Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party has done it again; this week in Whitehorse the Prime Minister announced his intention to prorogue parliament. This would mean shutting it down for at least an additional month and reopening the legislative agenda with a throne speech later in the fall. The decision to prorogue Parliament was a shock to many Canadian journalists and citizens. However, should the appeal to prorogue be successful, it would mark the third time that the Conservative government has done so during Stephen Harper’s rule. Given Harper’s transparent use of the tactic on earlier occasions, it should come as no surprise that the scandal ridden Conservative government has once again chosen to shut down our legislative body rather than face criticism.
The prorogation itself will likely be granted, as Governor General David Johnson is hardly interventionist, and thus likely to accept the demands of the status quo. However, the issue is not whether the prorogation shall be granted or not. Rather, the larger problem is Harper’s continued use of undemocratic tactics since his ascension to the Prime Minister’s Office. The use of a prorogation of the kind deployed by Harper has been extremely seldom since 1964 when parliamentary reforms encouraged sitting legislators to take certain holidays and smaller allotments of time off rather than full prorogations.
Some have maintained that the decision of Harper’s governmentto dissolve Parliament is merely a parliamentary tool to assist with a mid-term legislative change in direction. However, a look at the same government’s earlier decisions to prorogue Parliament indicates a broader pattern of completely self-serving, hyper-partisan behaviour- the same kind of tactics which were categorically condemned by Stephen Harper before he became Prime Minister.
In 2002, Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien was besieged by the growing corruption of his party, which manifested itself into the sponsorship scandal that left the Prime Minister himself partially implicated. The House of Commons public accounts committee demanded a report from the guilty parties in order to table it to the House. As a result, Chretien appealed to the Governor General for Parliament to be dissolved for his own political purposes in an attempt to avoid having the report tabled. This tactic was met with derision and disgust by opposition parties, with none more vocal than Stephen Harper himself. Eventually, the sponsorship scandal caught up to the Liberals, resulting in a 2006 victory by Harper over incumbent Paul Martin based on a campaign of democratic transparency.
Harper and his government have indulged in a wide variety of anti-democratic and secretive practices which completely contradict their platform on open governance and Harper’s prorogation record remains one of the most high profile examples of flagrant disrespect for fair political process. In 2008, Stephen Harper’s back was against the wall: The Liberal and NDP parties of Stephane Dion and Jack Layton respectively had formed a coalition in order to defeat Harper’s minority government and call a vote of non-confidence. In a ploy that caused a U of T legal scholar to declare that “no Prime Minister in history has so abused the power to prorogue”, Stephen Harper appealed relentlessly to the Governor General to be granted the power to dissolve parliament; a request that was granted reluctantly after a considerable amount of time. This was later followed by a prorogation in 2009/2010 after the Harper administration was facing severe scrutiny for their treatment of Afghan detainees.
Somewhere along the line, Stephen Harper lost sight of his own principles. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has shut down the lines of communication and abused his power to unilaterally silence political opposition and public scrutiny whenever it has been most convenient. This particular prorogation is coming off the heels of an intense and largely painful spring session of Parliament for the Conservatives, who were besieged on all sides by the burgeoning Senate expenses scandal and the involvement that the Prime Minister’s Office had in that affair. By examining recent prorogation history, it is clear that the Conservative Party resorts to this tactic whenever it faces too much public criticism. Given how the 2008 and 2009 prorogations are viewed in the political community 2013 will be seen as yet another year in which the Harper administration has proven both unable and unwilling to face the channels of an open and accountable democratic society. The Conservative government is known for spouting rhetoric on the subject of transparency and accountability; yet it appears that their prorogation action contradicts this claim, and is indicative of a government which boasts transparent motives rather than transparent democratic practices.
-Eli Vincent Zivot