Proroguing less trouble than sitting

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Stephen Harper has created a hornet's nest for himself with his decision to prorogue Parliament, arousing the wrath of even the social-networking crowd.

The Prime Minister isn't stupid. He likely realized his action would get him in trouble, but that it would be less trouble than he'd be in if Parliament kept sitting.

As most acknowledge, Harper was trying to take the steam out of the growing furor over Canada's role in handing over Afghan detainees to probable torture, hoping the public will lose interest.

It's important to keep that motive front and centre. Harper's decision to prorogue was not only arrogant and high-handed, but it cut off a parliamentary investigation that was zeroing in on possible complicity in torture at the highest levels of the Canadian government.

Indeed, the increasingly panicky Conservatives were running out of manoeuvring room in their three-year battle to avoid responsibility for the detainee scandal.

Ever since human rights groups and the media first drew attention to detainee abuse, the Conservative government has been downplaying its significance, refusing to call a clearly needed public inquiry.

The government thwarted an investigation by the Military Police Complaints Commission by refusing to hand over documents on "national security" grounds -- even though the commission has full national security clearance. When chair Peter Tinsley, a 28-year military veteran, kept pressuring for the documents, the government refused to renew his term, effectively shutting down his probe.

The government also tried to prevent diplomat Richard Colvin (and 21 others) from testifying before the commission. Subpoenaed by a parliamentary committee, Colvin provided explosive testimony that blew the story wide open, raising pointed questions about the failure of top government and military officials to respond to his repeated reports of detainee torture.

The Conservative response was to smear Colvin as a Taliban sympathizer, prompting 133 retired ambassadors, a usually sedate crowd, to rebuke the government.

The Conservatives seemed increasingly cornered and unhinged. Their stonewalling led the often-divided opposition to unite in passing a parliamentary motion demanding the documents, putting the government in a possible legal battle with Parliament.

Harper was starting to look like Richard Nixon refusing to hand over the Watergate tapes. (But perhaps that's an unfair comparison. After all, no one was tortured in the Watergate scandal.)

Conservative supporters are trying to divert attention, asking irrelevant questions like: didn't the Liberals also prorogue Parliament, how many days a year must Parliament sit, does it matter if it sits at all?

The issue isn't what prorogation was used for in the past, but what it was clearly used for here -- shutting down our key democratic institution as it got closer and closer to establishing government involvement in possible war crimes.

It's fashionable to dismiss Parliament as dysfunctional. But, as we've seen, Parliament can not only be effective, at times it's so effective that those who want to avoid being accountable to it feel the need to shut it down.

Harper has developed a reputation for being a bully. But as with most bullies, there seems to be a coward lurking within.

Or, in the words of reader Bob Ferguson, who sent me this quiz about a year ago -- the last time Harper was afraid to face Parliament:

Why did the chicken cross the road?

To ask the Governor General to prorogue Parliament.

Linda McQuaig is author of It's the Crude, Dude: War, Big Oil and the Fight for the Planet.

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