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Prime Minister Stephen Harper attends the opening of a new U.S. border crossing in St. Stephen, N.B., on Friday, Jan. 8, 2010.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper attends the opening of a new U.S. border crossing in St. Stephen, N.B., on Friday, Jan. 8, 2010.

Bruce Anderson

How to make prorogation stick Add to ...

There are a number of reasons voters might take issue with the decision by the Prime Minister to prorogue Parliament.

Not all of them are equally potent political opportunities for opposition parties. And so choosing to focus on the most powerful argument is a critical part of the job of an opposition leader.

Let's review the most common themes used so far by critics of the government, from the standpoint of what's most likely to resonate with the largest number of voters. (Not to be confused with an analysis of the substantive merits of any of these arguments.)

First, the argument that ending this session prevents Parliament from getting to the bottom of the Afghan detainee issue. This is useful in that it speaks to the motive of the government, that they were trying to outrun an issue that was getting close to burning them.

But the reality is that the substance of that issue wasn't becoming a major political force. Too few people were paying attention, there was a lot of "he said, he said" to it, and people were struggling with whether to be more concerned about the original events, the over-hostile reaction of the government to the allegations, or the possibility that an attempt was made to cover things up.

Second is the argument that this use of the power to prorogue is a massive breach of our conventions when it comes to parliamentary process. For this argument to be the spark that breaks our political stalemate, a lot more people would need to know what our conventions were, and how this act will really affect the functioning of democracy as it touches their lives. These issues have good resonance with about 25 per cent of the population, but not so much with the rest.

Michael Ignatieff looked like he was getting close to the right nerve ending in his press conference the other day. While the media headline was his reference to this being a "crazy" way to run a government, I gather he also said Mr. Harper was revealing arrogance.

Arrogance is one of the quickest ways to get a pink slip for a politician in Canada.

We sometimes think that Pierre Trudeau proved otherwise, but I think you could make a better case that his great electoral success was diminished in 1972 and 1979 by the chronic perception that he was arrogant. Along the same lines, one could make a pretty good argument that ritual public self-effacement was Jean Chrétien's "go-to" pitch, and it worked pretty well for him.

I doubt that this aversion to pretension is unique to Canadians, but I'll wager that we are among the people on the planet who most find it obnoxious. Mr. Harper has tended to have a good grasp of this fact, and has regularly stressed his humble hockey dad, Tim-Horton friendly DNA.

Doubtless his actions last month upset voters who were concerned about the Afghan detainee issue. For sure, he's awakened a concern about democracy and process among the 25 per cent who are grassroots opinion leaders. But there is reason to wonder if the passage of time will mean these specific issues slip below the radar screen.

For opposition leaders (and other concerned Canadians), the surest way to make this issue stick is to hammer away that this decision is born of a profound arrogance, and chronicle how it fits a troubling pattern. This would create the potential to destabilize partisan lines, and bring into play the one in three Conservative supporters who already feel awkward trying to defend this action to their friends and neighbours.

(Photo: Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

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