I’ve long argued, much to the dismay of some of my North American friends, that the leaders of democracies are not necessarily better human beings than dictators. Democratic leaders do, however, face a powerful, time-honoured system of checks and balances, a generally short stint at the helm of their countries, and an electorate thats free to vote for whichever candidate they wish to support.
These mechanisms are there for one reason: the more stuff leaders can get away with, the more they will want to get away with. Like Lord Acton once said, Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Indeed, there’s no telling what most of us would do if we enjoyed total impunity or could easily quash dissent—I don’t care if your name is Obama or Da Silva or Gore. Or, more to the point, Harper—as in Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of Canada.
I am not saying Mr. Harper is corrupt or a dictator. But by suspending Parliament for the third time in two years of government, and with no good reason except to protect himself from enquiry, he has further damaged the system of checks and balances that has successfully kept Canadian politicians accountable for so long.
The backbone of this system is the Parliament, a supreme body that the Prime Minister and his cabinet are supposedly accountable to. Such a body makes a lot of sense in Canada, not just for the reasons stated above, but also because Canadian Prime Ministers have considerable power—they can, for example, hand-pick Senators and Supreme Court Justices, extremely influential figures that any U.S. President would probably sell his soul to able to choose. Presumably, such a strong power at the hands of the Prime Minister would equate to a similarly powerful Parliament. But this doesn’t seem to the case. In a recent Globe and Mail article, John Ibbitson carried out a detailed comparison of the Canadian Parliament, the U.S. Congress, and the parliaments of Britain, Australia and New Zealand. Our Parliament, concluded Ibbitson, has become the most dysfunctional in the English-speaking world.
I can’t attest to the truth of this statement—I am neither a political scientist nor a historian. Nevertheless, it seems logical to conclude that by allowing the Prime Minister to end discussion any time he chooses, the Parliament will become accountable to him rather than the other way around.
To be sure, the decline of the Parliaments role did not begin under Mr. Harper. Jean Chrétien was no stranger to proroguing government—he did it four times during his time in office, which enabled him and his government, among other things, to evade a judicial enquiry that was launched in the early 1990s to investigate the death of a Somali teenager at the hands of a Canadian Forces peacekeepers.
These precedents, of course, do not justify Mr. Harpers actions. 84,000 Canadians have joined a Facebook group opposing the proroguement. The media have crucified the Prime Minister. Protests have been planned. It would therefore be tempting to conclude that the Prime Minister´s suspension of the government will cost him dearly. But a skeptic might doubt that people will fume long enough (until after March 3, after the distracting Winter Olympics) and hard enough (to do more than click on a computer mouse to join a Facebook group).