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P.M. Plays 'Strongman' Politics

An article which appeared back in 2007 when Harper suspended parliament for the first time as P.M.

by Michael Werbowski Media Analysis


Also posted by michael werbowski:

Author's note: This piece appreared on "Oh My News International" back in 2007 (10-06-07) and I have posted it again, this time in view of the current crisis and to show that there's a disturbing pattern of the prorogation of parliament developing.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper seems typical of his Canadian countrymen and women; he's a nice, polite and likeable chap, at least on the surface. The kind of fellow who would be everyone's best neighbor: unobtrusive, friendly and never throwing wild-loud midnight parties on a perfectly manicured suburban front lawn in his home town of Calgary.

True, he might be a little too aloof with the press at times and a bit overly disdainful of public opinion when it comes to the increasingly unpopular "war on terror" in Afghanistan and Canada's dubious role in it.

As well, he may wear unbecoming, drab looking suits (as opposed to the stylish former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau), and his tailor is more likely to be a coolie from a Far East clothing factory than a haberdasher from London or Milan. But then image and perception is not everything in politics.

Fashion aside, his style of governing increasingly resembles the persona of a Latin American caudillo more than that of a leader of her majesty's ruling party. But certainly a charismatic "strongman" as the term "caudillo" implies, Harper is not -- that would be an overstatement. However, much like in Latin America, Harper and his minority government apparently have only scant regard for a Canadian elected body: the House of Commons.

MP's Take an Unexpected Extended Summer Vacation

Although Parliament is due to be sitting already, it's still on summer holiday. As one Ottawa insider astutely observed in early September: "MPs should be back on the job right now, but they won't be until Oct. 16 after Prime Minister Stephen Harper's decision to prorogue Parliament," wrote Romeo St-Martin. Officially, and unexpectedly, the prime minister had casually announced, while most Canadians were still at the country cottage or the BBQ, that parliament had been prorogued or delayed and the next legislative session was only due to begin on Oct. 16 -- the day of the much anticipated "throne speech" in which the conservatives are supposed to outline their forthcoming legislative agenda.

The opposition has decried the move in somewhat hushed tones saying such a move postpones the passage of key legislation and muzzles debate over how long Canadian troops will remain in Afghanistan as part of the NATO mission to "neutralize the resurgent Taliban."

"It's unfortunate that Prime Minister Harper decided to prorogue the parliament after failing to address issues such as climate change, Canada's mission in Afghanistan or his record of broken promises on matters such as income trusts or Equalization," said Stephane Dion, the liberal leader whose leadership of his party is itself shaky, in reaction to the surprise move.

Parliamentary Limbo

In the meantime all house standing committees and other business related to the legislative process have been effectively grounded to a halt if only temporarily. Moreover, all the bills that emanated from the previous parliamentary session are now, practically speaking, "dead in the water" and will have to be reintroduced again for debate.

Two bills -- both introduced by the official opposition -- that would seek Canada's reluctant compliance with the Kyoto treaty and its CO2 emissions ceilings and one called the Canadian Clean Air Act have in legalese speak been "entirely terminated." Neither of the bills is ever likely to see the light of day anyway because the Harper conservatives are profiting too much politically and otherwise from the dirty black cold extraction bonanza now underway in Alberta's oil tar sands.

Parliament Putsch or Canadian-style Caudillismo?

Latin America has a long tradition of caudillo-style politics, studded with names like Juan Manuel de Rosas from Argentina, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna in Mexico, Jose Rafael in Guatemala and more recently Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Often these leaders ruled by decree. The scholar William S. Stokes of Northwestern University wrote back in 1945 that the "concentration of executive authority without reasonability" was a form of "democratic Caesarism" in reference to Latin American caudillos. Often such unchecked authority in the hands of an "elected" official, as in the case of Chavez, leads to a "rubber-stamp parliament."

Chavez and Harper have two things in common: lots of oil flowing to the U.S. and a penchant for "strongman" politics marked by a disdain for elected bodies.

Ideally, in a northern version of the caudillo state, there would be a pliant parliament with elected, emasculated "yes men" in the opposition, which is the case these days in Caracas.

Commenting on Chavez's orchestrated 2005 legislative elections, Guido Rampoldi of the Italian daily La Republica wrote after the vote: "Chavez will no longer be restrained by parliament. Up to now his partisans had enough votes to govern but not to change the constitution. After Sunday he'll be able to get his way on the most far-fetched of projects, even becoming president for life as one of his parliamentarians has proposed. Luckily we are not there yet up north."

Keep 'Em Guessing: There May or May Not Be an Election This Fall

Canadian politics tend to be dull and long-winded; political pundits can lull you to sleep easily with their insightful political wisdom. Yet this time the political theatre in Ottawa is worth staying awake for. There are rumors and rumblings in the corridors of power that an election may be nigh. Everything hinges, however, on one key foreign policy issue: Afghanistan.

The opposition parties have threatened to bring down the government if the conservatives' upcoming throne speech does not contain a precise date for the withdrawal of Canadian troops from the front lines -- soon rather than later; that is, if the liberals get their way and if the Bloc Quebecois (which is disintegrating in the polls) and the newly energized NDP (New Democratic Party) can sway or carry the day in a "vote of no confidence" once the house reconvenes in mid-October.

The government for its part is doing its best to fudge and muddle the issue; remaining as noncommittal on an eventual return of the troops to their barracks back home as long as possible. If the government does go down then the prorogued parliament would dissolve and an election date would be set. Meanwhile, as everyone waits breathlessly for the outcome of this drama, the prime minster might seek inspiration for his eventual return to power by reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "The Autumn of the Patriarch."

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