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Michael Bliss, historian and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto.
Michael Bliss, historian and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto.

Michael Bliss

Prorogation's wasted on those who need it most Add to ...

It's hard to see why there is so much fuss about the Harper government's prorogation of Parliament. The House of Commons, which is not very well respected by either ordinary or informed Canadians when it is sitting, will now sit for three weeks less than it would have otherwise. Some useful government bills are going to have to be reintroduced. The Afghan hearings, into events of several years ago, will be delayed for a few more weeks. And that's about it.

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One would think from the heated rhetoric of opposition politicians, the strange gaggle of academics who signed the long, sanctimonious letter against prorogation, and the fulminations of some editorialists and pundits, that our democracy is somehow imperilled by the government's resort, twice, to one of the most common of all parliamentary practices. We are told that the government is shut down, that there is suddenly no accountability, that tactics used by Canadian first ministers ranging from John A. Macdonald to Jean Chrétien and Bob Rae are undermining the democratic system.

This seems to be mainly overkill, given that Parliament, Question Period, House of Commons committees and all the activities in the other rings of the political circus will start up again early in March. At that time, there will be every opportunity for the government's opponents to do the obvious democratic thing - bring on an election to see what the Canadian people think. Revealingly, this is the one strategy ruled out by Messrs. Ignatieff, Layton and company. They do not seem to have the courage of their proclaimed convictions - in modern argot, they aren't ready to walk the walk.

Instead, the opposition parties are trying to keep the pot boiling, largely by playing on public ignorance of the workings of government. Uninformed voters are encouraged to think that the government of Canada has closed its doors and all the MPs and civil servants must be on holiday while one evil man runs everything. At a slightly higher level, those who vaguely remember introductory courses in political science are urged to comment on intricate proposals for the House of Commons to control prorogation. Never mind that any and all of these would be normally ineffective without a constitutional amendment. People obsessed with the ins and outs of how to prorogue Parliament would do better making book on Olympic figure skating.

Those who persist in viewing our governing structure with non-partisan alarm would more profitably ponder the two truly weak links in the system. The appointed Senate of Canada is obviously a standing, outrageous disgrace to democracy and ought not to be tolerated by a free people. It's surely to Stephen Harper's credit, both short and long term, that he keeps trying to change the Senate. One of his reasons for resorting to prorogation and falling back on making his own partisan appointments appears to be to try to stop the egregious abuse of their power by certain Liberal senators.

Second, and most important, there really is a problem in our Constitution with the office of governor-general. While not believing for a second that Mr. Harper is conspiring to ride roughshod over our freedoms, I am convinced that traditional checks to prime ministerial power in a Westminster system have for many years been non-functional in Canada. It is not evident that an appointed governor-general in our decayed monarchical system, no matter how conscientious, has the political legitimacy to stand up to an elected prime minister in a time of real (as opposed to manufactured) crisis. We really must begin to think about facing up to the need to create a Canadian head of state with reserve powers to protect the Constitution. He or she has to have the legitimacy of having been chosen by the Canadian people. As a political appointee, a governor-general has only ceremonial credibility.

A few days after prorogation ends on March 3, Canadians will mostly have forgotten all the words written and spoken about it. They'll be rehashing the Olympics instead. Possibly the government will have profited from its break and be ready to chart a new legislative course.

Ideally, prorogation would also have been seen as providing a much-needed breathing space for the Liberal Official Opposition to develop policy ideas, improve organization, reintroduce the leader to Canadians and explain why he is qualified to be prime minister.

Instead, the dancers just kept on, encouraged by their media and academic acolytes, not noticing that the music had stopped and the audience had gone home. They were too manic to take a golden opportunity to rest, reconsider and recuperate. Prorogation appears to be wasted on those who need it most.

Michael Bliss is a historian and the author of Right Honourable Men: The Descent of Canadian Politics from Macdonald to Chrétien.

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