A snowballing protest shows democracy matters to Canadians

TheGlobeandMail.com – Opinions – A snowballing protest shows democracy matters to Canadians: The Conservatives and Liberals are statistically tied, with prorogation deemed a big factor in the Conservatives’ tumble
Published on Jan. 13, 2010. Last updated on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2010.   Lawrence Martin

Daniel Weinstock, a professor at the University of Montreal, sat down recently to write a protest to the Prime Minister against his decision to suspend Parliament. Before sending it off, he asked a couple of colleagues to review it and see if they wished to attach their names.

Before long, the list of names had snowballed to 175, including some of the more highly reputed legal scholars and political scientists in the country.

“Given the short-term, tactical, and partisan purposes served by prorogation,” the professors wrote, “and given the absence of any plausible public purpose served by it, we conclude that the Prime Minister has violated the trust of Parliament and the Canadian people.”

As Prof. Weinstock pointed out, “A lot of people who get paid to think about these things are pretty exercised about this.”

Indeed they are, though not all. Prime Minister Stephen Harper got some support yesterday from an important source. In an e-mail from overseas, Donald Savoie, one of the leading authorities on the powers of the prime minister, said that on the issue of prorogation, “Everyone should take a valium. It is the fashion of the day to talk about it. The issue is much broader and more serious. Harper did what the Constitution allows him to do and what prime ministers would likely do under similar circumstances.”

Mr. Savoie, the author of Governing From The Centre and other studies, added that “the issue of the role of Parliament, the PM and cabinet requires a fundamental rethink. If one is after big game – and the role of Parliament in my view is big game here – one should not be sidetracked by a rabbit.”

Mr. Harper will find some comfort in these words – and he needs it. A Strategic Counsel poll yesterday showed the Conservatives and the Liberals statistically tied, with prorogation deemed a big factor in the Conservatives’ tumble.

The snowball effect of the profs’ protest has been mirrored in the snowball effect of the people’s protest. Facebook has now gathered 180,000 subscribers who are angered at the second suspension of Parliament in the space of a year. Industry Minister Tony Clement said that the prorogue reaction represented only a blip – and mainly from the chattering classes. One hundred and seventy thousand is quite a blip. And these blippers are not to the manner born.

Democracy is more important to them than the Prime Minister thought. The snowballing effect of the protests can be seen in his response to the issue. Clearly in damage-control mode, he has done a rare thing. He has volunteered himself for so many media interviews that you can hardly keep track.

The snowball effect is also evidenced in the response of the Liberals. They have always been hesitant to hit the airwaves and go after the Prime Minister. Either they didn’t have the money to run attack ads in response to his volleys or they didn’t want to be seen as joining Mr. Harper on the political low road.

The result, till now, has been one-sided. If, as Mr. Harper sees it, politics is war, and there is only one side that rolls out the heavy artillery, it’s obvious which side is going to come out on top.

The winning formula in politics is to be able to define your opponent without letting him or her define you. This has been Mr. Harper’s advantage the past few years. But now we’re seeing him being defined. The Grits are painting him as someone with something to hide. In their ads, they have focused not on the detainees matter as such, but on what they feel carries more weight with the public – the issue of an alleged cover-up.

In trying to defend the prorogation, Mr. Harper has put out various rationales. In an interview with BNN television this week he said there was no risk to the stability of government when Parliament is not meeting. It’s when Parliament is sitting, he said, that the troubles begin.

“As soon as Parliament comes back, we’re in a minority Parliament situation and the first thing that happens is a vote of confidence and there will be votes of confidence and election speculation for every single week after that for the rest of the year.”

In a sense – although he’s provoked many a confidence vote himself – the Prime Minister is right. But therein, with that attitude, lies his problem. Democracy, facing Parliament and all that, is a messy business. He’d rather not have to deal with it.

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