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Harper’s ambition trumps all else

If Stephen Harper hoped proroguing Parliament – again – would make some of his problems go away, he may have miscalculated – again – the mood of the Canadian public.

Reaction to his announcement was immediate, even though it was made in the midst of the Christmas holidays in an attempt to minimize the fallout: we were supposed to be too stuffed with turkey to notice. Canadians, however, quickly recognized this is an attempt by the Conservatives to stifle debate on a host of government inadequacies, most notably its handling of the invasion of Afghanistan and the detainee issue.

A poll released this week by Angus Reid shows the recent prorogation of Parliament does not sit well with a majority of Canadians. Some 53 per cent of respondents disagree with the decision. Conversely, only 19 per cent agree with the move. Twenty-eight per cent are undecided.

The rejection of the decision to prorogue Parliament is highest in Ontario (59%) and lowest in the Prairies (50% in Alberta, 48% in Manitoba and Saskatchewan).

About two-in-five Canadians (38%) side with the view of opposition parties, and believe prorogation was invoked in order to curtail an inquiry into the treatment of Afghan detainees. About one quarter of respondents (23%) agree with the federal government’s position that prorogation was necessary to recalibrate, consult and deliver the next stage of its economic plan.

As with last year’s desperate bid to save his government from being toppled, Harper’s use of prorogation subverts democracy and makes a mockery of oft-repeated – but always avoided – pledge to make government more open and transparent.

The backlash was most visible online. A Facebook group denouncing prorogation had 60,000 people join within days of its creation. Rallies are planned nationwide, including one in Kitchener-Waterloo for Jan. 23. The idea is to send a message to the government: get back to work.

Harper’s latest antics have touched a nerve. We’re always a bit suspicious about long government breaks at holiday time, quick to paint our politicians as lazy and imbued with a sense of entitlement. There’s a measure of that involved in the public’s reaction to shutting down the House until March. But there’s a growing realization that there’s something underhanded in all of this, something designed to benefit Harper’s minority government and not the people of Canada – as the Angus Reid poll indicates, almost half of Conservative supporters have a problem with this use of prorogation.

In proroguing Parliament, Harper has killed all outstanding bills; they’ll have to be reintroduced in the next session. The government plans to use the break to appoint more Senators and to realign Senate committees to reflect a Conservative majority in the upper chamber. This, Harper argues, will allow the government to end opposition stalling of measures such as Tory crime legislation.

Harper also hopes to reform the Senate, a familiar refrain. Having initially refused to fill Senate vacancies, preferring to see elected representatives with term limits, Harper subsequently made partisan appointments to counter the preponderance of Liberal placements. He appears headed for more of this reform-from-within strategy to take control of the Senate.

Having previously argued against the use of prorogation, extended breaks and appointed Senators, Harper has clearly embraced these tactics now that he perceives them as being to his advantage. As it grows, the public dissent against proroguing is a reminder to the Prime Minister that we’re not blind to his ambitions.

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