Give Mr. Harper his due

Mr. Harper has prorogued Parliament not twice, but thrice

On two occasions now, in respective attempts to numerically summarize his five years in power, the Prime Minister’s prorogation record has been woefully shortchanged—here by the National Post a week ago and here by the Globe and Mail today. Mr. Harper has prorogued Parliament not twice, but thrice.

In December 2009, his doing so inspired nationwide protest. In December 2008, he did so to avoid the likely defeat of his government in the House of Commons. But Parliament was first prorogued on his advice in September 2007, when he asked that the resumption of parliamentary business be pushed back a month so that his 19-month-old government might present a new Throne Speech.

Though lacking in the controversial context of the two more recent prorogations, Mr. Harper’s first did not go unnoticed and did receive some criticism, including the following editorial from the Montreal Gazette.

“The first session of the 39th Parliament was exceptionally productive,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said last week, “especially for a government in a minority situation.” There’s some truth in that. What he didn’t then go on to say, but we will, is this: “… by continuing the session to pass worthwhile bills now on the order paper, we could accomplish even more for Canadians.”

Instead, the PM has chosen to prorogue Parliament. That stuffy old word means “throw out all the legislative work done this last year and more, except for bills already passed by both houses, and start over.” For a man who claims to be concerned with the well-being of Canadians, Harper certainly seems to have weighted this decision on the side of the well-being of his own career and party.

The opposition parties, we’re sorry to have to say, are no better, strutting and pounding their chests about forcing an election.

We’ve got news for all of them: The voter-intention polls have hardly budged in 18 months. Nobody wants an election and if you had one it would probably change very little. The collective wisdom of Canadians is that a Conservative minority is about right. That suggests to us that all the leaders should stop the posturing and do some work.

It’s illuminating to look at the pending legislation that Harper has tossed so casually into the waste basket: imposing mandatory minimum sentences for gun crimes; raising to 16 the age of sexual consent; putting tighter controls on foreign tax havens; limiting bail for those charged with gun crimes; increasing the powers of the Competition Tribunal, assuring aboriginal women of matrimonial property rights … the list goes on.

Not everyone will approve of everything on the list, but by and large these are measures Canadians support. Why subject them to another perilous trip through the legislative sausage factory? One particularly notable bill to be mourned is the Clean Air Act. After laborious all-party negotiations, that one would have done some good, at least, against greenhouse gas emissions, and against other air-quality problems as well.

So why did Harper abandon all this? The pundits explain about positioning, and a fresh agenda, and regaining momentum. But all of that could have been accomplished, we think, by the simple expedient of a solemn declaration by the prime minister to the House: “Here are our new priorities, the new legislation will be along soon, I hope we can all work together.”

The one thing that sensible approach would not do, however, is to let Harper play election roulette. A new session means a new Throne Speech, followed by a vote on it. Harper’s prorogation decision appears to be rooted in the calculation that if the broad principles of his new program are supported in a Throne Speech vote – remember that any one opposition party can keep the Conservative government afloat – he’ll have little trouble surviving until next spring’s budget, at least.

And if the opposition parties do dare each other sufficiently actually to topple the government, well, the Conservatives have a full war-chest, the Liberals and the Bloc Québécois are in some disarray, and the New Democrats won’t win many Conservative seats. A re-elected Conservative minority would then surely survive for another couple of years.

Political calculations, in other words, seem to have trumped good governance. This will dismay those who hoped that Harper and his party were really different. This is, we’re afraid, just politics as usual. “Canada’s new government” is looking more and more like Canada’s “same old” way of governing.

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