Thursday, January 7, 2010

why you should care about the 2010 prorogation of parliament

a really, really great piece written by matthew furlong.

"There seems to be a two-tiered gripe with the Harper government’s, and more specifically Stephen Harper’s, decision to prorogue Parliament for the first quarter of this year. The first tier is concerned with an inactive Parliament, with paid MPs who aren’t doing the work that is expected of them, and with the consequent waste of taxpayers’ dollars. The second tier is concerned with Prime Minister Harper’s questionable use of prorogation, which is normally an uncontroversial parliamentary procedure, with his apparent evasiveness about issues such as the war in Afghanistan, and with his contempt for the challenges a minority government faces in a Parliamentary system.

I’m more interested in the latter, because it’s emblematic of the important and dangerous juncture that we’re at right now in the history of our Parliament. There’s no doubt that a lethargic Parliament full of MPs who are getting paid without getting any legislation passed is a bad thing; however, it’s also not as perilous as what’s currently underway. More than a few op-eds from constitutional scholars and others, written during this prorogation and the last, have referred to PM Harper’s use of prorogation as a constitutional crisis. This is quite correct: the word “crisis” refers to a decisive moment or a turning point. And the crisis in question is about the relationship between Parliament, which is supposed to be the representative body of the Canadian electorate, and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), which is the Prime Minister’s centre of operations.

Prior to Pierre Trudeau’s tenure as Prime Minister, the PMO was relatively weak in relation to Parliament; however, since around the late 1960s or early 1970s, it has become more powerful and has been modified by subsequent Liberal and Progressive Conservative governments. The result has been that the Prime Minister is, more and more, a position with ever-greater latitude in relationship to Parliament. To put it simply, the modern history of the Office reveals its increasing distance from the body which serves as the voice of Canadian citizens. Prime Minister Harper doesn’t stand at the beginning of this history; his occupation of the PMO is just one event in a whole series of historical events that constitutes the transformation of our system of government. His unique contribution has been to play that system off against itself, by using an ordinary parliamentary procedure to counteract other ordinary parliamentary procedures, thus creating an extraordinary situation: a constitutional crisis.

That possibility was always there; systems of government are a kind of machinery, and all machines can be used in ways that outstrip or even cancel out what is perceived to be their intended use. A cellphone can be used to screw up navigational devices on airplanes, as we’ve heard so many times by now. A car can be used to drive somewhere, or it can be turned into a suicide machine with a long enough bit of hose. Likewise, a system of government can be turned on itself and can even destroy itself by way of unforeseen interactions between perfectly ordinary bits of procedure. It was probably inevitable that someone would come along and see the potential for exploitation in this system; all it ever takes is someone with the insight and the will to do so, along with a large number of people who can’t see it or who don’t care.

Fundamentally, this crisis is about sovereignty. Most of us have heard this word used many times in the last 10 years, but only in the context of international relations, or in terms of Quebec sovereignty: the sovereignty of a nation-state is its freedom from coercion by other nation-states, supra-national organizations (like the EU or the UN), or non-governmental organizations. National sovereignty consists in the ability of a nation-state to decide on its own domestic and foreign policy in an independent way; almost everyone is familiar with this idea. But we never hear about the question of sovereignty at the domestic level itself: in other words, who or what gets to decide on policy within a given political systemand, ultimately, who has the authority to preserve, suspend, or entirely undo the constitution itself. In a Parliamentary democracy, the idea is that Parliament, which is the voice of the people, is the sovereign body; this is a representational version of what’s called popular sovereignty, or the sovereignty of the people. Decision-making power, or sovereign power, is distributed amongst 308 MPs and 105 Senators who are supposed to represent the people subjected to that power.

What we’re seeing right now, on the part of Prime Minister Harper, is an attempt to change that situation, and to transfer sovereign power to the PMO. In other words, what we’re seeing is an attempt to destroy popular sovereignty and to solidify a solitary, unilateral sovereign power held by the Prime Minister’s. As we know, every Prime Minister is currently selected from the MPs of whichever power bloc (it doesn’t have to be a political party) has the lion’s share of power, whether it’s a plurality or a straight-up majority of seats. What Prime Minister Harper’s innovative use of prorogation opens up is a way for a political party to exert even more power than the bare occupation of Parliamentary seats allows. The PMO can invent policy, disseminate it to MPs (who, in the case of this government, are under the very tight control of the PMO itself), and then push it through legislation in a House constantly under threat of prorogation or dissolution.

So why should you care? I’ll tell you why I care. First of all, I think that the idea of Parliament being the “voice of the people,” is a rather romantic notion. We already know that our votes are in competition with lobbyist dollars, among other influences. We also know that the conflict of many different voices in a constituency (and in any society in general) will always result in some of those voices being drowned out. The Parliamentary process is always going to be one that distorts, no matter what. We have to live with that reality in this system; however, any body (like a parliament) that presumes to govern the lives of others has already given itself over to being under fire forever, regardless of whether it announces that fact or whether people are willing to take responsibility for their relationship to being governed. There is no such thing as a natural right to govern, and anyone who takes on that position rightly exists on the razor’s edge.

In other words, to be governed by a plurality of individuals who constitute a miniscule portion of the whole population is already contentious. But being governed by a solitary power that wants to remove itself from whatever power the governed might be able to exert against it: this is an unacceptable state of affairs. There’s a lot of spin going around poo-pooing the use of the word “dictator” in this instance. But that’s exactly what’s happening. A single agent, the Prime Minister, is consolidating a unique, supreme executive power and sabotaging popular sovereignty. It doesn’t matter who occupies the Office, or what colour their campaign posters are. It isn't a partisan question, or even a question of national identity. This is a matter of what I would call the solidarity of the governed. Nothing more, nothing less.

Should you care? It all hinges on whether or not you care about how you’re governed and who governs you. This isn’t a “big” versus “small” government problem; it’s a question of fugitive government. And the essence of a dictatorial regime is its capacity to take flight from the reach of those whom it governs. We’ve seen it happen in previous governments in our lifetime, but not in this manner and not with such potentially disastrous implications. It’s time to care right now. I’d encourage you to write to your MP, talk to your family and your friends, to attend rallies, and to donate to political parties to build their coffers (if that’s your thing – it’s not mine). But what needs to happen, most of all, more than any regime change, is procedural reform. This is a constitutional, not an administrative, crisis. We need to have widespread public reflection and action on this. The avenue that Prime Minister Harper has taken needs to be permanently closed down.

We’re at a point where people are talking about abolishing prorogation, which is in and of itself an unremarkable parliamentary tool. It shouldn’t be abolished, but the fact that people are suggesting it just shows how destructive the Harper government is. We're becoming so mistrustful that we're willing to start dismantling our own constitution. What needs to happen is that the role and power of the PMO be redefined and sovereignty be returned to Parliament. Governments will probably always try to pull a fast one on us, but what’s happening right now is obscene. Whether or not we will have to deal with venal, greedy, careerist MPs for the foreseeable future is one thing. But what Prime Minister Harper has taken up and exacerbated is of an entirely different nature. That’s what’s at stake here. That’s why you should care. That’s why I care."

matthew is planning to write a companion piece on the subject of sovereignty and crisis, that
"sovereignty is not so much defined by who can decide on policy within a political system, but, precisely, who has the authority to suspend or disrupt a constitution entirely."

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