First, let’s get the histrionic version out of the way.
The Government of an often-forgotten monarchy in the Americas shuts down the country’s parliament. Facing a rash of allegations of cover-ups of the complicity of the armed forces in torture, the Government explains that it needs "time to recalibrate".
There is an array of unsurprising responses: the international media expresses disappointment, The Economist issues a ritual tut-tutting and opposition parties organise national protests. Tens of thousands show up to demand that Parliament be reopened. Crisis!
Australians unfamiliar with the story might be surprised to learn that the country in question is Canada, a sibling in the extended family of Westminster democracies. They might have been less surprised, however, if they’d been paying attention when parliament was "prorogued" by the same government only 12 months earlier. As one wit put it, "prorogue" was a relatively new addition to the Canadian lexicon: when it comes to taking time off "just because", we’re used to children having a monopoly.
The current parliamentary break lacks the high drama of 2008 which saw Parliament shuttered down under the shadow of a constitutional crisis.
In late November 2008, the Conservative party’s minority government introduced a "fiscal update" which proposed to eliminate public funding for political parties — funding which was essential to the opposition parties. Prime Minister Stephen Harper wagered he had a perfect poison pill. If the opposition voted down the measure in a no-confidence vote, he would have to call another election. Not only would the opposition parties be forced to fight an election defending an entitlement to public funding during a recession, they would also have to swallow the blame for the second election in three months and the fourth in five years. However, if they accepted the measure, Harper would achieve a key aim of his political career: the destruction of the centre-left Liberals, who, until 2003, had been "Canada’s natural governing party".
It was an uncharacteristic misstep for a Prime Minister who had risen to power relying primarily on a noted knack for strategy. Within days the Liberals had forged an agreement with the social-democratic New Democratic Party to replace the Conservatives with an unprecedented coalition government (with support in parliament by the Quebec-sovereigntist Bloc Québécois) headed by Liberal leader Stéphane Dion.
Facing backlash for what was seen as a cynical ploy to undercut democratic accountability in Parliament, Harper decided to regroup by requesting that parliament be shut down before a confidence vote could take place.
Governor-General Michaëlle Jean found herself in a Catch-22. Constitutional convention demanded that she assent to any request made of her by the Prime Minister so long as he had the confidence of Parliament. But even if Harper’s government no longer had the confidence of parliament, there was no official record that this was the case. And even if Harper had lost the confidence vote, constitutional experts disagreed over whether the Governor-General could exercise her discretion to form a new government without an election. Either way, her decision would be seen by many Canadians as an undemocratic interference in the political process.
With parties prepared to put forward a no-confidence motion on 8 December 2008, Harper delivered a speech broadcast on national television deriding the new coalition’s attempt to form government as undemocratic. The networks gave the Liberals time to respond. Dion, a wildly unpopular Francophone who had already resigned as leader, took up the challenge; he floundered with weak English, technical glitches and poor messaging.
On 4 December 2008, Harper paid a visit to Governor-General Jean to request prorogation. She granted the request. When Parliament resumed six weeks later, Harper’s campaign machine had exited victorious. Canadians had decided they were opposed to the coalition governing without an election, and Dion had been replaced. The new Liberal leader, Michael Ignatieff, had no appetite for the coalition.
This year’s parliamentary break has been much less theatrical, both in stake and in staging. Not only is there general agreement that the Governor-General was required to grant prorogation but the request was made unceremoniously by phone. Harper did not face a confidence vote before the request and there are no plans for one in March.
So why did the Prime Minster bother?
Firstly, allegations had been made that Canadian troops had turned over prisoners to the Afghan military, even after it became clear that those prisoners might be tortured. Evidence was mounting that the minister responsible had known about the transfers and done nothing about it.
Secondly, with the Winter Olympics being held in Vancouver at the end of February, the Conservatives expect a significant bump in the polls to help win a potential spring election.
Thirdly, there was an expectation that the Conservatives would use the time off to fill vacant spots in Canada’s appointed-for-life, marginally regional Senate, where some of their legislation had been dragging in the mud. On Friday, the Prime Minister did just this, placing a plurality of Senate seats under his party’s control.
The Canadian Parliament was supposed to open last Monday. Instead, it will reopen on 3 March. Parliamentary delays of similar lengths have been requested before by both Conservative and Liberal governments.
So, if the decision was constitutionally above-board and not unprecedented, why did tens of thousands join in rallies to protest the decision last week? The unity of the opposition parties against prorogation is an insufficient explanation: the very job of opposition parties is to oppose. It’s seldom enough to convince crowds of Canadians to brave the bracing cold of the northern winter to listen to shivering politicians rail about parliamentary procedure.
The easy answer is that Canadian democracy has gone a bit rank. Not rotten, exactly, but it certainly gives off a pong.
It faces a separatist vote in Québec which now consistently elects an obstructionist caucus equivalent to one in six parliamentary seats, a dated first-past-the-post voting system for the House of Commons and an appointed Senate. Participation rates in voluntary elections are at record lows. It has now had almost six years of minority government and there’s little prospect of anyone winning a majority when we inevitably stumble into the next election, yet parties continue to shun coalition government.
Prince William’s recent visit to Australia once again stirred up debate about the role of the monarchy in the Australian political system. Republican arguments in favour of abolishment focus mostly on the identity of the head of state. Republican or not, Australians should be happy that their constitutional problems are principled, not partisan and that debates about the structure of the executive are focused on national symbolism, not basic function.
While both prorogue decisions have inspired some Canadians to suggest replacing the head of state, their goal is to put democratic principles back into democratic politics, not to take the Queen out. In short, if Australians are growing increasingly tired of a foreign matron being involved in their politics, Canadians are still working to rid our politics of childish practices — whining, conniving and taking recess.
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