That the Liberals wanted to distract attention from the scandal is all too believable. But misusing the key parliamentary concept of a separate “session” is the big deal.
Stretching waaaaaay back to the late Middle Ages, parliaments functioned as an effective check on executive power. Because power corrupts, even the best monarchs needed to be reined in by we the people who paid the taxes, suffered imprisonment, and otherwise felt the lash of government, while the bad ones had to be opposed, deposed, or extinguished outright.
From Magna Carta on, no monarch, glorious or miserable, could tax without popular consent. They had to summon a parliament and explain what they planned to do with our money to legislators we chose who would then decide whether to pay for the thing or not. And when that business was done, the session ended and nothing significant could happen unless another session was convened to deal with another properly articulated program.
As Jean Louis De Lolme wrote in his neglected 1771 masterpiece “The Constitution of England,” in England and only there the executive with its intimidating array of formal powers was “like a ship completely equipped, but from which the Parliament can at pleasure draw off the water, and leave it aground, – and also set it afloat again, by granting subsidies.”
By the latter 19th century, unfortunately, Parliament had gone from being a body that could prevent the king from doing whatever he wanted to being a body that could itself do whatever it wanted. And once whoever controlled Parliament could do whatever they wanted, ambitious men and then women began to rise from within Parliament into the Executive Branch, taking with them increasingly unchecked powers.
Amid the resulting wreckage, the formal mechanisms of Parliament continue to remind us of its former role. Hence in proroguing, Prime Minister Trudeau claimed he was planning to lay a major change of direction before MPs so they could decide whether they liked the grand scheme and the individual bills put forward in this session to advance it.
That instead he sent the governor general a dish of pablum is not surprising. Mushy thinking having created mushy rhetoric, they essentially always give the same speech, artificially sweetened by too many focus-grouped cooks into unpalatable generalizations about how great they are. Like “The fourth and final foundation of this plan is to stand up for who we are as Canadians. We cannot forget what has made us a country that is welcoming. A country that celebrates two official languages. That achieves progress on gender equality, walks the road of reconciliation, and fights discrimination of every kind. This is our generation’s crossroads.”
Even if it were, it’s not a legislative program. But even budgets now read this way. And the PM somehow persuaded the legacy TV networks to give him free air time the same evening to discuss the pandemic in the same gooey way, including “We are at a crossroads, and the future is in our hands.”
It is not the result of political cunning. Even if it has the effect of creating a target too soft and shimmering to hit, it reflects the dulling, not sharpening, of political wits. But degraded thinking is still thinking. And while the throne speech did not outline the green plan Deputy PM Chrystia Freeland had said “all Canadians understand” was necessary, presumably because it polled badly, we’re going to get it anyway.
Our prime minister still holds the same ideas, in the same way, as last week, month, and year. He can do no wrong, though occasionally in his zeal to do good he takes shortcuts or perks that could be misunderstood; manmade climate change is an existential threat requiring complete reconfiguration of our economy including exterminating fossil fuels; he can reconfigure it effortlessly because his intentions are good; and government can create wealth out of thin air on the same grounds.
Of course, he and his acolytes would express these notions differently, like many voters dazzled by Trudeau’s gracefulness and charming manners. But praise or scorn his mindset, we are going to get this attempt at a green transformation no matter what words the PM puts in the mouth of the governor general and no matter what our constitutional order requires.
So forget cynicism about proroguing to cover a scandal. Be outraged that it no longer matters what politicians say because they always give the same speech, or what the rules and conventions of Parliament say because our Legislature has gone from being a check on the executive to a check mark on it.
Cynicism is easy. Self-government is hard. But we must cling to that ideal, and demand that before politicians do stuff to us they tell us, in words that actually mean something, what they intend, and get our permission to do it.