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Op-Ed

Canada: Prorogation Nation

Michael Werbowski, January 12, 2010

Canadian Gordon Campbell, premier of British Columbia, speaks during a conference at the Bella Center in Copenhagen on Dec. 15. (Photo: Adrian Dennis/ AFP-Getty Images)

Over the Christmas break, startling reports from Ottawa revealed that the Canadian conservative Prime Minster Stephen Harper had decreed the suspension of the national Parliament. The House of Commons is now officially speaking, expected to sit only as of March 3 or after the winter Olympics games. Originally, the Canadian legislature was set to reconvene on January 25.

Perhaps this short delay sounds like a trifling matter. However, it has become a sort of ritual happening. In December 2008, the parliamentary session was also curtailed according to the wishes of the prime minister. This prorogation effectively kills all bills tabled during the previous parliamentary session, including those pertaining to euthanasia, environmental issues (corporate mining practices), housing and defense spending. Henceforth the legislature is in limbo until springtime.

The prime minister's putsch against parliament framed historically

Canada went through three major political crises that threatened to destabilize it in recent memory, jolting its populace out of its "comfort zone." The first was the so-called "October crisis" of 1970. The second was the 1995 referendum. The third and most recent one was the prorogation of parliament, which just took place in December.

The first two historical events, if they hadn't been handled adroitly and decisively, may have led to authoritarian, one-party or one-man rule (as we see in Latin America). In 1970, then-Prime Minster Pierre Trudeau invoked the "War Measures Act" to quell the rise of nationalism in order to put an end to the terrorist tactics of the radical wing of the Quebec nationalist movement, the FLQ. It was seen as drastic tactic back then. Yet it successfully stopped the bombings of mailboxes and kidnappings, which led to the cowardly killings of top government officials.

The situation resembled the period, during which Italy experienced the terror of the "Red brigades" that led to the death of Aldo Moro. The Italian prime minister, like the Canadian politician Pierre Laporte (an innocent casualty of the FLQ), was kidnapped then killed and had his corpse stuffed into the trunk of an abandoned car.

For the usually placid and uneventful landscape of Canadian politics, the events that took place 40 years ago were quite serious, yet the House of Commons in Ottawa functioned normally. Murmurs of shutting down Parliament may have been muttered in smoky backrooms, but the federal Parliament wasn't adjourned and functioned normally, despite the declaration of "martial law light" in Quebec.

A quarter of a century later a provincial referendum (the second in Quebec's bid for independence) was held. This event almost led to the break up of the country. Nevertheless, the federal Parliament again remained in session and conducted business as usual. Parliamentary proceedings were not curtailed, adjourned or interrupted during those troubling times. This gave continuity to the legislative process and projected a sense of domestic stability both to the populace at home and to Canada's concerned allies abroad, regardless of the severity of the situation facing the nation. Despite the grave state of affairs, the people's parliament was still open. And thus, a comfort zone so crucial to internal stability was maintained.

The bedrock of Canadian stability crumbles without a whimper

This time, while Canada is at war abroad in Afghanistan and the country slips further into an ever-deepening economic hole, its legislature has been shut down for purely self-serving, short-term political interests. The difference between this crisis and the previous two is that this one has nothing to with the central issue of "national unity" or federal provincial relations that has been the linchpin of Canadian politics for decades. This is something new, disquieting and discomforting for most of the electorate. This time the source of the crisis is not made in Quebec City, or within a separatist-terrorist cell in an East-end Montreal basement, but at the Prime Minister's Office. And its origins can be traced to a leadership style that can historically be associated with Quislings and Francoists, maybe even considered treasonous.

It is an unprecedented, blatant and ruthless power grab, with incalculable damaging implications for the future of parliamentary democracy in Canada.

In the wake of the effective "padlocking" of parliament, the country is again faced with a worrisome situation similar to 1970 and 1995. The nation's fate is at stake. In 2010, the prorogation of Parliament (for the third time since the Conservatives have been in power) until early springtime, means there's no sitting legislature to conduct the nation's affairs, nor steer the country effectively while it is mired in an endless war in Afghanistan and slips further into economic blight.

In the process of proroguing the House, the voters have been silenced and muzzled. Shutting down the legislature has now become a "routine" practice, as the prime minister's spokesman put it. Welcome to Canada's new normal. In the new decade, what lies ahead for Canadian democracy does not look very promising.

Michael Werbowski is a Prague-based reporter and post graduate in post-communist studies from the University of Leeds.

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