In the News: Reasons to care about Parliament

Matthew Furlong The Telegram January 14, 2010

Canadians are having two main problems with Stephen Harper’s second prorogation of Parliament.

The first is with members of Parliament wasting government money by not doing the work expected of them. The second is with Harper’s contempt for the parliamentary hurdles necessarily faced by a minority government, and his abnormal use of a normally uncontroversial procedure.

We’ve reached a crossroads in our political history. An ineffective Parliament is a bad thing (not a new one). More dangerous, however, is the crisis Harper has steered us into: a crisis in the relationship between Canada’s representative body and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).

Since the time of Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals, the PMO has become increasingly powerful, and Harper now enjoys wide latitude in his relationship to Parliament, the body that represents Canadians’ political will. Harper’s prime ministership stands to significantly transform our system of government. He has played the system against itself, using an ordinary parliamentary procedure to escape other ordinary parliamentary procedures; the result is anything but ordinary, it is a constitutional crisis.

Systems of government are like machinery and can be used in ways that subvert their intended function. A cellphone makes calls, but can interfere with navigational devices on airplanes; a car can be transportation, or a weapon. A system of government can be turned on itself, and can stand in the way of governance.

This crisis is fundamentally about sovereignty, a word most familiar to us Canadians from the debate surrounding Quebec’s independence. We know that national sovereignty consists in the ability of a state to determine its own policy, but we seldom hear about sovereignty at the domestic level.

In our democracy, the idea is that Parliament, as the voice of the people, is the sovereign body. Sovereign, or decision-making, power is distributed amongst 308 members of Parliament and 105 senators who are supposed to represent the people subject to that power.

And at its core, sovereign power hinges on the authority to preserve or disrupt the constitution itself. What we’re seeing, on Harper’s part, is an attempt to transfer sovereign power from Parliament to the PMO, to destroy popular sovereignty and to secure unilateral sovereign power in his office.

The prime minister is the leader of the power bloc, with power in the House, whether it’s a plurality or a straight-up majority.

Harper’s innovative use of prorogation allows his party to exert more power than the occupation of Parliamentary seats allows. The PMO can invent policy, disseminate it to MPs (who, in Harper’s case, are under the very tight control of the PMO itself), and push it through a House constantly under threat of prorogation or dissolution.

So, why should you care? The idea of Parliament as the “voice of the people” is rather romantic.

We know our votes are in competition with lobbyist dollars, among other influences.

We also know that the conflict between the different voices in any constituency will always result in some of those voices being unheard. We live with the reality that parliamentary process distorts public will in the process of representing it. But nobody enjoys a natural right to govern.

To be governed by a group of individuals that constitutes a miniscule portion of the population is always contentious, but being governed by a PMO that can escape whatever power the people might exert against it is unacceptable.

Whether or not you care hinges on whether or not you care about how you’re governed and who governs you. What, indeed, is a government that acts on us without acting for us? The use of the word “dictator” in reference to Harper is far from trivial.

Harper is consolidating supreme executive power at the expense of popular sovereignty. The essence of dictatorships is their capacity to isolate themselves from those they govern.

Don’t accept this isolation: write to your MP, talk with family, with friends, attend rallies urging our MPs back to work for us. This is not a partisan concern, or even a question of national identity. It’s a question of fugitive government, a matter of what I would call the solidarity of the governed.

This is a constitutional, not an administrative crisis, and what we need, more than a regime change, is constitutional reform.

We need widespread public reflection on this.

The avenue that Harper has taken needs to be permanently closed. Sovereignty must be restored to Parliament. We’ve reached the point where people are talking about abolishing ordinary parliamentary tools. The fact that this is being suggested shows how destructive the Harper government is: we’re becoming so distrustful that we’re ready to dismantle the Constitution. Governments will always try to remain in power, but what’s happening right now is more than that.

We may have to put up with venal, careerist MPs for the foreseeable future. But Harper has shown us that we have a problem of an entirely different nature. That’s what’s at stake here. That’s why you should care. That’s why I care.