Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Constraining arbitrary power

Twice in the last 18 months, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has advised the Governor General to prorogue (suspend) the Canadian Parliament.

While prorogation itself is a perfectly legitimate parliamentary procedure - frequently done by previous Prime Ministers in previous Parliaments - what is virtually unique here is the reason for the Prime Minister's advice.

Normally, prorogation happens when the bulk of the work set out for a particular session has been concluded. This does not apply to either of Harper prorogations.

Prime Minister Harper sought prorogation in order to avoid being accountable to the House of Commons.

Of all the prorogations in Canadian history, four stand out.

  • Sir John A. Macdonald sought a prorogation in 1873 in order to avoid facing the House over the Pacific Scandal. It was to be fully 130 years before another Canadian Prime Minister acted such a coward.

  • Jean Chretien sought prorogation in 2003 in order to avoid facing the House over the Sponsorship Scandal.

  • Stephen Harper sought prorogation in 2008 to avoid facing a confidence motion in the Commons triggered by his own overreaching attempt to financially cripple the opposition parties.

  • Stephen Harper sought prorogation in 2010 in order to avoid facing the House over the treatment of Afghan nationals detained by the Canadian Forces and turned over to the Afghan government.

Although he has been Prime Minister less than five years of Canada's 143 year history (less than 3.5%), Stephen Harper is personally responsible for fully half of the irregular abuses of prorogation - and stands in company with John A. Macdonald and Jean Chretien, two of the most corrupt Prime Ministers in Canadian History.

Tomorrow, New Democrat leader Jack Layton will be introducing a resolution in the Commons to constrain the Prime Minister's capacity to abuse prorogation in this way. His resolution states:

“That, in the opinion of the House, the Prime Minister shall not advise the Governor General to prorogue any session of any Parliament for longer than seven calendar days without a specific resolution of this House of Commons to support such a prorogation.”

This is a reasonable and moderate limitation on the Prime Minister's prerogative, but the Liberal Party may not support a resolution which would similarly constrain a future Liberal Prime Minister.

I encourage my Canadian readers to go here to sign the online petition to pressure the Liberals to hold the Conservatives to account . . . for a change.


Anonymous said...

I was with you until you wrote "John A. Macdonald and Jean Chretien, two of the most corrupt Prime Ministers in Canadian History."

When you start mud slinging you lose credibility and the respect of some of your readers.

Malcolm+ said...

You are certainly free to disagree with my assessment, but I hardly think it's mudslinging to refer to the authors of the Pacific Scandal and the Sponsorship Scandal as corrupt.

Some would argue that Brian Mulroney's government was marked by more corruption than either, but by comparison to the organized criminal conspiracy that was AdScam, the Mulroney scandals are mere petty theft.