Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Very Canadian Coup: Some thoughts on prorogation and democracy in Canada

So what exactly was the 2008 prorogation? We know the Governor General acceded to the Prime Minister's request to prorogue parliament to prevent what was a constitutionally-legitimate effort by the Liberals and NDP to form a new government. This all began when the recently-elected minority Tory government had proven unable to gain opposition support for a budget that contained no response to the unfolding economic crisis, sought to gut public party subsidies, suspend pay equity court challenges and federal workers' right-to-strike (when there were absolutely no prospects of a strike).

There seem to be two mainstream approaches to this question, both of which are unsatisfactory and worrying. If we adhere to parliamentary protocol, the Liberals and NDP had every right to form a government without an election. This renders the prorogation illegitimate. Alternatively, if we go by democratic principles, then Harper was right to criticize the Liberals and NDP for not seeking a new election. However, the same democratic principles mean the Governor General has no right whatsoever to prorogue parliament at the PM's request. Whether we go by democratic principles or parliamentary protocol, the affair is both unprecedented and illegitimate. It reveals a profound contradiction between what is and isn't democratic within the framework of Canada's parliamentary system.

I've always thought that what happened was a "preventative" coup. Unfortunately, the term "coup" lends to assumptions that coups involve violence. This wasn't the case. Furthermore, it wasn't regime change. Nor was it, I believe, a restoration. What we do know is that it was carried out through a deliberate exploitation of the parliamentary system's undemocratic foundations. There are many reasons why it is undemocratic, but in this case I'm referring to the Governor General, an unelected representative of the Queen. Yes, I suppose I'm a republican when it comes to this question (ie: "Off with their heads!").

Thinking about this reminds me so much of my high school fascination with the "Whitlam dismissal" in Australia in 1975. This was also a profound constitutional crisis in a system not dissimilar from Canada's. However, until 2008, every Canadian aware of this crisis, whether a journalist or family member, told me that what happened in Australia could not happen in Canada. Of course, I was given no explanation for why this was the case. Nor did I (or many other Canadians) ever learn how our parliamentary system really functioned, so there was no way to confirm this. It was one of those unanswered questions I asked as an annoyingly curious teenager that I forgot about in my twenties until 2008 . Without qualifications, I'd define the Whitlam dismissal as a non-violent coup. It is all the more relevant to what happened in 2008 because, unlike our Westminster system, the Australian Senate is elected. Even with an elected Senate, the Australian parliament still has a profoundly undemocratic component in the role of the Governor General. It is no doubt one of the reasons why republicanism is so much stronger in Australia than in Canada, prompting a controversial and botched referendum in 1999 over forming an Australian republic.

Australian anti-war protest, 1967 (source)
The reason I was obsessed with the Whitlam dismissal was hearing stories from my mum about Whitlam's short-lived Labor government during the early 1970s. I know this obsession is one of the reasons why my politics are the way they are. I developed a profound skepticism of and desire to understand how current democratic systems are arranged and justified despite obvious democratic limitations. My mum spoke very highly of the Whitlam Labor government because it pulled Australia out of Vietnam and abolished tuition fees. These actions were directly affected my mum who was in her early 20s at the time. My uncle, who married my mum's sister and had lived around the corner from where my mum grew up, had been drafted to fight the war. However, he declared himself a pacifist on Christian religious grounds and won his hearing. An end to the Vietnam war was a no-brainer for my mum who always stuck to her principles on questions of peace, and whose father (my grandfather) always spoke of his experiences as a soldier in World War Two in a "Never Again" anti-war sense. As for the brief abolition of tuition fees while Whitlam was in power, this allowed my mum to be the first in her family to earn a university degree which led her to become a teacher (she proudly went on strike for the first time last December against Bill 115!).

After 23 years of right-wing rule, Australians elected the left-leaning Labor Party in 1972 with Gough Whitlam becoming Prime Minister. However, Labor only controlled the House of Representatives (equivalent to our House of Commons), not the Senate. The latter was in the hands of the right-wing Liberal-National coalition of Malcolm Fraser.

In 1975, after mounting tensions between the reforming Labor government and the Liberal-National opposition, the opposition-controlled Senate took the unprecedented move of holding up a money supply bill in Senate in order to force Whitlam to call an election for the House of Representatives. Such bills, if passed in the House, were never previously held up in the Senate. This was "parliamentary protocol" and "tradition". The government approached the precipice of a money supply crisis that would have amounted to the government being unable to pay basic operating costs, including public sector salaries. The situation reached an impasse. Organized labour began mobilizing protests and pushing for strikes to force the Senate to pass the bill.

Whitlam decided to call a partial election for the Senate and approached Governor General Sir John Kerr to do so. Kerr rejected this request, and instead dismissed Whitlam and installed Fraser as Prime Minister. Before the Labor majority in the House even knew what was happening, the Senate quickly passed the money supply bill at which point Kerr dissolved both the House and Senate for a new election. Fraser would then win a majority in both. Although massive protests erupted, spearheaded by by the unions, this was unable to turn the tide.

Much speculation has gone into why Kerr did what he did. There are no clear answers - much like we still have no real, convincing answers from Michaelle Jean. Kerr cut short his own term in 1977 and essentially lived in self-imposed exile afterwards. One of the more prominent conspiracy theories is that it was all an American plot. It's no secret that Labor was opposed to American military facilities in Australia, particularly those critical to their satellites which were necessary for coordinating America's Cold War global nuclear weapons systems (recall the fine film "The Dish" which tells the story of how a large radio telescope in the Australian outback was critical to broadcasting the 1969 moon landing around the world). As with most social crises like this, there were most likely many actors with intersecting and mutually reinforcing motives favouring dismissal. However, the reasons for the dismissal are not our immediate concern. What is clear is that Kerr's actions were profoundly undemocratic. This, to me, is the more important question to tackle as it seeks to address the disease, not the symptoms.

If the Whitlam dismissal can be accurately described as a coup, as I believe it clearly is, then what was the 2008 prorogation?

the sinister ending of the brilliant and extremely relevant film "A Very British Coup"

These questions are very important and, in my opinion, largely unexplored on the Canadian left. We observed in 2009 the massive protests in Iran over corrupt elections and sympathized with what was widely understood to be a movement for and in defense of democracy. The Arab Spring has also won global sympathy and support for its popular democratic impulse. The democratic revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa have yet to be realized as ruling classes have since fought back and tried to regain the initiative from the insurgent masses. Repression in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and elsewhere has been endemic. In the case of Libya and Syria, the old regimes have tried to physically destroy the opposition by instigating civil wars and indiscriminately murdering thousands of democratic revolutionaries and unarmed civilians. However, democracy, as a loosely defined idea and impulse, remains a galvanizing, mobilizing and revolutionary force around the world.

We can no longer say Canada is exempt from this process. The 2008 and 2009 prorogations sparked what were in many ways this country's first protests for democracy and against pseudo-legal authoritarianism that extended beyond minority groups, such as Quebecois or First Nations. They politicized and radicalized many people for the first time. The generational diversity of the participants was particularly striking. Even the mainstream press was compelled to register opposition in their editorial pages, with the staunchly pro-Tory Globe and Mail actually running a front-page editorial opposing the 2009 prorogation which sought to suppress the mushrooming Afghan detainee scandal (it was ultimately suppressed in the spring of 2010 through the cooperation of the opposition Liberals and NDP).

The rallies on Parliament Hill and across Canada following the 2008 prorogation, were dwarfed by what happened in the 2009 prorogation. A spectacular and unprecedented Facebook-coordinated nation-wide "Canadian Against Proroguing Parliament" movement erupted in early 2010. It mobilized thousands and thousands of people and spilled well beyond the usual suspects, across all party lines, and brought Liberals and even Tory supporters into the streets for the first time. In many ways, these protests foreshadowed the same online-assisted organizing techniques used in Tunisia and Egypt, as well as in Occupy and Idle No More.

It's critical to understand these protests as not about specific policies or reforms, but about democracy itself. They're an early sign that widely-held beliefs among Canadians about the limitations and weaknesses of our democratic system can in fact be channeled into a movement on the streets. While we on the left were all outraged by the prorogations, from an analytical point of view, the left stood like a deer in headlights when these events happened, never fully grasping what was actually going on. We didn't have much to say of any value and this allowed the mainstream to define the scope of define and the historical memory associated with what happened. For example, I remember in early 2010 finding myself reading and listening to idiosyncratic conservative political commentator Andrew Coyne rail against prorogation and the democratic deficit. One of his recent pieces regarding the 2012 Ontario prorogation shows that he is consistent on these questions. Yet, Coyne has publicly disparaged democratic social movements like the Quebec student strike which was based on a profoundly participatory mass democracy of many general assemblies. Clearly there's space for the left to actually engage sections of the mainstream commentariat and politicians on questions of democracy. Instead, some leftists stood back from it all, content in their finger-wagging critiques of the system as a whole, as if the protests were somehow not good enough.

If the left can't foreground questions of democracy in its politics and relate and intervene in debates about Canada's parliamentary democracy (and provincial legislatures), then we're preventing ourselves from deploying some of the most powerful delegitimizing critiques of our existing "democratic" political system. We're also allowing mainstream politicians and commentators (Harper, McGuinty, Coyne, etc) to set the parameters of debate about democracy.

We are once again amidst a popular social movement - Idle No More - that is directly attacking Canada's longstanding colonialism. Idle No More is a movement for a democracy but it's not obvious that it is understood as such, even on the left. Idle No More and other popular movements would be greatly strengthened if left critiques of Canada's extremely limited and weak democratic system had some analytical and historical depth.

Students participate in a general assembly strike vote (source)
The Canadian left's engagement with democratic questions and practice have begun to change with Occupy and the Quebec student strike which advanced the general assembly as a new form of democracy. However, the left in general doesn't have much to say about democracy us a fundamental principle underpinning our collectivist, humanist and environmentalist beliefs. We need to recover democracy as the radical and revolutionary idea that it is - as humanity's permanent revolution. We should begin exploring this. The development of an interpretation of the 2008 prorogation would be a useful starting point.

I'll end on reaffirming the principle of democracy from the perspective of a socialist. To quote Leon Trotsky, a flawed and contradictory revolutionary abused by both his detractors and supporters, "Socialism without democracy is like the human body without oxygen."

1 comment:

  1. Another great article. Again, you ought to submit it to Active History!