The man who would be king – Stephen Harper has a control over Parliament like we haven’t seen since Charles I lost his head
By Dan Gardner
So I was thinking about the implications of a prime minister getting away with telling Parliament to do something indecent with the ceremonial mace and this naturally led me to imagine which figures from history best exemplify Stephen Harper. At first I thought of the obvious contenders — Richard Nixon, Fidel Castro, Michael Corleone — but then I hit on Charles I. Circa 1635.
The year is crucial. It was in the midst of an 11-year period when England’s parliament was shuttered and the king ruled as an absolute monarch, unchecked and unchallenged. Four years later, desperate to raise money for his armies, Charles was forced to recall parliament. His arrogance soon led to civil war and the principle of parliamentary sovereignty — the foundation of the British and Canadian constitutions — was finally and emphatically established by the separation of Charles’s head from the rest of his insufferable self.
If Stephen Harper can open and close Parliament at will, and tell the honourable members of that institution that he will disclose to them what he wishes when he chooses, then he will have rolled back four centuries of parliamentary governance. He will be Charles I, circa 1635.
Now, I must admit I am an excitable fellow and this did strike me, on reflection, as being a bit over the top. So I called Errol Mendes, a law professor at the University of Ottawa and one of the country’s leading constitutional scholars. Have I lost it, I asked?
No, he said. You’re right.
Oddly, I did not find this reassuring. And the conversation only got more alarming. “Look at the incredible power this man already has,” Mendes said.
No one becomes a federal judge without the prime minister’s nod. Same for the Senate. A vast array of patronage appointees — the people who run the country’s agencies, boards, and commissions — know only too well that they serve at the prime minister’s pleasure and their careers and reputations will be ruthlessly shredded should they cease to please the great man. Ask Linda Keen, if you can find her.
The same plums-and-pain management technique has turned the prime minister’s caucus into craven courtiers, vigorously bowing and scraping in hopes of entry to the bloated cabinet — whose members vigorously bow and scrape to avoid removal. But even if they had some pride, it would not matter. The caucus cannot change the party’s leadership, and so, like beaten dogs, they have no choice but to lick the hand of their master.
None of this is new. The steady centralization of power in the prime minister’s office dates back to Pierre Trudeau in the modern era, and to Sir John A. Macdonald before that. Stephen Harper has merely pushed the trend forward at an accelerating pace.
No, what truly distinguishes this prime minister is his assault on Parliament itself.
In the parliamentary system, voters don’t elect governments and prime ministers. They elect representatives to sit as members of Parliament. MPs decide who will form the government and, by extension, who will be prime minister. Whatever one thinks of the coalition that sought to bring down and replace Stephen Harper’s government in December, 2008, it was squarely within the bounds of parliamentary governance; proroguing Parliament in order to avoid a vote the prime minister knows he will lose is not.
Nonetheless, Governor General Michaëlle Jean let Stephen Harper get away with it and in doing so she created a precedent which says the prime minister is entitled to padlock Parliament whenever he damned well pleases.
Short URL: http://tinyurl.com/26vqe3e