When Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced last week that he was suspending the current session of Parliament, some members of the media quickly resorted to their tired game of making him look like an evil, conniving Machiavellian dictator. Suddenly Harper was likened to leaders of undemocratic nations or kings of the past who chose to dismiss Parliament and accountability to the commoners on a mere whim.
It makes for entertaining news, but not much more. The delay in ‘accountability’ is from Jan. 25 to March 3. The Olympic Games run from Feb. 12 to 28 and, let’s face it, most high-level government ministers will be in Vancouver handing out medals and most Canadians will be focused on hockey. People won’t care about politics and Parliament will be empty. In essence, we’re quibbling about a two-week delay.
So what’s the big deal? The media may be creating the perception that the loss of Parliamentary debate is the equivalent of a lapse of accountability, but it won’t be.
Eliminating Question Period will conveniently spare Harper and his government from questions about Canada’s treatment of the Afghan detainees. But that doesn’t mean the questions or the controversy will go away. The media will continue to push the issue and, frankly, that is more likely to produce a response and a release of documents than a slew of feckless Opposition questions that are designed more to accomplish political and media goals than protect the Afghans.
Some still believe that Question Period has some sort of democratic purpose. It may function as a democratic check on power, but a 45-minute session that allows for a maximum time of 35 seconds per question effectively puts an end to any reasonable discussion. Consequently, the theme of questions has little to do with fresh ideas about policy/ governance and everything to do with presenting carefully crafted, partisan sound bites for the 6 p.m. news. There is no legitimate debate in Question Period; as such, it’s a cheap sham of accountability.
If people are truly upset about a lack of accountability and democracy, they should push all MPs and senators to adopt the proposed Senate reform that Harper has promised to reintroduce to Parliament in March. It calls for an elected Senate and a limited eight-year term in office. The Liberal-dominated Senate quashed this legislation two years ago; they wanted a 12-year term.
In fact, the unelected Liberals have turned the Senate into a partisan machine that has deliberately delayed and hindered the passage of bills through the Senate. They’ve manipulated committees, delayed hearing and used procedural tactics to prevent the government’s agenda from becoming law.
Part of the reason Harper prorogued Parliament is to give him time to fill five more seats with conservatives who support his agenda. It would give his party a near majority of 51, compared to 49 for the Liberals and five independents. Yes, Harper is playing partisan games by stacking the Senate in his favour, but until the Liberals are willing to support Senate reform, there are no other options.
Obviously, the unelected Senate is the weak link in Canada’s chain of democracy and accountability, not the power of the prime minister to prorogue Parliament.
The work of governance will continue. Most of the work is accomplished through the offices of the Prime Minister and his cabinet ministers and that won’t change. MPs will visit their ridings and focus on their constituencies instead of participating in Ottawa’s artificial debate. Government offices will still function and all expenses approved by the legislature will be spent. The government can even obtain a special warrant to spend money that hasn’t been approved. The real business of governing takes place outside of the House of Commons and it probably gets done better and more efficiently than when the House is in session.
Do we really want a functioning, accountable and democratic government? Or will we continue to be content with the mere appearance of democracy and accountability? These are the real questions to ask ourselves as we consider Harper’s decision to prorogue Parliament. The former requires a democratically elected Senate and a commitment to legitimate debate—not micro-managed media messages—in Parliament. The latter requires only that we sit back and complain.