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Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)
Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)

Jeffrey Simpson

Prorogation will not loosen the PM's grip Add to ...

It is somewhat difficult to fathom the sudden, albeit localized, hyperventilation over Prime Minister Stephen Harper's decision to prorogue Parliament.

The decision was completely Harperesque. It was perfectly consistent with who he is, how he sees politics and how he has previously behaved.

He is, above all, a partisan politician to the tips of his fingers. He will use any and all means within the law to achieve his political objectives. He does not like political dissent, and seeks to minimize it where and if possible.

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He runs the most effective, best-financed political machine in the history of federal politics. Every major decision his government takes is influenced, if not completely shaped, by political considerations. What's new about any of this, except perhaps to those who have never paid any attention to politics? Will this prorogation decision be the proverbial "tipping point" that alerts Canadians to what they did not know, or had not seen clearly, before? His critics believe or hope so. Experience suggests otherwise, including the observable historical fact that it takes much more than one prime ministerial overstretch like this to wound a leader.

Mr. Harper ended a parliamentary session once before to save his political skin. He survived the "coalition" crisis before Christmas, 2008, and just got politically stronger. He dissolved Parliament in the early fall of 2008, because he wanted an early election. His explanation then (Parliament wasn't working) was as literally incredible as the one he offers now (the government needs time - two months! - to "recalibrate").

Canadians didn't make him suffer politically the last two times when he adjusted the parliamentary timetable to suit his partisan purposes. Why would they respond any differently now? People are so cynical about politics that they expect politicians, if given the chance, to adjust procedures and play games for partisan ends. Anything new there? Sure, some people are upset, but they are mostly the ones who would never vote Conservative. Mr. Harper doesn't care a whit for them. They don't factor into his politician calculations.

When Angus Reid, the polling firm, finds that 53 per cent of respondents disagree with prorogation, so what? More than half of Canadians disagree with this government most of the time. When the polling firm finds more than 70 per cent of Liberals, NDPers and Greens disagree with prorogation, so what? When Ekos Research finds, post-prorogation, that Conservative support has slipped 2.8 per cent from last month, the drop falls within the polling margin of error and should not be given much interpretive weight. Similarly, that poll showed the biggest winner (it was a slight gain) to be the Green Party. It's hard to imagine Conservative-to-Green switchers over prorogation. Maybe it happened, but a stronger Green Party actually helps the Conservatives because most Green voters come from outside electoral politics completely, or from the Liberals or NDP.

Polls are almost always invested (especially by the punditocracy and those who conduct them) with far more significance than they merit. Remember, however, Mr. Harper isn't running a popularity contest, strange as that might seem to say. He doesn't need a majority of voters to like him, or support the government, because that isn't going to happen.

Mr. Harper just needs about 40 per cent of the electorate on his side, and he'll have his majority. If he can't get that, well, as long as the opposition parties are hopelessly divided among themselves, he can govern almost as if he had a majority. He doesn't govern with everybody in mind, and never has. He slices and dices the electorate, pitches particular policies to those groups and tries to find occasional issues to rally core supporters.

Every step he takes is calibrated to present a manufactured image to the voters, as in the endless series of photo-op announcements of government spending, the meticulous preparation of his every step of every trip, his scripted speeches, his very methodical way of proceeding. It is a government of Sparta and Prussia, not Athens and the Rhineland.

Those who dissent or put spokes in the government's wheels - from diplomat Richard Colvin over Afghan detainees to the parliamentary budget officer to the Military Police Complaints Commission to the former head of the nuclear safety agency to opposition party leaders and so on - are blunted, get ignored or become subject to attack ads on television. It is the politics of constant warfare, as political scientist Tom Flanagan, a former Conservative campaign adviser and Harper confidant, wrote so perceptively in these pages earlier this week.

Prorogation fits the established pattern, since the Prime Minister knows, as does every politician, that without Parliament in session the opposition parties are deprived of their principal platform to make noise and create trouble. Far easier to telephone the Governor-General - please, don't show that office the respect of actually calling personally on the occupant - and tell her the parliamentary session is over.

Prorogation, therefore, shows Canadians nothing new, just another window on the old, and what they have seen in the past four years hasn't yet bothered enough of them remotely to threaten Mr. Harper's grip on power.

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