The Opposition to Prorogation

A group of some seventy political scientists, political philosophers, and law professors are organizing a declaration opposing Prime Minister Harper’s decision to prorogue parliament. The contention is that “in using the power to suspend the operation of Parliament as he has, Harper has violated not the letter but the spirit of the laws, essentially by using this power for partisan, tactical advantage at a time when there are matters before the House and its committees that call for the government having its feet kept to the fire by the loyal opposition.”

They continue: “as political philosophers and legal theorists we have a responsibility to speak out when our democratic institutions are imperiled by the reckless and irresponsible actions of our leaders, whatever party they happen to be part of.” The group is drawing up an op-ed piece for publication in the Globe and Mail, and in either le Devoir or La Presse. They will post a web site to secure further signatures in weeks to come. Daniel Weinstock is the organizer.

I am invited to sign.

Well, I’m not signing without consulting my authority. I’m a political scientist who dabbles in political philosophy and I like to think that I’m at home with the parliamentary systems of the seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-centuries. I have some expertise. But on the twentieth century and the twenty-first, I turn to a historian: Christopher Moore.

Moore’s blog on the current situation begins: “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 response to the allegations about Canadian complicity in torture.”

Moore’s no friend of executive dominance. (It would be criminal of me to reproduce the whole blog – though I’m tempted.) He’d like to see Harper’s highhandedness reigned in. The trouble is that over the years we, the electorate, have convinced ourselves and indeed convinced many of our representatives in the House of Commons that they must toe the party line.

We’re alarmed by shows of independence; we’re alarmed by parliamentarians who change their minds, who think for themselves. If one crosses the floor we assume she did it for reasons of low personal ambition. “Canadian parliamentarians are actually not as dumb and sheeplike as the Canadian legislatures make them seem to be… They act that way because we tell them constantly we want them to.” Oops, I’m quoting from Moore again.

We’ve forgotten that parliaments are deliberative institutions. The old anti-deliberative Reform Party/Alliance/ Progressive expectation hangs on among us: you choose your man or woman, send her to Ottawa, and hold her to her promises.

But is that how Parliament is supposed to work? Maybe not. There’s another, older view which insists that Members are not automatons. They should be free to react to new political developments, think on the spot, and change their support for government initiatives if in their considered opinion change is in the best interests of their constituents and the country as a whole.

The excellent book that makes the case for a more deliberative legislature, is Adam Tomkins’ Our Republican Constitution (Hart Publishing, 2005). It’s not an easy read. Here’s a start: “The government is required to secure the support of a majority in Parliament not only when ministerial careers are on the line, but every single day. It is a routine obligation on the part of the government that it must ensure that its policies, decisions and actions enjoy parliamentary backing” (page 2). Try him out. Tomkins develops this familiar idea in surprising ways.

I know. I have said nothing useful about the immediate situation. It’s hardly helpful to chatter on about proposals to enhance the independence of legislators when Parliament has been dismissed. I have only a limp reply. Other remedies – reform of the electoral system, etc, will compound our difficulties by further curbing the parliamentarians’ independence and initiative.

The long and short of it is that although I am interested in this citizen-initiative criticizing Prime Minister Harper, I won’t sign.

3 Responses to “The Opposition to Prorogation”

  1. 1 Stephen MacLean January 7, 2010 at 3:32 am

    I think there is much to commend in the various measures being undertaken across Canada to voice popular disapproval of this prorogation and to dissent to what Errol Mendes has called ‘a minority government that undermines the fundamental democratic institutions of this country’ and what Michael Behiels terms ‘a constitutional war over the prerogatives of Parliament, a war that [the Prime Minister] and his cabinet are determined to win at virtually any price to our constitutional democracy and its hallowed institutions.’

    But if a remnant of belief in the sovereignty of Parliament remains—pace the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and Behiels’ call for a last-ditch recourse to the Supreme Court of Canada—then the remedy lies within the House of Commons itself.
    In the age before strict party discipline, when MPs were grouped loosely along general political affiliations, no leader was safe from the backbenches: Sir John A. Macdonald was laid low by fellow Conservative Donald Smith in the Pacific Scandal, and more recently Margaret Thatcher resigned from office when she lost the confidence of her parliamentary party.

    Do MPs agree with the prorogation? With a minority Parliament, it’s a good bet that the opposition parties do not, though it would be interesting to know the views of the Conservative members.

    Ultimately, Moore and Tomkins and Ajzenstat are right: our elected representatives must not allow partisanship to trump the conventions of Parliament, nor sit by passively while others assume their responsibilities to hold the Executive to account.

    Physicians—err, Legislators—heal thyselves!

  2. 2 John von Heyking January 7, 2010 at 12:16 pm

    A while back Moore had a wonderful article on how backbenchers in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand are able to give their party leaders “the boot.” This is because they have greater power in choosing their party leader. Maybe we should jettison our current plebiscitarian mode of choosing party leaders and replace it with “smoke filled backrooms”?

  1. 1 2010 in review « The Idea File Trackback on January 2, 2011 at 11:09 am

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