First the king and then Stephen Harper! It’s two for two for Parliament … maybe.
Leastways, according to yesterday’s news coverage of House of Commons Speaker Peter Milliken‘s ruling, Parliament has achieved a mighty victory over Mr. Harper’s U.S.-Republican-style government in a fight that never should never have had to be fought — reasserting the right of our elected representatives to information about how our country is run.
Specifically, in this case, the information being sought was about how Afghan prisoners of war (or, in the Orwellian language of the modern Canadian governing class, “detainees”) were treated by their Canadian captors. (The problem being, of course, that they may not have been treated as prisoners of war.)
The Speaker ruled that Harper’s Conservative government would be in contempt of Parliament if it refuses to give members access to the secret story of the Afghan prisoners.
But really, as the Toronto Star quite rightly explained it, this fight is about “who is the ultimate power in Canada and it’s been simmering since shortly after the last election, when Harper was almost tossed out of office by the opposition parties.”
So who does have the power: Our presidential Prime Minister, or Parliament? The Speaker was unequivocal in his answer: Parliament. As another Speaker said in analogous circumstances: “I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here.”
But just as Harper was prepared to do anything to prevent Parliament from exercising its constitutional right to vote non-confidence in his minority government, Canadians should not expect him to go along with this ruling. Indeed, there were hints in the prime minister’s vague and ambiguous statement today that he has no intention of doing any such thing. After all, kings and other tyrants do not give up their power to elected legislatures without a bitter fight.
Presumably, however this plays out, the prime minister will not attempt to govern completely without the inconvenience of Parliament — though one suspects that, given the opportunity, the man would welcome the opportunity to do so.
This would take the concept of minority government to exciting new extremes, no doubt with the complete support of the National Post, the wavering support of the Globe and Mail and the half-hearted opposition of the Star. (The Suns, presumably, would miss the story unless it could be determined it had an impact on local crime.)
Readers with long memories will recall that something like this was tried some years ago by an unhappy king named Charles, with somewhat dubious results from the monarch’s perspective. His Majesty did manage to rule with a modest degree of success for not quite a dozen years, notwithstanding the absence of Parliament (attempting to pawn the Crown jewels and cutting the ears of a few pamphleteers, the bloggers of the day, along the way). Alas, matters came to a head, as it were, on Jan. 30, 1649.
Different country, you might say, but not so different, really. The lesson in this potted history, one that our prime minister and others who dismiss what today we would call “liberals” should keep in mind, is that just as tyrants do not give up their power willingly, neither do elected Parliaments.
The Canadian Speaker gave Harper’s Ministry 14 days to cough up the records. But he begged Parliamentarians of all parties to reach a compromise that would avoid a constitutional crisis. “Surely that’s not too much to hope for,” he said.
It is, given the personality and inclination of the man who leads us.
Constitutionally speaking, the effect of the ruckus in England three and a half centuries ago was to establish that a monarch cannot govern without Parliament’s consent.
Apparently it remains to be seen whether this rule applies as well to Canadian prime ministers.
This post can also be found on David Climenhaga’s blog, Alberta Diary.