Here’s a glimpse into how Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s brain works:
It’s December 29th.
Canadians are asleep after stuffing themselves with turkey and drinking too much.
They won’t notice if Parliament is shut down for five weeks. They don’t even need to be handed a solid excuse.
Everyone will simply grunt, roll over and go back to sleep.
That’s what Harper was counting on, said Democracy Watch Canada’s Duff Conacher.
Instead, Harper woke a giant.
And Facebook had a lot to do with it.
“When you send that kind of message to voters, ‘That you don’t really matter and I don’t really care,’ that’s what provokes them,” Conacher said from Ottawa.
Within days of Harper’s announcement that he was proroguing Parliament, a Facebook group, Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament, came online. To date, it has more than 192,000 members.
The nationwide spontaneous anger took everyone by surprise, said local writer Patricia Robertson, who, spurred by Facebook, is organizing a Whitehorse rally to coincide with rallies across the country on January 23rd.
“I’m really alarmed by how Harper’s been behaving and the prorogation seemed to me such a contempt for Parliament, and such a contempt for Canadians,” she said.
“I got mad as hell and couldn’t take it anymore.”
Robertson is not alone.
“I’ve heard Conservatives say, ‘I don’t get to take two months off work in the winter, why does Harper?’ And our Afghanistan soldiers don’t get to take two months off,” she said.
The mention of Afghanistan soldiers raises another red flag.
Harper prorogued Parliament to avoid the special Afghan committee hearings, said Yukon MP Larry Bagnell.
With mounting tales of torture and secrecy surrounding Afghan detainees captured by Canadian forces, things were heating up.
“And witnesses were starting to suggest the Prime Minister’s Office was aware of the cover up,” he said, adding that Harper’s government wouldn’t release more than 1,000 pages of relevant documentation to the Afghan committee.
“When you prorogue Parliament, all the committees disband,” said Bagnell.
“They are not only closed, they are shut down completely. All the members are no longer members.”
That means the special Afghan committee no longer exists.
When Parliament resumes, the process starts all over again, from scratch.
Each party nominates committee members, who can be new or reappointed, and those members decide what work the committee will do. If that committee isn’t interested in investigating Canada’s role in the Afghan torture debacle, the issue dies.
“And I think the Afghan committee might be a special committee, so that would have to be reconstituted as well,” said Bagnell.
“It all takes time.
“It takes over a month just to get committees going, so by that time the prime minister will have been through a throne speech and a budget, both which are confidence motions that could trigger an election.
“So it will be after Easter until the committees can even get working again, and can address that potential cover up (in Afghanistan).”
Harper said Canadians weren’t concerned about Afghanistan, said Robertson. “Well, we are.
“And there’s a whole host of other issues – the economy, climate change – a whole range of things that are going to be put on hold.
“I think people are legitimately furious.”
The Afghan coverup is only part of it, said Conacher.
Proroguing Parliament also hamstrings the auditor general, the ethics commissioner and a number of other government offices.
“They can’t issue reports while Parliament is prorogued,” he said.
Harper’s plan was simple:
Prorogue Parliament to shut down that pesky Afghan torture debacle.
Keep a clean slate by avoiding damning reports from the auditor general and ethics commissioner.
Go to the Olympics to bounce popularity with gold medal moments, preferably with the Canadian hockey team.
On the crest of that Olympic high, reconvene Parliament on March 3rd with the throne speech.
Deliver the budget March 4th.
On March 5th call a snap election.
End goal – win a majority.
What Harper didn’t count on was the public paying attention to his scheme.
“But when push comes to shove, we’re not as apathetic as we’re painted,” said Robertson.
Harper’s popularity has sagged 10 percentage points since October, putting the Conservatives at just 31 per cent and the Liberals at 30 per cent, according to a January 13 poll by the Strategic Counsel.
An Ekos poll on January 14th, gave the same results.
Proroguing is the straw that broke the camel’s back, said Conacher.
“It’s reminded people of all the arrogant, secretive, unethical, dishonest, undemocratic things that the Harper Conservatives have done.
“So it’s not just one issue, it’s many,” he said, citing the environment, daycare, tax concerns and excessive secrecy.
“Also, statements made by government ministers like, ‘Everyone in Nova Scotia is a bum,’ haven’t helped,” said Conacher.
Proroguing Parliament killed two committees specifically relevant to Yukoners, said Bagnell.
One was studying poverty in the North; the other was studying economic development.
In November and December these committees spent tens of thousands of dollars travelling across the North and were going to make recommendations to reduce poverty and improve economic development. “Now, that’s not going to happen,” he said.
“So Yukoners have been deprived of the benefits of that work.”
This is the fourth time in three years Harper’s shut down Parliament either through prorogation or by calling an election, when things aren’t going well, said Bagnell.
The catch for the Liberals, and the only real rejoinder for the Conservatives, is that prime minister Jean Chretien did it too.
In November 2003, Chretien prorogued Parliament to avoid a damning auditor general report, said Conacher.
But that’s not how proroguing should be used, said Bagnell.
Normally, a government will prorogue Parliament after several years if it’s passed a number of bills and met most of the promises made in its throne speech. After roughly a week, it will reconvene to give a new throne speech and budget that coincides with the country’s changing socioeconomic conditions.
“But to do it after a year is rare and doesn’t make a lot of sense. And it’s not the first time he’s shut down Parliament, he keeps doing this, and he’s doing it for the wrong reasons,” he said.
By proroguing Parliament, Harper also killed roughly 35 government bills that were in the works.
“And it takes a long time for bills to get through Parliament,” said Bagnell. Bills go through three readings, months of committee hearings and then through senate. “So if you shut down Parliament in less than a year, you’re shutting down a whole bunch of bills that are just getting into the process.”
In the next few days, Harper is expected to stack the Senate, filling empty seats with staunch Conservatives to help push government bills through.
But now that all the bills have died, Harper can’t use the excuse he wanted to reset his agenda because he was right in the middle of it, said Conacher.
The only bills that don’t die are private members bills. And in this case, that includes a bill to scrap Canada’s gun registry.
“It’s a wedge issue,” said Green Party candidate John Streicker. And if it’s resolved, it just disappears.
But proroguing Parliament keeps it alive, he said.
Harper’s reasons for proroguing – to review the economy and wait out the Olympics – don’t hold water, added Streicker.
“Government should be reviewing the economy all the time, it doesn’t need to prorogue Parliament to do it.”
And when it comes to the economy, Canada is in a structural deficit, according to a report released Wednesday by parliamentary budget officer and independent watchdog Kevin Page. The deficit will reach $18.9 billion by 2013-14, he predicts.
In short, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s claim he won’t have to raise taxes or cut spending to get rid of the deficit is bogus, said Page.
“So in terms of truth in budgeting, they’re escaping accountability,” said Conacher.
If Parliament’s not in session, government doesn’t have to be accountable, added Streicker.
Even though the House of Commons will be dark, the Liberals are heading back to work at the end of January, as planned.
“There are a lot of issues Canadians are concerned about,” said Bagnell. “And they shouldn’t all be shut down just to escape scrutiny.”
As Harper, himself, said in 2005, “When a government starts trying to cancel dissent or avoid dissent is, frankly, when it’s rapidly losing its moral authority to govern.”
The Yukon rally for Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament is on Saturday, January 23rd outside the Elijah Smith Building at 1 p.m.
There will be a fire pit, live music and speeches by Bagnell, Streicker and Yukon NDP Leader Elizabeth Hanson.
Contact Genesee Keevil at