Monday, January 04, 2010

The prorogation

This isn't where you will find an outbreak of fury about Prime Minister Harper's decision to prorogue Parliament in order to hamstring the parliamentary dissection of his government's dishonest and abusive responses to the allegations about Canadian complicity in torture.

There is lots of fury available if that's your taste. Susan Riley and Michael Behiels in the Ottawa Citizen, and the editorialists in the Globe and Mail, can give you your fill, and that's without even going to the Toronto Star. As Behiels puts it:
Harper's continued use of such bold, provocative and intimidating tactics proves that he is morally convinced that the end -- unfettered power for his Conservative party and government and the wholesale destruction of the centrist Liberal party -- justifies the means.
Behiels is absolutely right. But I can't help thinking that all prime ministers pursue their ends and are not too squeamish about the means. Politics is tough, and politicians have always pushed to see what they can get away with. The problem is not in this prime minister's perhaps-uniquely cynical and contemptuous behaviour, but in the failure of our parliament to provide the counterweights and accountability the parliamentary system usually provides more-or-less automatically. It's no good raving about Mr. Harper's meanness; good government should not depend on one politician's self-restraint.

Behiels says:
If the legislative branch is rendered powerless by Harper's executive branch, Canadians have no choice but to defend their Constitution by taking their struggle to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Behiels looks to the courts for protection. (Good luck with that one!) Advocates of electoral reform panaceas will declare that PR would solve the problem. Senate reform zealots will explain why Triple-E would save us. Direct-democracy types will call for some kind of referendum or initiative.

The problem is always in the House of Commons, and we insist on looking for solutions everywhere else. But functioning parliamentary systems are full of checks and balances. In a functioning parliamentary system, even government-side backbenchers have good reason to want parliament to be in session, for it's the one place they can attract attention and serve their own ambitions. For their own ends, they will resist and undermine a leader who seeks to marginalize their forum as part of marginalizing them.

But in Canada, where we insist that party leaders are not accountable to parliamentarians, parliament is a waste of time for government backbenchers; it is merely a place to emphasize their docile dependence and slavish obedience. They would just as soon be at home. And so the unaccountable leader gets to do what he or she wants.

There is no simple fix to this parliamentary crisis. It's a cultural one. Canadian parliamentarians are actually not as dumb and sheeplike as the Canadian legislatures makes them seem to be. They just act that way. They believe it's their duty. They ar conditioned to believe it. They act that way because we tell them constantly we want them to.

When MPs hear that they are supposed to be powerful, they are supposed to be able to represent the people, they have the right and the duty to make policy, to fire party leaders who impede their policy inclinations, and to hire better ones, they'll seize the power eagerly. They will get rid of authoritarian bullies more or less automatically, simply in the process of pursuing their own agendas.

But who will tell them to go ahead? Who ever looks to parliamentarians for solutions to the parliamentary problem?

Update: Andrew Coyne is sound and compelling on this.
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