When Canada’s Parliament is reconvened on January 26th and gets down to any meaningful business, it will have met for a total of 13 days over the past half year. By that time, a new President and Congress will be in place in the United States along with the most comprehensive program to restart the economy since the 1930s.
Canada and the United States share a number of common attributes, which include family members, extensive trade, a similar culture -even David Frum- while still managing to work within different systems of government. Canada’s approach to democracy has its roots in the British parliamentary tradition, the oldest of its kind in the world. In this system, the party which commands the confidence of parliament is the one that forms a government. If that confidence founders, the government no longer rules. The United States opted for a system of checks and balances with co-equal branches of government ensuring in their own way that the will of the people is honored.
But nothing reveals the dysfunctionality of the Canadian system more starkly than the fact that since the end of June, the Canadian House of Commons has sat for a total of just 13 days. In July, August, September and October, it didi not meet at all. By contrast, the U.S. House of Representatives has been in session each month except August during the same period. Even in November, when every Congressional District was up for election, it met soon after the record U.S. vote.
This week, Canada’s Governor General, the formal head of state who represents the Queen, put the House in recess until January 26th of next year on the advice of her first minister, Stephen Harper, who was facing a vote in the Commons that would surely have led to his defeat. He chose to run from the vote and shut Parliament down instead. Mr. Harper called an election in October and was returned with another minority government in one of the lowest voter turnouts on record.
The United States, over the course of the last many months, has been taking steps to deal with the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Many will differ on the merits of the actions taken, as we have on these pages, but at least there is recognition that a major problem exists. By contrast, Canada’s minister of finance, James Flaherty, in his first economic statement since the October election, said no stimulus package was necessary because of the “visionary” steps the government had previously taken. Then reality hit Canada with a thud even louder than the sound of the doors of Parliament being locked shut. One day after the House was prorogued, the country’s jobless numbers soared to the highest level in more than 20 years. Ontario, its most populous province, saw its unemployment rate in November swell to 7.1 percent, up by more than half a percent from the previous October. Next month, while legislators remain suspended in their monarchical-enforced, but prime ministerial-induced, slumber, the rate will rise even more.
Throughout history, various figures have attempted to tamper with the rights of parliament to conduct the people’s business. It has often led to an unhappy outcome. Charles I was fond of dissolving the British House of Commons whenever things got sticky, until it finally decided to dissolve the monarchy and him with it. The German Reichstag was found by the Nazis to be something of an inconvenience to the 1930s. The frequently self-seeking plans of tyrants and small thinkers alike do not do well in the company of deliberative bodies where men and women are free to ask questions and pass judgment.
By the time Canada’s Parliament is reconvened on January 26th and gets down to any meaningful business, a new President and Congress will be in place in the United States along with the most comprehensive program to restart the economy since the 1930s. Canada’s lawmakers will still be in limbo; its government continuing to enjoy its vacation from both economic reality and legislative accountability. Car makers may or may not receive the billions in financing they are seeking from Ottawa, too, in the urgent time frame they have imposed. But this much is certain: not a single day of parliamentary hearings on that subject will have been held by Canada’s elected representatives.
Closing down the House of Commons -the people’s house- after it has done business for a mere 13 days in nearly six months, at a time of unprecedented economic turmoil when Canadians are losing their jobs, their businesses and their homes at record rates, when personal bankruptcies are soaring and a domestic automobile manufacturing sector is facing bankruptcy is more than just a difference in how democratic institutions operate. It is a travesty of democracy that calls into question the judgment of a government and its fitness to lead, which is why Mr. Harper’s action in thwarting lawful debate and deliberation in Canada’s most important elected body is our choice for the Outrage of the Week.