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Security guards stand outside the closed doors to the House of Commons on January 6, 2009. (Fred Lum)
Security guards stand outside the closed doors to the House of Commons on January 6, 2009. (Fred Lum)

Focus

Prorogation: Let the games begin Add to ...

Prorogation means no Parliament on Monday, but that doesn't mean a reprieve from politics.

There will be no official debates, no Question Period, no committee meetings, no discussion of consequence about Canada and its future. But there will be press conferences - a slew of them - as parties aim to seize political advantage while Parliament is suspended.

Liberals will kick off their strategy on Monday by showing up en masse on Parliament Hill to highlight the absence of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservatives. The entire caucus will join Leader Michael Ignatieff for a morning scrum with reporters.

And, throughout the day, Liberals will hold public "jobs roundtables" in Ottawa.

When prorogation ends and the government is back in session, the Liberals want Canadians to be left thinking that the party is serious about issues that are important to the people of Canada, says a senior Liberal official.



There's always openings for a government, there's always opportunities to change the page. Pollster Paul Adams


Press coverage is the main goal for the opposition parties, says Henry Jacek, a political science professor at McMaster University in Hamilton. The object "is to put the message out about the fact that Parliament and the House of Commons and its committees are not working. That seems to be a great big concern for the Canadian public."

So far, it appears to be working for the Liberals: The 15-point lead that the Conservatives had in public opinion just a few months ago has evaporated. An Ekos survey released this week puts the two parties in a virtual tie, with the Tories heading down and the Liberals moving up. The same pollster found last week that a majority of respondents understand prorogation and are not happy with it.

Paul Adams of Ekos says the depth of anger about prorogation caught political analysts and just about everybody else, including the Liberals, by surprise.

It wasn't just that Mr. Harper shut down Parliament. "The prorogation story crystallized sentiments that people had begun to develop about the government over a long term," Mr. Adams says. In fact, he says, the Conservative decline started in October, losing ground bit by bit. Then prorogation sent the government into a tumble.

When the Liberals realized this, says Mr. Adams, "you saw them becoming more proactive with ads and more visibility in terms of attacking it."

The Conservatives are sticking with their message that prorogation is necessary so they can consult with Canadians about the March budget, so their strategy Monday will be to have cabinet ministers hold events and funding announcements across the country. Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose will be in Edmonton, Transport Minister John Baird and Fisheries Minister Gail Shea will be in Toronto. Economic "roundtables" will also be held in every region.

"There's always openings for a government, there's always opportunities to change the page," Mr. Adams says. The disaster in Haiti, for instance, bumped aside much of the negative coverage around Parliament's suspension. And now the Conservatives can try to shift the focus to the economy, he says.

"Deficit fighting and budget cuts are not always an easy sell but at least they do play to government management and competence which has been one of their strengths."

Mr. Harper himself is unlikely to be in Ottawa on Monday. There is a meeting scheduled that day in Montreal where foreign ministers from around the globe will gather to discuss the pressing issue of Haiti. The Prime Minister does not normally attend conferences at which the participants are not leaders of state but he may make an exception in this case, his aides say.



The prorogation story crystallized sentiments that people had begun to develop about the government over a long term.


What would have unfolded Monday had Parliament not been suspended?

With Haiti dominating news coverage, and with casualties - Canadians among them - still climbing, earthquake relief would have undoubtedly topped the agenda.

Two thousand of Canada's troops have been sent to the disaster zone with no sanction of the electorate.

Liberal House Leader Ralph Goodale says there would definitely have been an emergency debate about Haiti because it is a "genuine emergency" that deserves the public forum of the House of Commons.

The discussion would not have been entirely congratulatory, he adds. There would have been questions and criticism around the government's response to the disaster. But "there would be a Parliamentary forum to give them the right frame and focus and attention," he says.

Monday would have the been opposition's first chance since Christmas to take on the government about the economy, the environment and Afghanistan. Some have suggested that the decision to prorogue was all about Mr. Harper's desire to shut down debate around the handling of Afghan detainees.

Certainly he would have had to deal with the parliamentary subpoena that requires his government to release confidential documents about the detainee issue. The government defied that order before the break and faces being found in contempt of Parliament if it continues to do so.

There would also have been a Commons committee hearing aimed at finding out how much was known about allegations that the detainees were tortured after being turned over to Afghan authorities.

And the daily Question Period would also have been "intense," says NDP House Leader Libby Davies. Yes, she says, there would have been questions about Afghan detainees. But there would also have been questions about the economy and the government's performance at the climate-change summit in Copenhagen.

Then there's the report released last week by Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page that found there is a "structural deficit" of nearly $20-billion.

All serious issues, Mr. Goodale says.

And none of which will be aired anywhere on Parliament Monday - except undoubtedly in front of television cameras.

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