Sunday, January 24, 2010

Canadians Looking to try Democracy

Yesterday, there were rallies across Canada protesting Stephen Harper’s decision to prorogue Parliament and marking the day that the Canadian Parliament was to have returned to session. I was a bit anxious about the anti-prorogation rally in Hamilton, mostly because the local radical left was taking part. If we were going to come out in the cold to gather, and most likely make the local news, I was hoping we would look very mainstream and dull. I dressed as square as possible in order to convey that we’re not the radical fringe. Meanwhile, the local collective info-shop was planning to have a “die-in”, just the sort of self-centered attention-grabbing stunt that makes a protest look like an elementary school play session. Happily, though, the die-ins and drumming circles didn’t come off and the crowd was older and very mainstream. It looked like a group of Anglican ministers actually.

The media outside of Canada is completely oblivious to this story (of course), so perhaps a slight bit of context is in order.Prorogation means suspending Parliament and essentially ending their usual session early; locking the doors and sending them home. The idea is to prorogate Parliament when they complete their legislative agenda early, in order to save everyone’s time and money. The Prime Minister calls for prorogation by contacting the Governor General (the Queen’s representative in Canada) and getting permission.

Prorogation is an option in all Parliamentary democracies; however, aside from Canada, it’s never really used because there’s a taboo about it. The first time that Harper prorogued last year it set a precedent because it was to avoid a no-confidence vote, which hadn’t been done since King James tried, failed, and lost his head. There is some argument that John A. McDonald pulled a similar maneuver in Canada about 90 years ago, but again, it’s pretty much unheard of. When Harper prorogued this time, the official argument was that Parliament should focus on the Olympics and the economy. The prisoner abuse scandal that is seriously hurting his party was not sited. Incidentally, this prorogation was announced over the Christmas holiday.

So, the fact that the crowd at the protest was made of people in their 50s and 60s is significant. Canadian baby boomers are pissed. The first prorogation was something that disturbed people, but they were willing to turn a bit of a blind eye. This time, mainstream Canadians are sick of paying people to work who can choose to stay home and get paid every time the political tides turn against them. Canadians value “peace, order, and good government”; as compared to the American, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”; and so this sort of behavior offends their sense of uprightness. This sort of thing is why they voted out the Liberals in the first place.

The Facebook group was started by a handful of university students and, thus far, has only 210,000 members; this is, however, more than all of the other Canadian political parties’ Facebook groups combined. It is hard to judge by the protests- Toronto had about 3,000 people; in Hamilton, we had 300 at best; nevertheless, there were protests in over 60 cities. The fact is that Canadians are not rabble rousers; the country gained its independence by keeping quiet and not pushing for independence after all. So, for each protester, one could imagine a hell of a lot of angry Canadians who aren’t comfortable protesting. None of this bodes well for Harper.

Conservatives originally came up with the tone-deaf talking point that prorogation doesn’t matter because, after all, ordinary Canadians don’t care what their government does. Who even knows what prorogation means?! Come on! Let’s go watch hockey!

In the last three weeks, the Conservatives have dropped 15 points in the polls. If elections were held today, they would lose enough seats to possibly seat a Liberal government. Polls also show that Canadians, particularly baby boomers and the young, strongly disapprove of what Harper did. This is important because many Baby Boomers voted Conservative because they felt the Liberals were entrenched and corrupt and Conservatives offered a transparent, democratic, and functional alternative. In other words, they didn’t expect that Harper would start floating trial balloons on how far democratic government could be rolled back for the aggrandizement of the Prime Minister.

This brings us to the more recent Conservative argument, and I’m also not making this up: they did it to. The Liberals have prorogued Parliament, several times, when they were in power, and there was often a suspicion that they were doing it for nefarious purposes. Admittedly, they never actually declared that they were proroguing to avoid a no-confidence vote, but the suspicion is there. To me, this is sort of a stupid argument: I didn’t live in Canada until about the same time that Harper came in and I never heard of prorogation until last year. Having heard of it, the practice, when used this way, strikes me as profoundly undemocratic. Imagine if a President whose popularity was sinking was able to shut down Congress for months and send everyone home? Imagine if the pending bills all died at that point? 37 pieces of legislation in Canada are now dead. It’s absurdly monarchical.

And I’d like to now point to the ruling in the Canadian Supreme Court of Two Wrongs vs. A. Right, to suggest that this is the sort of shit that Canadians were sick of when they elected the Tories four years ago. Instead of following through, Harper explicitly modeled himself after noted egomaniac George W. Bush. He even does the same petulant pouting in press conferences, bitching about the other parties and the press instead of offering anything constructive. It’s only a matter of time before he’s bitching about the voters.

When I see people out in the cold on a Saturday marching for Democracy, I’m reminded of G.K. Chesterson’s line about Christianity: it’s not that it’s been tried and found wanting; it simply hasn’t been tried. The Canadian governmental system is as anachronistic as the steam engine, and as given to freezing up and failing. Ideas like the Prime Minister assigning members of the Senate, or kicking MPs out before they can gain real experience are so obviously wrong-headed that it’s a wonder they’ve remained the norm.

Canadians as such tolerate a clearly-dysfunctional government for a number of reasons: the American government is so clearly worse, Canada’s government is seemingly unimportant in world affairs, the parties tend to govern almost identically, and finally, there has been so much corruption and incompetence in Canadian government that people expect very little. Nevertheless, Canada is a large and important country, and after weathering the recession so well, it is more important than ever. It could be a role model for the rest of the world, but first Canadians have to realize that they deserve a better government than they have.

My sense is that Stephen Harper has pushed them to that realization.

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