieff – whose refusal to participate in a coalition in December 2008 scuttled efforts to bring the Conservatives down.

While waiting for Parliament to reconvene, we need to keep the pressure on. Governor-General Michaëlle Jean – whose constitutional role is to protect against abuses of power – has once again allowed the prime minister to dodge parliamentary accountability. Let her know how you feel: email her at info@gg.ca, or call her at 613-993-8200 or 1-800-465-6890.

Stephen Harper should also hear from you: email him at pm@pm.gc.ca, or phone him at 613-992-4211.

You can also participate in a nationwide series of rallies on January 23. Montreal’s does not have a time or location yet, but keep looking on our web site for more information. You could also head to Ottawa’s rally, which promises to be big.