One of the most successful slogans in the history of modern political marketing was the one that Margaret Thatcher pitched to U.K. voters in 1979: “Labour Isn’t Working.”
The ad man behind that slogan, Tim Bell, died this week — the same week that one of Thatcher’s successors, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, decided that Parliament would not be working for most of the next two months.
Johnson is putting parliamentary sittings on ice until Oct. 14, just shortly before Britain is due to pull out of the European Union in what is shaping up to be a no-deal Brexit.
Will Johnson pay a political price? If the Canadian experience a decade ago is any indication, probably not. Who knows? Perhaps Johnson was inspired by the Canadian example.
When he was prime minister, Stephen Harper prorogued Parliament twice — shutting it down once in 2008, in the midst of a Liberal-NDP effort to displace his minority government, and again in 2010, because he could.
Or, as Harper put it then, to “recalibrate” his government.
There were protests — big ones, on Parliament Hill and even at Toronto’s Dundas Square. Thousands of people, in what may have been the most Canadian protest ever, braved biting cold across the country in January 2010 to stage public events against a word the demonstrators could barely fit on their placards.
The protests dwindled, but opposition parties continued to hammer away at Harper and his alleged contempt for Parliament. Less than a year and a half after those prorogation protests, the Conservative minority government fell — on a contempt of Parliament vote — and Harper was returned to power with a majority in 2011.
Closer to the present, Ontario’s legislature is currently in the midst of a shutdown. Premier Doug Ford has suspended business at Queen’s Park until after the federal election in October.
Ford, it could be argued, hasn’t paid much of a price for that decision either. So if Johnson did happen to be seeking advice from fellow conservatives around the world before this latest gambit, one could well imagine Harper and Ford advising him to go ahead and damn the negligible consequences.
Donald Savoie, who has written many books on the crumbling state of our politics, has a new book out next month on the “disintegration” of democracy in Canada.
Savoie says that if the public is apathetic now about parliaments grinding to a halt, it’s because people simply don’t expect much of those institutions anymore.
“Today, the government constantly plays fast and loose with Parliament, and this is true for both major political parties,” he said.
“Think of the tendency to turn to omnibus legislation and think also of the tendency to make major policy announcements outside Parliament. It is highly unlikely, however, that this will be much debated during the next 60 days.
“Sadly, the role of Parliament no longer makes it on the hit parade with Canadians.”
This does have implications for the coming federal election. Unlike political diehards and the chattering masses on Twitter, it’s safe to say that a vast swath of the Canadian voting public has not been hanging on to every twist in the tale of Parliament over these past four years.
A story I tell often on this point took place in late June 2015, when many were saying then-NDP Leader Tom Mulcair would end up as prime minister because of the superior way in which he had been interrogating Harper in the House of Commons.
I ran into Justin Trudeau, then languishing at third place in the polls and asked whether he was worried. No, Trudeau said, because of the reception he was getting outside the Parliament Hill bubble.
It was no accident that Trudeau launched his election campaign in Vancouver later that year, about as far away as he could get from the Ottawa bubble.
It was likely the same kind of thinking that put him in Montreal, giving a foreign policy speech this month, while his opposition rivals were cloistered in a Parliament Hill committee room, reviving the SNC-Lavalin controversy again.
This is not to say that Parliament doesn’t matter. Nor is it to say that Johnson is doing a good thing, pressing the snooze button on the mother of all Parliaments.
The clever thing about that “Labour Isn’t Working” slogan was that it bridged the worlds of inside and outside the Palace of Westminster.
It was a dig at Thatcher’s Labour opponents in the Commons, but also at the widespread climate of strikes and labour paralysis in Britain at the time.
If Johnson is gauging reaction to his prorogation gambit, then, he’d be wise to keep an eye on reaction outside his own political bubble — and also on the lessons learned in Canada.
Politicians could well be able to get away with disregard for parliamentary niceties these days because voters have already decided that Parliament isn’t working.
Susan Delacourt is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.