A Stumble Bum’s Prorogation


By Peter Russell

When Prime Minister Harper, a couple of weeks age, requested Governor General  Johnston to prorogue parliament until October, he was using prorogation for its normal purpose: to end a session of parliament when most of its business has been dealt with and open a new session with a Throne Speech setting out a new government agenda.

That is very different from his two previous parliamentary shut-downs.

In 2008 he used prorogation to avoid a non-confidence vote.

In 2010 he used it to avoid parliamentary scrutiny of the Canadian armed forces’ treatment of prisoners in Afghanistan.

Though Harper’s third prorogation does not attract criticism from the perspective of respecting parliamentary democracy, it does raise eye-brows about whether the man knows what he is doing.

The earlier prorogations were a tyrant's prorogations.

The current one is a stumble-bum’s prorogation. 

After all, the Prime Minister knew in June that the work of the existing session was done and that he would need a new session in the fall to launch a new government agenda.

Why then did he have parliament recess for the summer and schedule a renewal of the existing session for mid-September?

The only plausible answer is that he has been simply stumbling along without a clear idea of what his government should be doing.

How else can one explain the herky-jerky decision-making that has parliament booked to reopen in September, and parliamentarians making plans to get back to Ottawa two weeks after Labour Day, then suddenly cancel that by proroguing parliament until a new session opens in October?

This brings me to a mistake that is so often made in assessing Mr. Harper – that he may not be a very democratic man, but that we should put up with him because he is such a smart man.

Stephen Harper certainly has a good set of brain cells. There no doubt about his having a high level of mental capacity.

But he is not the first person in high office to show that being clever, even brainy, is no guarantee of being able to govern intelligently.

From all we know about leading large organizations, in the private or private sector, a mark of intelligent leadership is surrounding one’s self with people who are as smart and as knowledgeable as yourself.

Mr. Harper has spectacularly not done that.

His main group of close advisers are young people in the PMO who have never run for office and have little experience in anything other than political marketing.

There was no sign that his summer cabinet shuffle would bring in new leadership talent or policy ideas to help put together a new agenda for the Harper government. For that purpose he is simply shuffling around positions in his own office, the PMO.

Though Mr. Harper’s current use of prorogation is not like the two earlier prorogations - an assault on parliamentary democracy - it does show the down side of a style of leadership that is not intelligent and most definitely is not parliamentary.

Parliamentary democracy is about more than having elections every four years.

It is fundamentally a system of government by discussion where policy and issues are  considered and debated by elected representatives of the people.

It is designed for people who do not think that they and their soul-mates have all the answers and who believe there is something to be gained by exposing your policies and ideas to public discussion. 

The Prime Minister is not a parliamentary person.

And we Canadians suffer for that not just in a democratic sense. We also suffer in getting half-baked, poorly researched, ill-considered policies from a government run (and I mean run) by such an unparliamentary person. 

For the truth of the matter is that no one – including that very smart fellow Stephen Harper – has the best answers to all the issues facing our country.

Lets hope that he doesn’t just keep stumbling along, and that the next two years he becomes just a little more parliamentary. 

About Peter Russell

Peter H. Russell is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is one of Canada’s leading constitutional scholars, has published widely in the fields of aboriginal policy, the judiciary and parliamentary democracy, and is a frequent commentator on Canadian government and politics. He is the founding Principal of Senior College at the University of Toronto. Peter Russell is an Officer of the Order of Canada and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.
Posted date : September 04, 2013

View all of Peter Russell's columns
Political observers were puzzled when Premier Wynne played the election threat card recently, then almost immediately backtracked. Hershell Ezrin has some thoughts on her strategy.
September 17, 2013
Stephen Harper's last two prorogations were the work of a tyrant. This latest one, says parliamentary expert Peter Russell, is the work of a stumble bum prime minister just lurching along.
September 04, 2013
Toronto council's decision against a casino puts the city in perfect sync with the Wynne government - exactly as democracy is supposed to work, says the parliamentary expert
May 28, 2013
Charges in a new book that the late Supreme Court Justice Bora Laskin undermined the repatriation of Canada's constitution in 1982 are just plain wrong.
May 23, 2013
While Premier Wynne has reached out to the opposition leaders with the new budget, Andrea Horwath is playing a game of political chicken we all might live to regret.
May 07, 2013
We can't expect tomorrow's leaders to be effective citizens without teaching them how government works today. But the current mandatory high school civics course being used is inadequate.
April 22, 2013
Whereas his father Pierre faced a constitutional crisis with Quebec threatening to leave Canada, his son faces one of a different sort: a malfunctioning parliamentary democracy.
April 16, 2013
The CPC can't possibly govern intelligently by gagging scientists and stopping them from doing proper scientific research. And that means we'll all pay.
April 10, 2013
Phillippe Couillard's idea to make Quebec a constitutional signatory by 2017 is big mistake. Constitutional expert Russell warns not to go down that road again.
March 25, 2013
The Harper government is refusing a visa to one of the world's leading experts on the rights of indigenous peoples, UN "rapporteur" Dr. James Anaya. Is it afraid of what he may report?
March 19, 2013
Although not a Liberal, the parliamentary expert is endorsing Vancouver MP Joyce Murray for Liberal leader. He particularly likes her ideas to reform our sagging democracy.
March 04, 2013
There are signs that Mr. Harper may be turning to the political centre-a bit. It's easy to see why: his party is lagging in the polls, and he'd like to keep his majority next election.
February 19, 2013