There’s a slim book, published 100 years before the recent protests against Stephen Harper’s darkened Parliament, the prime minister should read.
Written by professor and poet R.S. Jenkins, Canadian Civics makes the still timely point that government is too vital to be left to politicians, that citizenship is not a spectator sport.
Jenkins tugs at the nation’s sleeve and conscience, reminding that everyone has responsibilities and “must not sit down quietly and allow the affairs of state to go on.”
Harper can only hope that distant warning has lost its urgency for those who now dismiss federal politics as irrelevant to their daily lives or simply repugnant in its gutter practices. Success for this prime minister turns on minimal engagement and extreme partisanship.
Voters who stay home in droves, widespread confusion over how Canadian prime ministers differ from U.S. presidents, and Conservative passion to replace Liberals as the natural governing party have all worked in Harper’s favour.
They would still be advancing his interests if the prime minister hadn’t so arbitrarily shuttered Parliament for the second time in 13 months.
Cognitively or subliminally, far more Canadians than Conservatives ever expected have now concluded that what Harper is doing is wrong.
They’ve spotted in him the same default dictatorial characteristics, the same disregard for openness and ministerial accountability that they grew to distrust in Jean Chretien and tried to purge by defeating Paul Martin.
What too many now grasp for Conservative comfort is that the prime minister is slipping the essential bonds of democratic control. Harper has gone too far in tipping the balance of power from Parliament to prime minister, from the legislature to the executive.
Twice now Harper has thwarted the people’s will as expressed by those they elect.
First he persuaded the Governor General to suspend Parliament to save Conservatives from defeat.
Then he casually telephoned Michaelle Jean to say, in effect if not in so many words, that at least until after the Olympics there will be no more bothersome scrutiny of Afghanistan prisoner abuse and no disclosure of censored documents MPs voted to release.
Even if Harper’s method is legitimate, his purpose is not. Prime ministers answer to Parliament and through it to Canadians.
Repeatedly slipping through procedural loopholes to escape that discipline frees leaders to behave between elections in the same autocratic ways as divine monarchs.
It’s taken less than 50 years for prime ministers, beginning with Pierre Trudeau, to take for themselves powers that 500 years ago belonged to kings.
They now rule mostly in secret, are counselled by beholden whisperers and treat the Commons with disdain reserved here for the politically impotent.
One result was the Liberal sponsorship scandal, a scheme so opaque that Justice John Gomery couldn’t find where the buck stopped. Another is the Conservative campaign to keep Canadians from knowing what and when ministers and generals learned about Afghanistan torture.
Symptoms of a worse disease, that criminal scheme and this political stonewalling prove that prime ministers can’t be trusted, that they are no longer held in check by loose rules and precedents that rely so heavily on individual ethics and goodwill.
As Jenkins wrote at the beginning of the last century, the cure is citizens who come down from the bleachers when taken for granted and abused.
Jim Travers writes for The Toronto Star Syndicate.