The Canadian Parliament has been closed since the first week of December when Prime Minister Steven Harper convinced Governor-General Michaelle Jean to suspend activities until the end of January. The opposition parties were preparing to vote against Prime Minister Harper and the 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 Harper isn't one to sit idly by and let fate rule his destiny, nor is he going miss out on any chance to put his stamp on Canadian government for years to come; he has spent this last week before Christmas doing as much as he can get away with without Parliament in session. He named a new judge to the Supreme Court Of Canada, appointed nineteen friends and fellow travelers to the Senate, and authorized a bailout package to Chrysler and General Motors of four billion dollars.
I'm going to skip the Supreme Court appointment for a second, because I can hear my American friends wondering about Harper naming people to the Senate. The Canadian Senate is not elected. The closest thing to this would be the British House Of Lords, though in Canada rather than being born into a seat you need to be a friend of the sitting government in order to get one of these plum positions. And 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. The thing is that Prime Minister Harper was a fierce proponent of an elected Senate long before he was even a member of Parliament. A Prime Minister must evenly divide appointments among the provinces to guarantee equal representation, and Mr. Harper has advocated that provincial legislatures nominate people for Senate appointments and that the sitting federal government should abide by their selections.
The first appointment Harper made 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. That's why he's found nineteen people to sit in the Senate who all happen to have opposed the proposed coalition government. 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, they can delay passage by holding hearings or voting against them and sending them back to House for further discussion. Aside from Mr. Harper's hypocritical stance, the opposition has 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 Justice Thomas Cromwell to the Supreme Court has raised more than a few eyebrows for many of the same reasons. Harper has been advocating that all people appointed to the Supreme Court must undergo full scrutiny before approval, but again he decided that circumstances dictated he act immediately. Calling the process, "stupid, wrong, and foolish," political science professor and judiciary expert Peter Russell criticized the Prime Minister for ignoring the process used to compile a list of finalists and bypassing the review process.
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 Russell, Justice Cromwell can be expected to use the Charter sparingly to strike down legislation and will generally place the interests of the police above the rights of the accused might just have had some bearing on the Prime Minister's decision to appoint him while Parliament is suspended. Even if he should go on to defeat when the house is reconvened, the appointment will stand, and the face of the Supreme Court of Canada will be changed forever.
Everyone had expected an announcement of some sort regarding the auto industry bailout, especially in the 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, we don't 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 on one of the Big Three's car plants are only the tip of the iceberg.
Dotted 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 are major employers. During strikes when part orders are curtailed these communities suffer due to layoffs, but they can tighten their belts and ride out those short-term losses. However if the Big Three vanished, these plants would close their doors for good and the economic devastation would cause the modern day equivalent of ghost towns 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 there are supposedly some production guarantees in the agreement, according to Liberal Member of Parliament John McCallum there is nothing in it that secures the jobs of Canadians.
Surprisingly, what nobody seems to mention is why the government didn't demand some accountability from the corporations. If we are going to be handing out billion dollar loans, you'd think the least we could ask is that the auto companies make some sort of commitment to ensure that they will change the business practices that got them into this predicament in the first place. When any business applies to a lending institution for a loan they are obliged to offer proof of a viable business plan. While Harper has said that the loans aren't a blank cheque and that companies and employees will have to make concessions, he hasn't offered what that might entail.
Since their biggest failing has been their inability to compete against the Asian car industry and unwillingness to embrace new clean technologies, wouldn't it have been a good thing to make those conditions of the deal? How about insisting that they work on developing affordable hybrid cars that would cost less and be less harmful to the environment? How about retooling their lines so they stop mass producing trucks and SUVs and other expensive items and focus instead 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 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. 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.