The prorogation protests: What’s next?

Nice to see so many Canadians out on the streets in the depths of January to protest prorogation. With any luck, this strong turnout will finally put to rest the idea that Facebook-based protests are inconsequential “slacktivism.” Facebook is a tool, just like the telephone: what matters is how people use it. Check out and click on the Local Info links to see how organized and effective decentralized organizing can get.

Reading the reports from my tiny apartment in Mexico City, the thing that caught my attention (other than the numbers) was NDP leader Jack Layton’s reminder that the NDP has called for legislation that would require a Prime Minister to put the decision to suspend Parliament to a vote in the House of Commons. With such a bill in place, a minority government, like Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, would have had to respect the will of the majority of MPs (and Canadians) when it comes to proroguing Parliament. Which is what, ultimately, these protests are all about.

Even the Liberals, who actually stand to gain from Harper’s expansion of executive power as the only party with a realistic shot at replacing the Conservatives, are getting in on the action. Michael Ignatieff earlier this week suggested that the prorogation controversy was all about “character,” and that what mattered is that we elect people who won’t abuse the rules. Pretty surprising, given his background in political science, really. Now, according to the Toronto Star (linked above), the Liberals are making noises about supporting some rule changes.

Going forward, we should be able to gauge how seriously Stephen Harper takes the opposition to prorogation by whether a version of the NDP proposal becomes law after Parliament is unlocked in March. In Parliament, government legislation takes priority over private-members’ bills, so without government support it can be quite hard to get a bill though Parliament, majority or minority.

If the protesters who came out on Saturday want to capitalize on the momentum and organizations they’ve created, they could do much worse than working to get such a bill passed. It wouldn’t solve all our problems or do anything to curb abuses by majority governments, but it would be a start.

On that note, I had hoped by now to have a first post up on Parliamentary committees and how they work, but life – in the form of my parents coming to town and me showing them around – intervened. I should have something by the end of this week. But if you want a sneak peek of my overarching point, it’s that we should focus more on the rules rather than the personalities. The problems that we’ve seen with Parliament under Liberal and Conservative governments are fundamentally a matter of bad rules, not bad characters.

Update: Chantal Hébert points out correctly that nothing short of amending the Constitution would completely tie the hands of the Governor General and the Prime Minister. She argues that, like the fixed-election-date law, “Layton’s legislation would likely be no more binding on the prime minister (or the governor general).” That said, Hébert’s analysis is too narrow. The NDP proposal can also be seen as an attempt, like the Facebook protests, to increase the political price to be paid for ignoring the will of Parliament when it comes to prorogation. Think of it as focusing on the spirit of the law, not just the letter. In politics, this can be often be more useful than a constitutional amendment as a restraint on politicians seeking re-election.

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