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With Parliament prorogued, NDP takes Question Period to Twitter

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Parliament is prorogued.

Ho-hum.

Or, at least, that is how we should react if we believe the prevailing Ottawa insiders' view.

This is a routine prorogation, not like Prime Minister Harper's aberrant prorogations of 2008 and 2009, the insiders say.

In 2008, the Harper government prorogued to avoid a confidence vote it would have lost mere weeks after an election where it gained seats but still not a majority.

In 2009, the Prime Minister prorogued to avoid hard questions about the conduct of the war in Afghanistan.

As for the current prorogation, well, we are told it is simply what many governments do mid-term. They reset the clock and start over with a new agenda and new Throne Speech.

Even Official Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair is willing to allow that Harper might quite legitimately want to hit the re-set button.

But Mulcair points out that it does not take more than a month to do that.

Parliament had been scheduled to come back this week, and Mulcair told reporters on Monday that Harper could have prorogued in the morning and come back in the afternoon with a new Throne Speech. He had all summer to prepare one.

Campaign-style events instead of democratic debate

The NDP Opposition sees this prorogation as part of a pattern -- a pattern of contempt for Parliament and the democratic process itself.

Mulcair points to Harper's frequent use of closure and time limitation to shut down debate.

"After a few hours of debate," the Official Opposition Leader explained, "he cuts things off. Closure is a tool in the Prime Minister's toolbox that he uses regularly."

On prorogation, Mulcair noted that Harper is setting a modern record for its use.

Instead of meeting Parliament this month, Harper and his ministers are rolling out policies in campaign-style public relations events across the country.

Minister of Trade Ed Fast is on a cross-country tour to highlight the government's commitment to the Canadian mining industry. Foreign trade, and diplomatic and aid policy are all now to be oriented toward supporting specific Canadian business interests, and mining and energy businesses are chief among them.

This self-interested approach has always been so, to a significant extent, for Canada and for other rich countries.

The pious pretense that diplomacy is about promoting peace and aid about combating poverty is, to a significant extent, just that: a pretense.

But Harper's government has taken the usual practice of enlightened self-interest a step further.

It has pretty much dropped the enlightened part.

Harper and his colleagues quite openly propose that -- to cite one example -- in the case of policies notionally designed to "lift up" less developed regions, Canada's real goal is now to smooth the way for powerful Canadian mining and energy corporations.

After all, having their mineral and energy resources exploited by foreign corporations, as quickly and profitably as possible, is not the only economic development option available to many countries.

Those other options include: renewable natural resources, agriculture, fisheries, manufacturing and tourism.

But in countries where Canadian mining and energy corporations set their sights, Harper's government has clearly stated that it has no interest in the choices those countries' people or governments might make -- however democratic those choices might be.

Nor is the government interested in a free and open debate on its policies in Canada's own notional home of democracy, Parliament.

While Ed Fast promotes the interests of mining companies abroad, other members of Harper's team will be promoting pipelines here in North America.

This week, Energy Minister Joe Oliver has been continuing his ongoing battle to sway public opinion in favour of the Keystone XL pipeline south of the border, and very soon a phalanx of Harper ministers will descend on British Columbia to push the two pipelines the government wants to see built through that province.

For the better part of the coming month, Harper's team will be able to do all that without the inconvenient distraction of Parliament.

NDP MPs take to Twitter: Will it have an impact?

In an effort to keep at least the spirit of parliamentary give-and-take alive during this hiatus period, the NDP has resorted to a Twitter Question Period, where Official Opposition critics pose the questions they might have asked were the House sitting.

On Tuesday, Foreign Affairs Critic Paul Dewar used Twitter to ask about the two Canadians incarcerated in Egypt.

Tom Mulcair tweeted about the reports that Harper's Chief of Staff Nigel Wright gave Senator Mike Duffy the now infamous $90,000 one week after the Prime Minister's Office told the Senator to reimburse the money.

Edmonton MP Linda Duncan asked about the closing down of Canadian Revenue Agency offices.

Montreal MP Marjolaine Boutin-Sweet asked newly minted Employment Minister Jason Kenney about the government's policy on homelessness.

Justice Critic François Boivin asked the new Justice Minister Peter McKay about the cost of deleting data from the now-abolished long gun registry.

Two MPs asked about "outrageously" high credit card and bank fees; two others asked about issues concerning passenger rail service and rail safety (in the wake of the Lac-Mégantic disaster); and there were many more questions on this Twitter Question Period.

As for the government side -- it was nearly silent.

Industry Minister James Moore is one who did weigh in on Twitter, in response to NDP MP Chris Charlton's question about the wireless spectrum auction.

Moore's riposte was that the Government has already stated its policy on this matter (and, ergo, does not have to answer questions about it in Parliament).

The Minister then added, in a comment quite revealing of the Harper team's deep respect for parliamentary democracy, that the NDP is only interested in "process not policy."

Democracy, it seems, is only a matter of not-particularly-important "processes."

Question Period on Twitter will likely continue until the House resumes sitting in mid-October.

If what the Opposition critics ask in this way starts to resonate with the public (and the media) we might expect other Harper ministers to weigh in.

But can exchanges in 140-character snippets really substitute for the central institution of Canadian democracy?

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