More on prorogation
In response to my previous post
about prorogation, someone emailed me this comment:
My participation in our democracy is limited to voting when there's an
election and mostly ignoring everything else. [...] Despite that, I can tell
from the rumbling that there's something unusual about this particular
prorogation. If it was just normal boring governing, nobody would be talking
I actually think this comment is very insightful, because it gets right to
the heart of the issue I was trying to address. Other people sent responses
that were more like, "But what gives them the right to manipulate it in such
an evil way?" It's almost the same question, but those
comments were not insightful. They missed the fact that there may not be
any manipulation at all, and therefore turned it from a question of fact
into a question of opinion.
I'm not a professional journalist. Yesterday's attempt at factual reporting
took all the restraint I had. So this post will surely not meet my own high
standards for journalistic integrity. I'm just some guy on the Internet.
You've been warned.
How I came to know what "prorogation" means
Full disclosure: I personally don't like the Conservatives. I think if they had a majority
government, Canada would be worse off. I think the fact that Harper
does most of his public relations through a "spokesperson" is a total
embarrassment. I also think our current batch of other political leaders,
with the possible exception of Gilles Duceppe, are even worse, and I sorely
miss the days when Jean Chretien used to beat people up with statues.
But I wouldn't vote for Ignatieff, precisely because he
pulls the current kind of crap. I wish I still lived in Quebec so I'd at
least have a party worth voting for.
That's the perspective with which, not knowing anything about the current
prorogation debate (or even what "prorogation" means), I returned to Canada
from my vacation in Mexico and was met by an angry Internet mob
complaining about our upcoming dictatorship.
See above: "My participation in our democracy is limited to voting when
there's an election and mostly ignoring everything else." Me too. You know
why? Because I think the system works. That's the beauty of
representative democracy. But I figured, okay guys, I'm pretty
smart, I can figure this stuff out. If there's really a dictatorship
coming, I want to be on the winning team. So I thought I'd
better look into it.
The actual mob of complainers were no help. They all figured that someone
else knew what was bad about what was going on, or else they figured
that just suspending parliament at all made the government a dictatorship.
This left me to do my own "research" (a word that is in quotes because I
did all this "research" in bed using my laptop).
First stop: The
National Post (via Google), in an article titled, "Thousands turn out at
rallies to protest proroguing of Parliament."
Intermission: A note on how to read political news
sources are biased. The first thing you have to do is identify the bias.
Both the National Post and the Globe and Mail are Liberal-friendly and
anti-Conservative. How can you tell? Just read any headline about
politics and watch the trend. Other tips: 1) all quotes from
politicians are weasel words; don't trust them. 2) using quotations from
any individual allow the newspaper to avoid fact checking; it is
always a fact that "person X said Y," no matter how false Y may be.
3) in constructions like "estimates pegged the turnout at more than 3000
people" note that nobody in particular is being quoted; they are
reporting that some random person estimated more than 3000 people. Do not
fool yourself into thinking that they don't pull tricks like this. They
have to research, write, edit, and publish a fat sheaf of paper like the
National Post every single day. Corners will be cut.
...shockingly, the National Post headline is phrased in an anti-government
way (since the government is Conservative). Reading on, we see lots of
quotes from political leaders (ignore them; rule 1). The whole article is
also really a big quote from an angry mob of protesters (no fact checking
was done; rule 2), since it merely reports that there was an angry
mob, not that what the mob was angry about even exists. And we don't know
if the mob was really 10 people or a million people (rule 3).
So that article, although it used many words, was in fact 100% pure
Nevertheless, I could feel myself thinking anti-Conservative thoughts
despite the total lack of facts. I thought I'd better go find something
biased in the opposite direction so that I could balance things out a
little. I realized that I couldn't think of any actual Canadian mainstream
newspapers that are Conservative-friendly; I'm probably forgetting something
So I resorted to blogs, which made things easier. Next stop: Alberta
Ardvark (via Google). I have to admit that I assumed they were
Conservative-friendly just because they're in Alberta, which means I'm a
racist. However, I was not disappointed.
That article was the usual politico-blogger nonsense, giving handy advice on
how to win a political argument not by arguing about the issue, but instead
by turning the conversation around to character assassination whenever
possible. (In this case, it's about the fact that Ignatieff supported
prorogation last year, so he's not allowed to be against this particular
prorogation this year; that makes him inconsistent, therefore a liar, so it
doesn't matter what he says, etc.) Nicely done as always, Internet. But
there was one intriguing quote: "...the ones who have been convinced by the
media that this
prorogation is not a routine event..."
Wait... routine event? Surely this is Conservative propaganda. I was
intrigued, so I followed the link.
It points out that Chretien prorogued parliament 4 times. And Pierre Elliot
Trudeau, supposed Canadian hero... 11 times?! Holy crap! Who's the evil
one around here, again?
My brain's magical pattern-detectors then kicked in and I thought: hey, wait
a minute. Those prorogation counts seem to be roughly proportional to the
amount of time a particular Prime Minister was in office. Perhaps there's a
And then, at the bottom of the article: "In our 143 years of existence as
Canada, Parliament has been prorogued 105 times."
Maybe I'd better go learn
what prorogation is. The answer is: it's an all-too-fancy word for the
end of every parliamentary session.
And it's a word I didn't know the meaning of until now. A word that every
news article and blog entry I've read so far has not bothered to define. A
word that, in some tenses, has the word "rogue" in it.
Okay, this sucks. Reading biased articles in a search for truth is getting
me nowhere. Is there not any news source that will just give me the
facts and not try to spin it the way they want? Well, no, I guess there
isn't. But there's something close: the
Because it would be weird if they didn't, the above-linked CBC article has
quotes from politicians; try to ignore them (rule 1). If you fail to do so,
you will discover that the first apparent use of the word "despotic" in this
context was by Ralph Goodale, Liberal House Leader, whom you should not vote
for because he is thus automatically a lunatic.
However, the non-politician-quote parts of the article seem to be well
balanced and, notably, identify several reasons why Harper might have wanted
to prorogue government right now as opposed to some other time.
So what have we learned? First, that prorogation of parliament is totally
normal, and that the length of the just-ended session isn't even unusually
short; and second, that Harper might very well have chosen this particular
date in order to benefit himself or his party. Gasp! Let us look at these
possible reasons in more detail.
The CBC's suggested reasons for the current prorogation
"Muzzle parliamentarians amid controversy over the Afghan detainees affair."
Don't know about you, but parliament has been shut down for a whole month
already and I haven't noticed any of those parliamentarians not talking. I
wish. But maybe you have a point; when parliament next starts up, I bet the
opposition parties will have completely forgotten about the whole thing,
despite the obvious political leverage they could gain from bringing it up.
Harper has totally outfoxed them on this one.
"To consult with Canadians, stakeholders and businesses as it moves into
the 'next phase' of its economic action plan amid signs of economic
recovery." Well, I guess theoretically, if you're in parliament you don't
have as much time for consulting with Canadians. But don't we have Royal
Commissions for that or something? Maybe they just wanted a longer
Christmas holiday. (Aside: the reason the prorogation "doesn't start until
January 25th" is that they've all been on holidays since sometime in
"Strategically, prorogation also prevents question period criticisms from
the opposition parties during the Olympics." Hey, not bad. Avoid the bad
PR for Canada from discussing our idiotic foreign affairs policies at the
same time as we're in the global spotlight. Critically,
this allows Mr. Harper, who (let's be honest) doesn't look all that lovable,
to hide in the cellar for the whole time the Olympics are on, letting someone
cuter represent us to the world. This seems to be a wise strategy no matter
which side of the fence you're on.
"By proroguing Parliament, he is unilaterally making a decision to stop any
kind of disclosure from happening." As if information can't be disclosed
just because nobody's making any laws right now. Remember: parliament is
the legislative branch of the government. It's for making new laws. No
other part of the government is suspended just because parliament is.
(Note: see update below.)
"Gilles Duceppe wrote that prorogation has become 'a tradition for Harper.'"
Duceppe has an awesome sense of humour. I had to read this
one a few times before I realized that he managed to give them a sound bite
while simultaneously making fun of the fact that prorogation is totally
normal, ie. a "tradition."
"By the time Parliament resumes, Harper would have had time to ask Jean to
name five new senators, which would give the Conservatives a majority on the
newly formed Senate committees and greater control for passing their own
legislation." (Notably: nobody was quoted saying this. CBC had to look it
up on their own.) "Soudas confirmed the prime minister will seek to fill the
Senate vacancies between now and March." This one is actually a great
example of a real political reason to prorogue parliament; to get more
control of the senate in time for the next session. But the Canadian senate
system is designed (on purpose) to work like that. That's why the
current senate is mostly Liberal even though our elected representatives are
mostly non-Liberal. Senators are appointed for life, at which time the
Prime Minister selects new ones. No surprises here.
(In case you don't like that system: the only party in favour of senate
reform in Canada is the Conservatives. They'd rather you could elect your
senators. How "anti-democratic" of them. I actually think such reform
would be a change for the worse, but that's just my opinion.)
"Shortly after Soudas' announcement, the government sent out an email saying
it would reintroduce, in original form, the consumer safety bill and the
anti-drug-crime law that the Tories claimed the Liberals 'gutted' in the
Senate." This shows significant political maneuvering. However, bills take
multiple rounds through both houses before they (might) get passed anyway,
so this isn't as bad as it sounds. The "gutted" version might never have
been passed anyway. Also, interestingly, this was pointed
out in an email from a Conservative MP. Apparently they don't
think it's evil. At least not evil enough to cover up.
Guys, I did my homework. But I'm just not seeing it. The actual facts are:
1) Prorogation is perfectly normal and the recent parliamentary session
wasn't abnormally short.
2) We won't have any more new laws getting made for a month or so longer
than usual. (Remember: they were on vacation until January 25th anyway.)
But being unable to do stuff doesn't make you a despot, it makes you a
3) If Harper is really evil, the first thing to happen in the new parliament
in March is that there will be a vote of non-confidence followed by an
election. If this doesn't happen, it's because the angry non-Conservative
parties didn't actually believe he was evil either.
4) There are some valid political reasons why it's better for the
Conservatives if they prorogue parliament right now instead of later.
However, they aren't very exciting reasons.
5) There is at least one actual reason (Harper is scary-looking and the
Olympics are coming) that it's better for Canada if they prorogue
parliament right now.
6) All mainstream media that I read - which was quite a bit - failed to
properly define the term "prorogation" or to mention that it's perfectly
normal. This seems a rather critical thing to know. Its omission suggests
to me that they're trying to make news out of non-news.
"If it was just normal boring governing, nobody would be talking about it."
Unfortunately not true.
That's textbook mob mentality: he must be guilty, because otherwise my
friends wouldn't be burning down his house.
The only cure for mob mentality is thinking for yourself.
Some helpful people have emailed me to clarify or correct or question
various parts of the above.
Information release on the Afghan torture investigation: make no
mistake, this investigation, and the demand for release of information
related to it, is very important. It will also be delayed (for about
one month) because of prorogation. Because of "parliamentary immunity," the
interesting testimony won't be released during the delay. However, you need
to think about two key points: first, will the end result of the
investigation be any different because of a one-month delay? And second:
will the Conservatives benefit because of the delay? Keep in mind that if
the results came out now, they would be largely overshadowed by news
about the Olympics. If they come out later, the Olympics will be
over, the opposition parties could force an election, and the results would
be headlining right as we're thinking about who to vote for. And yet the
Conservatives have chosen the latter, not the former.
Precise timing of prorogation: Several people responded by claiming
that it's not prorogation that's the problem, it's the particular timing of
Harper's use of prorogation. This is an insidious line of argument because
it's impossible to disprove; if Harper had prorogued parliament back on the
9th of September (9/9/9 is the British equivalent of 9/1/1), you could have
accused him of using numerology to choose prorogation dates, and it would be
impossible to refute that claim, even if it had been a perfectly
sensible date to end the parliamentary session. Thus, to demonstrate any
wrongdoing, you really have to be more specific about why the current timing
is so evil. I have discussed several possible reasons above. Please feel
free to suggest more. But "the timing is evil!" is not specific enough.
With that in mind, however, a lot of bad statistics are being spread with
regard to the lengths of various parliamentary sessions. Here are all of
the sitting days per session since 1980:
Turner and Trudeau (Liberal): 591, 116
Mulroney (Conservative): 308, 389, 11, 308, 271
Chretien (Liberal): 283, 164, 243, 133, 211, 143 (avg: 196)
Martin (Liberal): 55, 159
Harper (Conservative): 175, 117, 13, 128 (avg. excluding outlier: 140)
Eyeballing it, Harper's numbers are very slightly lower than typical
(except for last year's prorogation, which was indeed an interesting event).
Ignoring the outlier (13), Harper's average is just 29% lower than
Chretien's. However, Harper has also managed to hold together the
longest-running (by a large margin) minority government in Canadian history.
I find it unsurprising that the effort required to do so would result in
somewhat shorter sessions.
Syndicated 2010-01-25 01:16:10 (Updated 2010-01-26 18:07:15) from apenwarr - Business is Programming