Though it’s largely been forgotten, Canada’s 2008–9 constitutional crisis persists as one of its formative political moments.
A fall election had yielded a minority parliament, but the governing Conservatives led by Stephen Harper seemed to take no notice. Newly reelected but lacking a majority, the government made a brazen right turn, seeking to end public financing for political parties, ban strikes in the public sector, gut federal pay equity, and sell off public assets.
A coalition partnership negotiated between the centrist Liberals and the social democratic New Democratic Party (NDP) was on the cusp of ousting Harper from power, but a short visit to Canada’s unelected head-of-state enabled him to shut down (or “prorogue,” as per the official Westminster jargon) Parliament altogether — avoiding the necessary vote of no-confidence that would have toppled his government.
Just over a year later Harper prorogued Parliament again, this time to avoid scrutiny of Canada’s alleged complicity in the torture of Afghan prisoners. The raw political cynicism of the move was obvious to all but the most obsequious partisans. In addition to ending debates in the House of Commons, prorogation would also shut down a parliamentary committee investigating the torture issue — giving the Conservatives breathing room to reorient their messaging and allow the scandal’s visibility to wane.
Thanks to Harper’s infamously autocratic style, hitherto obscure concerns like parliamentary procedure and the electoral system briefly became major political issues in Canada, and by the 2015 federal election, every opposition party was promising big democratic reforms. This included the Trudeau Liberals who even added a section to their 2015 platform specifically concerned with prorogation. “Stephen Harper has used prorogation to avoid difficult political circumstances,” it read. “We will not.”
Earlier this week, the Liberals added to a lengthy list of broken promises by proroguing Parliament themselves — the context, in this case, being an ever-deepening conflict of interest scandal that this week claimed Trudeau’s minister of finance.
Despite official spin to the contrary, it’s a paint-by-numbers redux of the old Conservative formula: by shutting down Parliament, the Liberals get to kill a committee investigation into the fraught student grant program that has become the flashpoint for a major national scandal and rebrand with a new political narrative in the fall.
If Harper were still in charge, the move would probably be denounced as “Trumpian.”
Whether it will actually give the Liberals their desired political reset remains to be seen, but there can be no doubt that the feverish excitement greeting Trudeau’s 2015 victory and subsequent ascendence to the status of international celebrity has dissipated.
Five years ago, Trudeau sought a mandate almost exclusively premised on replacing Harper’s autocratic style with something more open and democratically minded. True to form, his government’s duplicity and conservatism have defied even the most cynical predictions.
With this week’s prorogation, his image as the anti–Stephen Harper has died yet another death.