For the second consecutive December, Stephen Harper is putting Parliament on ice. In the act, the Prime Minister is turning prorogation, a sometimes sensible parliamentary procedure, into an underhanded manoeuvre to avoid being accountable to Parliament. In the interests of political expediency, the government will diminish the democratic rights of Canadians.
Proroguing stops committee work and makes all legislation pending before Parliament vanish. Historically, it has been used when a government has implemented most of its agenda. Until Mr. Harper's innovation, it was not an annual occurrence; the last minority government to use it more than once was Lester B. Pearson's Liberal administration in the 1960s.
Today, the Conservative agenda remains unfulfilled. More than half of all government bills - 37 of 64 - introduced since January, 2009, have yet to be passed into law. Eleven of these are justice bills, dealing with such weighty matters as elimination of the faint-hope clause (which still needs to be taken up by the Senate) and tougher sentencing for white-collar criminals and drug traffickers. These can be re-introduced when the new Parliament resumes in March, but they will need to go through the legislative process anew. In any case, Mr. Harper's decision means Parliament will lose more than 20 days: time that could have been used debating, amending and passing these bills.
There is a tactical political advantage to prorogation. The government temporarily eludes an issue of national importance that is particularly inconvenient: its knowledge of torture of Afghan detainees. Government members have already acted as truants when Afghanistan committee hearings are called. The government failed to provide documents to committee members, and implied it will disregard a parliamentary order to produce those documents. Prorogation is the logical extension of such thinking: shut down parliamentary debate entirely.
Prorogation would also allow the government a freer hand in the Senate: five vacancies need to be filled, and committees can be reconstituted after prorogation, giving Conservatives a "governing majority."
Political calculation is clearly behind the decision to prorogue. The Conservatives are hoping to bask in the glow of Olympic glory while dodging the mess and scrutiny of lawmaking, Question Period and an outstanding, unprecedented order from Parliament to provide transparency and truth on the detainee file. Then, they hope to return in March, stronger in the Senate and ready to reclaim, they hope, the public agenda.
Canada's democracy should not be conducted solely on the basis of convenience for the governing party. If the debate over detainees cannot be carried out in Parliament, then it should continue among Canadians at large. On this and other important issues, the government cannot delay accountability forever.
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