Earlier this week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced his intention to prorogue Parliament before its anticipated return in mid-September. The plan is for Parliament to resume at some point in October, with a new Speech from the Throne and, perhaps, a fresh start for his Conservative government.
This, of course, would not be the first prorogation since Mr. Harper has been running the country. In 2008, for example, the Prime Minister succeeded in bringing Parliament’s work to a halt on the eve of a confidence vote that his Conservatives were all but sure to lose. This controversial move attracted much attention and criticism, but it is likely that many Canadians won’t even notice the prorogation this time around.
The 2008 prorogation was an act of clever desperation on the part of a minority government caught offguard by opposition parties’ united stance against its plans to eliminate public subsidies for political parties (among other things). For a prime minister to shut down Parliament when he is about to lose a confidence vote is unacceptable from a democratic perspective but understandable from a political one. To prorogue Parliament as the leader of a majority government is a different thing. Why silence Parliament when you can control it?
Here’s one explanation: Mr. Harper has reason to fear his own caucus (not to mention the Conservative Party at large) in light of the expense scandal that continues to plague the Conservative-heavy Senate and the Prime Minister’s Office itself. Before Parliament broke for the summer, there was serious talk of a Tory caucus revolt. One MP, Brent Rathgeber of Alberta, even quit the Conservative caucus to sit as an independent, free of the strict party discipline imposed by Mr. Harper.
Regardless of whether this frustration on the part of some Conservative MPs would ever boil over into a mass exodus from the government caucus, Mr. Harper might be wise to spend a few more weeks building support within his own ranks before Parliament reconvenes. No doubt, the Prime Minister will use the Conservative Party convention in October as an opportunity to mend fences with party faithful who have become disenchanted.
But here’s another explanation for this fall’s prorogation: Parliamentary approval, even if Mr. Harper can get it (which is highly likely), is not enough and, to this government, not what really matters. Debate closures, politically motivated prorogations and other measures have demonstrated this government’s lack of interest in and commitment to Parliament and parliamentary accountability. Once again, our Prime Minister is telling us that Parliament is not important.
Even if, via majority government status, the Conservatives can dominate the proceedings of the House of Commons and its committees, a government cannot control – or escape – the constant presence and scrutiny of today’s social networks. Twitter, Facebook, the blogosphere and the media do not discriminate between majority and minority governments.
And the public conversation with respect to Mr. Harper’s governance is increasingly negative. Perhaps for the first time since becoming the first minister, Mr. Harper feels truly vulnerable – despite his majority. That would explain this summer’s cabinet shuffle, the anticipated staff changes in the PMO and the newly announced delay of Parliament’s return. These are all part of the Prime Minister’s plan to remake and rebrand his government and to regain control of the narrative that surrounds it.
Prime ministers cannot avoid scrutiny even if they silence Parliament. This, however, does not make Mr. Harper’s lack of regard for Parliament – the linchpin of our democracy – any less wrong or worrisome.
Lori Turnbull is an associate professor of political science at Dalhousie University.