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(JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press)
(JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press)

Ian Hunter

Suppose the House lights were never turned back on … Add to ...

As prorogued parliamentarians twiddle their thumbs, the time is right for voters to ask themselves: Do we need Parliament?

Perhaps we require a venue for the Governor-General to deliver her periodic Speech from the Throne, although this oratorical exercise has only a tenuous connection to reality - more tenuous if you actually read the content of those speeches. Even in saner political times, a Throne Speech has an Alice-in-Wonderland quality. But a Throne Speech could just as easily be delivered at, say, the National Arts Centre. Better yet, why not go green and have the Governor-General's speech sent electronically to every e-mail address that wants it; we might discover the number is fewer than Canadians who've sighted Elvis.

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What public function does Parliament serve? No one would suggest that, as currently configured, it holds the government accountable. Or that the barnyard cacophonies of Question Period elevate public discourse. Or that speeches by cabinet ministers or MPs actually assist anyone in deciding issues of public policy.

For the sake of argument, let's agree that, once Parliament did fulfill these functions, the assembly of the elected representatives of the people was something more than a derisory spectacle - although it has not been so for a long time. Today, no voter's mind is changed by what is said in Parliament, partly because free and informed debate no longer occurs in Parliament and partly because party discipline and the concentration of power in the Prime Minister's Office precludes members from speaking honestly. Parliament, in short, is little more than an unedifying charade.

It's also an expensive charade. I can't quote a precise cost because that figure is either not calculated or not published. But I read recently that pension costs alone for MPs and Senators, current and former, exceed a billion dollars annually. What value do we get for our money?

The business of government carries on despite a prorogued Parliament. Politicians hold press conferences, pucker up for any camera in sight, schmooze and cajole voters in every way that spin doctors can imagine. True, politicians lack their one regular daily television spot, Question Period, but the truth is that very few watch it anyway.

I do not suggest that, in proroguing Parliament, Prime Minister Stephen Harper acted from any motive higher than naked self-interest; rather, I suggest that, with the House of Commons dark and silent, it's a good time to ask whether we really want the lights turned back on again?

The current prorogation saga recalls one of A.P. Herbert's mythical trials (Rex v. Low, in Uncommon Law) where a cartoonist is accused of libelling a politician by depicting him as a chimpanzee. The prosecutor puts his case thus: "Is it desirable, members of the jury, that we should know the truth about our politicians? If a politician is still to retain his office and our affections, would it not be better for us to remain in blissful ignorance of his real character?

"Must not the constant depreciation of those who have the conduct of the nation's affairs tend to undermine public confidence not only in the integrity and capacity of individual politicians, but in the electoral system by which they were elevated to office, and hence in our Parliamentary institutions and the whole principle of Democracy itself? I ask the jury to consider the accused a menace to the British Constitution."

At public rallies, in editorials and on the Internet, much anti-prorogation rhetoric starts from the assumption that Canada is a parliamentary democracy; therefore, suspending Parliament undermines democracy. But the premise is not true. At least since the Charter of Rights, Canada is not a parliamentary democracy - it's a judicial autocracy. The important decisions, whether about abortion, euthanasia or repatriating an enemy combatant, are made by unelected courts. Suspend the Supreme Court of Canada and there would be a constitutional crisis; suspend Parliament and you have a winter interlude.

I submit that Stephen Harper has proved himself a worthy successor to the fifth-century lexicographer Fulgentius the Mythographer, whose mission in part was to revive antique words that had fallen into desuetude. Mr. Harper has successfully revived the word "prorogue." Is it too much to hope that Americans might catch the fever and prorogue that erupting volcano of meaningless rhetoric, Barack Obama?

Ian Hunter is professor emeritus of law at the University of Western Ontario.

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