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Canadian Politics: While Parliament Away, Prime Minister Plays

The Canadian Parliament has been closed since the first week of December as Prime Minister Steven Harper convinced Governor-General Michaelle Jean to suspend it until the end of January so he wouldn't lose power. The opposition parties were preparing to vote against him and his Conservative Party of Canada, and offer themselves as an alternative in the form of a coalition of two parties, The Liberals and The New Democratic Party (NDP), supported by a third, The Bloc Quebecois.

Now little Stevie isn't one to sit idly by and let fate rule his destiny, nor is he going miss out on any chance that he has to put his stamp on the face of Canadian government for years to come. So he has spent the last week before Christmas doing as much as he can get away with without Parliament being in session. He has named a new judge to the Supreme Court Of Canada, appointed nineteen friends and fellow travellers to the Senate, and authorized a bail out package to Chrysler and General Motors of four billion dollars.

I'm going to skip over the first part, the appointment of a judge to the Supreme Court for a second, because I could hear all my American friends wondering about naming people to the Senate. In Canada we don't have an elected Senate, the closest thing to be found to the Senate in another government would be the British House Of Lords. In Canada though, instead of being born into a seat, you need to be a friend of the sitting government in order to get one of these plum positions. For plum they are, paying out an annual salary of $130,400 until retirement at age seventy-five, followed by a pension indexed to inflation.

Now it's no big thing for a Prime Minister to pack the Senate, it's an old Canadian political tradition. It's how you reward the party faithful and your friends for the work they've done on your behalf over the years. The thing is that Prime Minister Harper, and long before he was even a member of Parliament, has been a fierce proponents of an elected Senate. You see a Prime Minister can't just appoint people willy-nilly to the Senate, they have to be evenly divided among the provinces to guarantee equal representation. So Mr. Harper has advocated that provincial legislatures nominate people for Senate appointments and that the sitting federal government should abide by their selections.

To give the devil his due, the first appointment Steven Harper made to the Senate was a man who had been put forward by the Alberta legislation, but not this time. Of course he's saying he takes no joy in having to stack the Senate, but it's the provinces fault for not getting it together to nominate anybody. Of course, that's why he's had to find nineteen people to sit in the Senate who all happen to have opposed the proposed coalition government. Now the Senate does not have the power to defeat any motion passed by the House of Commons, and could not overturn a vote of non-confidence taken in the house, but they can make things difficult for a government.

Normally they serve as a rubber stamp for bills passed by the House of Commons, but if the opposition holds the majority of seats in the Senate as the Liberals currently do (even after the addition of nineteen Conservatives it will be 58 Liberals to 39 Conservatives) they can delay passage their passage by holding hearings or voting against them and sending them back to House for further discussion. Aside from Mr. Harper's previous stance making him look a bit of a hypocrite in this case, the opposition is also questioned his political legitimacy to appoint people to the Senate as he's only still Prime Minister because he suspended parliament.

Harper's appointment of Mr. Justice Thomas Cromwell to the Supreme Court of Canada has raised more than a few eyebrows for many of the same reasons that his stacking the Senate has caused consternation. You see Harper has been advocating that all people appointed to the Supreme Court must undergo full parliamentary scrutiny before they are approved, but again he decided that circumstances dictated that he act with immediately. Calling the process, "stupid, wrong, and foolish" political science professor Peter Russell, and expert on the judiciary, criticized the Prime Minister for ignoring the all party process used to compile a list of finalists, and then bypassing the parliamentary review process.

Of course Harper has made no secret of his dislike for the Supreme Court's application of The Charter of Rights and Freedoms to do things like strike down aspects of his anti-terror legislation, enshrining the right for same sex couples to marry, and other decisions he considers interference with his government's ability to impose legislation that might infringe upon civil rights. The fact that, according to Prof. Russell, Justice Cromwell can be expected to use the Charter sparingly to strike down legislation, and who will generally place the interests policing ahead of the rights of the accused, might just have had some bearing on the Prime Minister's decision to appoint him while Parliament is suspended. For even if he should go down to defeat when the house is reconvened, the appointment will stand, and the face of the Supreme Court of Canada will be changed forever.

Now everyone had expected an announcement of some sort regarding the bail out of the auto industry, especially in wake of the American government's announced $17.4 billion . No matter how bitter a pill it is to swallow that we have to bail out these bastions of Free Enterprise and opponents of government regulation due to their own incompetence, no one denies that we have any choice in the matter. If the auto industry were to go under the ripple effects on the Canadian economy would leave it in such tatters that it would take years to recover. The communities that rely directly upon one or other of the big three's car plants for direct employment and the money their employees put into local economies are only the tip of the iceberg.

Dotted mainly throughout Ontario are auto parts plants that supply the industry both in Canada and the United States. A great many of these companies are located in smaller communities where they constitute a town's major employer. During strikes when part orders are curtailed these communities suffer because of lay-offs, but they can tighten their belts and ride out those short term losses. However if the big three were to vanish, these plants would close their doors for good and the economic devastation would cause the modern day equivalent of ghost towns to spring up across the province.

The problem is that by doing the deal unilaterally, without Parliament's input, the Prime Minister has been able to fudge the details of the plan according to opposition parties whose main concern is the lack of any guarantee that Canadian jobs will be preserved. While supposedly there are some production guarantees included in the agreement, according to Liberal Member of Parliament John McCallum, there is nothing in it that secures the jobs of Canadians.

What nobody seems to mention, which I find very surprising, is why the government didn't demand some semblance of accountability from the corporations. If we are going to be handing GM a loan of up to $3 billion and Chrysler $1 billion, you'd think the least we could ask of them is that make some sort of commitment to ensure that they will change the business practices that got them into this predicament in the first place. (If you're wondering about the fact that Ford is conspicuous by their absence its because they've not requested any outright loans, merely access to a line of credit that they can draw on as needed) When any business applies to a lending institution for a loan they are obliged to offer proof of a viable business plan that shows how they see plan on paying back the loan. While Harper has said that the loans aren't a blank cheque and that companies and employees will have to make concessions, he didn't say what that might entail.

Since their biggest failing has been their inability to compete against the Asian car industry and their unwillingness to embrace new technologies that would make their cars more fuel efficient and less dirty, wouldn't it have been a good thing to make those conditions of the deal? How about insisting that they work on making an affordable hybrid car that would cost less for purchasers to operate and be less harmful to the environment? How about retooling their line so they stop mass producing trucks and SUVs, or other expensive big ticket items, and focus on producing inexpensive, fuel efficient, passenger cars for families?

Since Steven Harper became Prime Minister in 2006 he has shown a singular lack of desire to involve anyone but his closest advisors in making any decisions. For the two years of his first term he was effectively able to use Parliament as a rubber stamp for his policies as the opposition parties were in disarray and either unable or unwilling to stand against him. However, only twenty-seven days into his second term he found out that was no longer the case when he tried to push through his economic statement and he only escaped being ousted by suspending Parliament.

Yet apparently he hasn't learned his lesson, as he's spent the two weeks since doing anything he can to unilaterally run the country. While there is nothing technically illegal in any of the decisions he has made, it won't do anything to dispel the opposition's mistrust or their belief that he will stop at nothing to get his own way no matter what. If his behaviour over the period between cancelling Parliament and its recall at the end of January was designed to reassure the opposition and Canada that he has changed his ways, its done the opposite. In fact his behaviour has only reinforced the previous opinion of him being intractable and unwilling to work with the opposition to create legislation for the good of the country. If he keeps this up, his suspension of parliament will have only succeeded in delaying the inevitable, and he and the Conservative Party will be back on the outside looking in again.

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