Parliament is set to resume this week after its extended break, but perhaps we should take a moment to reflect on the positives of what this period of prorogation has left us with.
Positives? I know — it can be pretty hard to think of many, given that at its fundamental core, this particular exercise in prorogation was an assault on democracy and the power of Parliament. It shut down committees, reset bills back to zero on the order paper, and some may have been lost entirely (such as Bill S-232, the Senate bill on the Canadian Access to Medicines Regime). Even a number of House of Commons employees needed to be laid off, and the extended break could mean their benefits or pensions might be affected.
This period of prorogation may have been the best thing that could have happened for some. For the NDP, it gave Jack Layton time to focus on his cancer treatments, which would have been more difficult for him had he tried instead to be in Question Period every day. For Libby Davies, it gave her the ability to be in her riding to monitor some of the happenings on the ground during the Olympics, to ensure that the security situation wasn’t getting out of hand.
For the Bloc, well, they had a chance to do a bit of soul searching after one of their party’s founders, Lucien Bouchard, abandoned them — and separatism.
But it was probably the Liberals that came out best of all. Instead of sulking or putting out a bunch of bitter press releases, they decided to instead re-engage with Canadians and their issues. It’s not unfair to say that the party has spent much of their time in opposition a little on the unfocused side. More than just an expectation that as the “natural governing party,” they were just doing their time in the penalty box until Canadians came to their senses and voted them back in, they had forgotten why they wanted to form government in the first place.
And so, even though it was Harper’s choice of words that his government was proroguing to “recalibrate” their agenda, it was really the Liberals who did the recalibration. By engaging in that series of roundtable discussions in Ottawa and elsewhere, they not only started to really re-engage with Canadians, but also with the issues that are before them. It became more than just about finding an issue that they could use to beat over the government’s heads — it was about listening to experts on the issues and finding a policy direction for their party.
Those discussions are leading up to their Canada 150 conference in Montreal at the end of March, where they will engage some of the top minds in Canada to build new policy ideas, which will find their way into the Liberal platform. And if they can turn around and engage their own grassroots membership as to these policy ideas, and if they can produce a platform for the public to see before the spring is out, well, it might truly show that the party has rejuvenated itself.
But more than just the Official Opposition finally offering their own vision of Canada for voters to decide upon, it was the voters of Canada who have really been the winners in this whole prorogation debacle. Not because Parliament and accountability of the executive had been subverted, but rather because it reminded the voters of this country that Parliament is important, and that when we get complacent, governments will take advantage of us.
Stephen Harper gambled that Canadians wouldn’t care — that it was just a procedural story that would get buried in the back pages of the newspaper, that their excuses that it happened 104 other times in the history of Canada would suffice, and that people would be sufficiently distracted by the shininess of the Olympics.
But people cared, and they came out to demonstrate that they cared. Grammatically grating signs like “I can haz democracy” and “accountability fail” aside, people showed that Parliament does matter to them — and that’s fantastic.
But with Parliament back, we need to make sure that we don’t slip back into complacency. Democracy doesn’t just happen. People need to be engaged, and if they’re not — if they just became outraged this one time and they go back to forgetting about it — then it will just happen again. Maybe not in the same way, but this is a government that has abandoned its respect for the rule of law and feels it can get away with it.
Let’s stay engaged so that we can prove them wrong.
Dale Smith is Xtra’s federal politics blogger. Check him out every weekday at Hill Queeries.