Harper’s Attempt to Save Face at the Cost of Canada’s Democratic Enlargement

On December 30th, Prime Minister Stephen Harper suspended the Canadian Parliament for the third time since he first took office in 2006 and the second time in just over a year. This comes at a time when Harper has faced increasingly vocal criticism from the opposition. As a leader of a minority government, Harper has been under extreme scrutiny from the majority, especially throughout the past year, due to a biting economic recession. Although the Canadian Parliament usually takes a six-week recess during the winter holiday period, Harper has decided to extend the break until March 3rd.

The decision to prorogue (suspend) Parliament is far from uncommon in Canadian history (it happened 105 times before Harper took over as the nation’s prime minister). However, the timing and possible motives of this decision could be disconcerting, confirming for his numerous critics that he is totally under-equipped for the job. Rather than effective leadership, the head of the Tories was doing severe damage to the country, as he lacked the high-class talent the country needs to prosper. Many observers speculate that Harper suspended Parliament to avoid the disturbing and embarrassing allegations lodged by the Red Cross and Canadian officials accusing Canadian soldiers of, or at the very least knowing about, the torture of prisoners at detention camps in Afghanistan. This subject has brought unwanted press coverage and torrid debate in Parliament at a time when Canada certainly does not need it: Vancouver’s Olympic cauldron-lighting ceremony is just days away. When it is lit on February 12th, the world’s attention will be focused on Canada, with almost every major world television, radio and newspaper having personnel on-location in the country to cover the Olympics.

Accusation of War Crimes
During 2006-07, the Red Cross and Canadian officials posted to Kabul started informing Ottawa that the Afghan prisoners who were in jails being supervised by Canadian military personnel, were being transferred to Afghan prisons, where most likely they were being tortured. Furthermore, some of the Canadian personnel were protesting the innocence of many of these prisoners. Article 132 of the Geneva Convention (regarding the treatment of prisoners of war), which Ottawa signed in 1949 and later ratified in 1965, states that once “the violation has been established, the Parties to the conflict shall put an end to it and shall repress it with the least possible delay.” Knowing about torture, failing to report it, and then willingly transferring prisoners of war to Afghan detention centers, where it was suspected of being practiced, flew directly in the face of the Geneva Convention. Although Defense Minister Peter MacKay claimed that Canadian officials were unaware of the torture, General Walter Natynczyk, Chief of the Defense Staff, released a report claiming that the torture of the detainees was almost considered “common knowledge” among even the average Canadian soldier on location. Former senior diplomat, Richard Colvin, who was stationed in Afghanistan during this period, echoed the former’s allegations. Hearings for the detainees have been pushed back by opposition leaders and were scheduled to begin this month.

Harper’s Side of the Story
Harper maintains that he was no man’s fool, and that the reason he prorogued Parliament was to focus on the trade deficit which has increased to about $3.6 billion as of November 2009. According to Reuters, Canada will probably “run a […] $54.3 billion deficit this year.” Since the Canadian loonie is now worth almost as much as the United States dollar ($1 = $1.03 Canadian as of January 28th), exports are falling off, as, according to TD Bank economist Dina Petramala, about 75% of Canadian exports are being sent to a slowing U.S market. In a report from the government agency Statistics Canada, the country’s exports only increased by 1.1% during the month of November, while imports increased by 3.9%. Over the past year, exports have been down by 19.4%. Harper claims he has prorogued Parliament to focus on the economic difficulties that Canada is now facing, and develop a strategy to reduce government spending and avoid raising taxes.

Public Opinion – a “Christmas tradition?”
The Canadian public does not seem to be rapidly buying Harper’s story, and why should it? According to an EKOS poll, twice as many Canadians opposed his decision to prorogue Parliament than those favoring it. More than 60 protests took place last week across Canada as its citizens become increasingly disillusioned with the actions taken by their Prime Minister. For the first time in months, Liberals are taking the lead in polls.

A very similar situation occurred last December and “has become a tradition” for Harper, joked Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe. In December 2008, Harper prorogued Parliament out of blatantly self-seeking motives, when three opposition parties joined together in a no-confidence vote to try to weaken or even undermine his party’s initiatives.

January 25th, was the day that MPs were scheduled to return to Parliament; however, they will now have to wait until March 3rd. Ultimately, Harper’s suspension of Parliament was a test of his capacity for real politik, as in fact, he only needed the approval of Governor General Michaëlle Jean, whose almost immediate permission he was able to collect the same day.

A Precedent that Can Only Undermine Democracy

It seems, then, that Harper simply did not want to contend with the greatly embarrassing torture accusations coming from Afghanistan, and even less so at a time when the international press would focusing in on Canada for the Olympics’ opening rituals. January 23rd marked the beginning of the fifth year Harper has been in office. Meanwhile, polls have been showing that support for his conservative party had significantly decreased after his suspension of Parliament, according to BusinessWeek, especially in Quebec where 35% of the population in the province supported the conservative party as opposed to 40% that supported the liberal party.

As observed by the Economist, this prorogation caused all government-sponsored bills to die “no matter how close they are to approval.” More than 30 bills were killed, including the Canada Consumer Product Safety Act, which aims to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances measure, and two acts to amend the Criminal Code (auto theft and trafficking in property obtained through crime). All of these were in their final stages of review and due to be passed this period. Harper had run on a strong “tough-on-crime” platform, so this will most likely hurt his image among fellow conservatives.

Although Harper certainly is not the first to prorogue Parliament and will not be the last, the manner in which he did so – in such a transparently self-serving manner – will have implications for how Canadians view their government and the democratic process in Ottawa. In a true democracy, the government should represent their constituents’ voices and be directly accountable to the needs of the people, not to the whims and fancy of a handful of politicians. Shutting down Parliament to let controversy subside is a blow to fundamental Canadian values and the respect the world holds for the True North. Harper has not only caused an embarrassing setback in public relations and added another nail in his political coffin but has also brought attention to the need to change the amount of power that this single political leader has over a group as large as Parliament.

Concluding Remarks:

The precedents that Harper’s actions have set into motion have proven most harmful to Canada’s public image as a leader in human rights and building Democratic institutions. In an interview with the daily Ottawa Citizen, Scott Reid, former communications director for pervious Prime Minister Paul Martin, said: “The classic test, as set out by Ronald Reagan, is are you better off four years later? Here’s the verdict: We’re less prosperous, less respected, less fair and we’re less democratic. That’s Stephen Harper’s record.” The problem is that Harper should not suspend Parliament when he deems it in his narrow interest to do so, or simply because he does not want to answer tough questions and face difficult decisions. Whether he has the authority to effect such decisions, does not make his recent suspension just or wise, and Canadians seem to agree with this verdict: in the EKOS poll, 63% of Canadians agreed with the statement “Shutting down Parliament is antidemocratic.”

While most of the story has been overshadowed by the catastrophic disaster in Haiti, the rapidly approaching winter Olympic Games will bring world press coverage to Vancouver this month. With this increased attention, Harper will have to back up his claims that he prorogued Parliament to focus on Canada’s financial troubles. Will 2010 bring a tangibly improved economic plan and growth? If not, Harper should fear the outcome of the next election, as Canadians, not usually a brashly vocal people in political matters, will not easily forget these breaches of the democratic spirit.