The Small Matter of Contempt
The man who wrote Two Cheers for Minority Government doesn’t cheer the prospect of yet another Harper minority. “The status quo is just not tenable, for anybody,” says Peter Russell, professor emeritus at the University of Toronto and one of the country’s most respected political scientists. But a Conservative majority would be worse. “It would send a bad message about Parliamentary democracy if a government brought down for contempt, very serious contempt, on the finding of a Speaker, is rewarded with a majority. I think it would encourage Mr. Harper and maybe those after him to be contemptuous of Parliament. And then I think we’re in real trouble.”
Ah, yes. The small matter of contempt.
It’s easy to forget that, in the mad rush of events leading up to the election call and the noise that followed, Stephen Harper’s government was formally found to be in contempt of Parliament -by vote in the House of Commons -for refusing to disclose the cost of several items on its agenda. It was what formally brought down the government. You might say it’s what this election is about.
Not that anyone would know that listening to the prime minister. Speaking at Rideau Hall after asking the Governor General to call an election, Stephen Harper said nothing about the contempt verdict. It was a fittingly contemptuous response, as all his comments on the matter have been. Earlier, as events were pushing toward their conclusion and a key ruling went against the government, Harper shrugged.
“You win some, you lose some,” he said. On another occasion, he dismissed the whole matter as nothing more than the “the game of democratic politics.”
Lots of Canadians seem to agree. Since the election call, the contempt ruling has essentially vanished from the campaign. A recent poll found the umbrella term “ethics” placed a distant third in a recent survey of election priorities, with just 14 per cent of Canadians citing it as a top concern.
That is sad, frankly. Because this is most certainly not a political game.
Remember that the vote in the House of Commons was only the final step in the process. Before it could happen, there had to be an investigation by the Speaker of the House, Peter Milliken, a man who probably knows as much about parliamentary power and procedure as anyone in the country. Milliken concluded the government had indeed breached parliamentary privilege and so there were good grounds for finding it in contempt. “This is serious matter that goes to the heart of the House’s undoubted role in holding the government to account,” Milliken declared.
It’s also important to put the verdict in perspective. In Canada, we have had 13 minority governments at the federal level. There have been many more in the provinces. In Britain, the “Mother of all Parliaments” has seen 18 minority governments since 1834. A lot of political games were played in all those governments and yet what just happened in Canada is unique: No government has ever been found in contempt of Parliament.
So the verdict is nothing less than historic. And it’s not the only historic ruling to come out of the 40th Parliament.
Recall that when Parliament explicitly and repeatedly demanded to see documents related to the Afghan detainee controversy, and the government refused, the Speaker rebuked the government in a landmark ruling: In the Westminster system, Milliken reminded the prime minister, the people elect representatives to the House of Commons and the House decides who forms the government. Hence, the government answers to the House, not the other way around, and if the House orders the government to hand over documents, the government must salute and deliver.
That’s all basic stuff. Every MP and high school student should know it. But Stephen Harper has consistently chosen to put his fetish for power and control ahead of fundamental constitutional principles. He has even chosen to lie about the Constitution.
Yes, lie. Whatever his faults, the prime minister is an intelligent man who has lived and breathed politics his entire life. He understands constitutional basics. He has even astutely commented on the Constitution in the past. So Harper knows that much of what he and his ministers have said about coalitions and the Constitution is not true.
“The Canadian government has always been chosen by the people,” Harper said in a televised address during the “coalition crisis” of 2008. That is false. Around the same time, John Baird claimed that a coalition of smaller parties taking control of government from a party with a plurality is “nothing short of a coup d’état.” That is absurd.
And the barrage of lies about the Constitution didn’t end in 2008.
The day before the government was found in contempt of Parliament, John Baird, now government house leader, roared in the House of Commons that “it is the leader of the Liberal party who is showing contempt for Canadian voters. He does not accept the fundamental democratic principle that the person with the most votes wins elections.” That’s great political rhetoric. I’m sure it plays well with the one-half of Canadians who believe that the prime minister is directly elected by voters. But it doesn’t remotely resemble what our system actually is.
“The licence to govern in Canada is the confidence of the House of Commons,” Russell says. “Period. Full stop.”
But it seems most of the public either does not know or does not care that Canada’s head of government has repeatedly lied about Canada’s Constitution. Nor are they concerned that the government has shown so little respect for the constitutional order that Parliament was forced to find it in contempt.
In the week following Parliament’s historic condemnation of the Harper government, polls showed support for the Conservatives either stayed flat in the high 30s or rose into the low 40s. If that’s how Canadians vote on May 2, we’ll get a Conservative majority.
Contempt for Parliament will be rewarded. And then, as Peter Russell suggests, we’ll be in real trouble.