OTTAWA — The federal Conservatives have suspended Parliament until after the Winter Olympics, a move that gives Prime Minister Stephen Harper a tighter grip on the country’s political agenda.
The Tories said Wednesday they need to make a clean break and reboot Parliament now that the economy is no longer in crisis. They’re even considering making prorogation an annual event, so they can start each year anew with a throne speech that serves as an overview of what they plan to do in the coming year.
But the opposition says the shut-down is just a ploy to avoid questions about the handling of Afghan detainees and climate change.
“The specific reason here is that Stephen Harper doesn’t feel like coming back to town and answering questions about his government,” NDP Leader Jack Layton said in an interview.
“Even though Canadians elected a majority of MPs to hold him to account, he prefers to stay away.”
Instead of resuming work as scheduled on Jan. 25, Parliament will start afresh on March 3 with a speech from the throne, followed by a new budget the next day, said Dimitri Soudas, spokesman for Harper.
The prime minister did not make the announcement in person, nor did he meet face-to-face with the Governor General to ask for a formal prorogation. Rather, Harper made that request over the telephone, Soudas said.
“Now is the time to also engage with constituents, stakeholders and businesses in order to listen to Canadians, identify priorities and to set the next stage of our agenda,” Soudas said in justifying the suspension.
“Minority governments have a different horizon than majority governments, and also those change quickly. So this is time to recalibrate, consult and deliver the next stage of our plan.”
The suspension of parliamentary activity means Conservative cabinet ministers won’t face daily questions from their political opponents.
It also means all committees will be disbanded, scuttling the hearings into the controversial handling of Afghan detainees, for example.
It means the Conservatives will have time to fill five Senate vacancies with their own allies, robbing the Liberals of a majority in the upper house.
And it means the Conservatives will have more control over the timing of an election call, by making votes on the budget and the throne speech a confidence issue.
But Soudas said private members’ bills in the works — including a Conservative backbencher’s bill to kill the long-gun registry — would survive the suspension of Parliament. Government bills will also be re-introduced, although in their original form and not with the amendments proposed in the previous session.
While the opposition will no doubt try to make hay out of the suspension, new polling suggests the public will shrug it off.
Almost half of Canadians in the survey — conducted before Wednesday’s announcement — said they don’t care whether the government prorogues Parliament until after the Olympics. Another 15 per cent said they would actually be happy about it.
“Right now, it doesn’t carry nearly the same risk it carried a year ago. There’s a high level of indifference,” said pollster Doug Anderson.
The Canadian Press-Harris Decima survey of just over 1,000 people, taken Dec. 17-20, asked Canadians how they felt about prorogation now compared with a year ago.
At least one constitutional analyst called Harper’s inclination to prorogue an “abuse” of power.
“What’s going on here is, it’s a way of avoiding Parliament — the only institution elected by all Canadians,” said political scientist Nelson Wiseman from the University of Toronto.
Harper has orchestrated three prorogations since he took office, subverting the democratic process, Wiseman said.
“It’s alarming for parliamentary democracy,” he said in a phone interview.
In 2008, Harper used prorogation at the height of the global financial crisis, to avoid handing over power to a coalition of opposition parties. Public opinion is split over whether it was the right or wrong thing to do.
The opposition parties argue that the shutting down of Parliament for several extra weeks has nothing to do with the economy, as the Tories claim. Rather, they say the Tories are running away from their problems and are trying to sidestep accountability.
The governing Conservatives are clearly feeling heat from hearings into whether Canada knowingly sent Afghan detainees into situations where they would be tortured, the Liberals say.
“They’re trying to smother the issue. They’re trying to deprive it of oxygen. But it will not go away,” said Liberal House Leader Ralph Goodale.
Layton points out that the government needs to report to the United Nations on its climate change intentions by the end of January, under the new deal negotiated in Copenhagen earlier this month.
With no House of Commons in session, he said, Harper can’t be held accountable for his stand.