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(Adrian Wyld)
(Adrian Wyld)

John Ibbitson

Proroguing Parliament - a travesty, yet clever Add to ...

The Harper government's decision to have Parliament prorogued in the dead of Christmas week sets a record for taking out the trash.

That's the political term for a government dumping unwelcome or unpopular announcements at times when the news is likely to be ignored. Embarrassed by a damning report? Release it on a Friday afternoon before a long weekend.

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Determined to short-circuit an investigation into how the government mishandled the treatment of Afghan detainees? Wait until the eve of New Year's Eve - when MPs are in their ridings or down south, readers and viewers are few, and that day's news is dominated by the picks for the men's Olympic hockey team - and suspend Parliament.

For anyone who believes that our governments should be honest, open and accountable, this is a travesty. But it's devilishly clever.

A senior government official, speaking on background, insisted that calculations concerning the Afghan detainees controversy played no part in the decision.

Rather, said the official, the government wanted to give itself time and breathing room to think through how to manage the economy as it emerges from recession and to put in place a long-term strategy for balancing the budget.

Conservatives will tell you that this newspaper, a few other journalists and opposition politicians are the only ones concerned with the detainees issue. It's "old news," as press secretary Dimitri Soudas put it in a conference call with reporters yesterday.

That government officials or politicians may have been negligent in safeguarding the treatment of Afghan detainees, thus violating the Geneva Conventions, is of no real concern to most Canadians, the Tories maintain.

They are almost certainly right. But the fact remains that proroguing Parliament shuts down the committee that was the source of the most embarrassing revelations about government bungling in Afghanistan. The Military Police Complaints Commission, which was also looking into the affair, is effectively suspended until the government gets around to appointing a new commissioner.

By government design, all official inquiry into this matter has been terminated until March, at least. The Conservatives aren't concerned? They have a strange way of showing it.

There are plenty of other good reasons to prorogue, from the government's perspective. Stephen Harper will be able to rejig Senate committees to reflect the imminent arrival of five party loyalists whom we all expect him to appoint early in the new year. The Throne Speech, now scheduled for March 3, and the budget on March 4 will politically embarrass the opposition parties, forcing them once again to support a government they detest rather than bring on an election that would devastate the Liberals, in particular.

In partisan political terms, proroguing Parliament this week was inspired.

All we lose is a chance to talk. Had Parliament reconvened Jan. 25, as originally planned, MPs could have debated the priorities for the coming budget; the government's plans - oh, sorry, lack of plans - to meet its Copenhagen promise to do something, some day, about fighting global warming; whether and how to reform pensions in both the public and private sector; Canada's future commitments in Afghanistan. That is what Parliament was to have talked about through February, before it was silenced.

"It's no way to run a business," as NDP Leader Jack Layton put it yesterday. But never mind: The people will have their Olympic circuses, and the government can plan for our future unhindered by oversight.

Mr. Layton remembers when Mr. Harper, as leader of the Official Opposition, lambasting the Chrétien government's plans to prorogue Parliament back in 2003, to prevent the Auditor-General from reporting on possible abuse of the sponsorship program in Quebec.

"The government will prorogue the House so that it will not be held accountable for its shameful record," Mr. Harper thundered.

But that was so long ago.

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