Sunday, January 17, 2010

Proroguing Parliament: The Message

Is proroguing Parliament undemocratic? Depends on how you look it. It is unusual but also a prerogative of a Prime Minister. In other words, it is not outside the rules by which the Canadian parliamentary system functions. On the other hand, the Parliamentary system is not static. To use a procedural trick -- a technicality, let's call it -- to avoid facing the music is something that is clearly of questionable ethics. Even if proroguing is a prerogative of a PM, it is not clear that Canadians believe such technicalities should be used to cut of legislative discussion of important issues.

There is a more important issue here, however, and it is this: I don't think Harper is lying. I don't think he is trying to avoid Parliament. That might be a side benefit and some of his ministers and MPs might be happy to have a chance to recover from the shell shock of some recent problems, but I think he's telling the truth when he says that he wants to test the pulse of the country. I think he is being completely honest when he says that he wants to figure out what Canadians think before bringing in new economic policies. And, this, is the problem.

Harper's decision to prorogue Parliament is a sign of the problems with Canadian democracy not because he is shutting off debate. That debate will continue in the news, in speeches, in door-to-door campaigning, in blogs, etc. (I'm not saying these are a substitute for a legislature!) Instead, this is a sign of the demise of democracy in the sense that it indicates that Harper intends to "govern by polls." In some ways, this should not be surprising. He and others have already suspended, for reasons of political convenience, key elements of conservative ideology. Why not go the next step and not even bother to put your ideas "out there" to see how Canadians respond. Why not go and find out what Canadians want and then give that to them?

I see this as a sign of democracy because it displaces serious public debate on important issues not by proroguing but by abandoning one's perspective and turning one's party, as it were, into political mercenaries. Conservatives long said that they were unfairly demonized by liberals. They were not scary. That's wrong. They were scary to a lot of us. They rejected equality, believed in a free market system that ... ahem, seems to be having some serious empirical problems, opposed bilingualism, rejected the idea of a national polity (remember the "firewall"?), opposed gun control, rejected the idea that women should control their bodies, wanted to dramatically lower immigration, wanted Canada to be fighting in Iraq, supported Bush, Jr's Star Wars II missile shield, and argued for a two tier health care system. This is scary stuff and, with some exceptions, they have moved away from most of these ideas or let them drop into the past or left them to private members to raise.

Now, you can tell by the way I have phrased these comments that I'm no C/conservative. I believe in equality, support bilingualism, was glad Canada did not involve itself in Iraq or in the missile shield. I support gun control and believe women should control their bodies. I'm pro-diversity and pro-immigration and think socialized medicine is wonderful. What I want, however, is democratic discussion of these issues and that requires someone to carry them forward. The most logical people to do that are the people that believe in them: conservatives. After all, if you rely on me to play Devil's advocate and argue against gun control for the sake of having a discussion about it, I won't do a very good job.

Proroguing Parliament indicates clearly that the Harper government has extended its "party for hire" approach to politics into the economic sphere. They'll spin Canadian views in the way that is closest to their believes, to be sure, but what Party doesn't? What they are telling us, however, is something other than spin. What they are telling us is that they don't want to put their own ideas on the table because Canadians might reject them and they could lose power so they are just not going to do that. I guess I can't blame them for this. Having power must be awfully appealing. It is, however, a missed opportunity for Canadians to consider their future.
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