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Tsk, tsk, tsk Mr Harper

Published:Thursday | January 28, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper finds himself in a bit of a spot. He stands accused by his foes of having what Bill Clinton would have called 'an inappropriate relationship' with democracy. As in, remember what Bill did to Monica? Yep, say his critics, that's what Harper is doing to Canadian democracy.

It all started with an embarrassing mistake. Rather like one of those uncomfortable moments when, during raucous laughter, someone makes a comment that goes a bit too far, to be met by a thudding silence. Harper, rather, laughed and said "no one will care", only to discover that, unexpectedly, everyone did.

Over the Christmas holidays, faced with a parliamentary enquiry into abuses of Afghan prisoners by Canadian soldiers, Harper asked the Canadian governor general to prorogue parliament. He told the Queen's representative that he needed time to prepare the country's economic recovery programme. Nonsense, cried critics; he wanted to cover up wrongdoing.

It was the second occasion in two years that the Canadian prime minister took this exceptional measure. Nonetheless, his political advisers surveyed the political landscape and reckoned that their compatriots were too cynical and apathetic to notice, let alone care. Harper listened to them.

Angry canadians

You wonder if those same advisers are yet asking the question "would you like fries with that?" It turned out to be about as tin-eared a bit of counsel as anyone could give. Canadians, who normally like to avoid excessive noise outside business hours, surprised even themselves by the amount of anger they were able to muster. In their thousands, they took to the streets to protest against what they saw as an abuse of democracy.

In their concern at Harper's disregard for democracy, they do not stand alone. London's Economist magazine, which one would expect Harper would normally want to impress, given its conservative leanings, also questioned his judgment.

Moreover, the criticism of Harper's cavalier ways does seem to have some empirical foundation: an article doing the rounds in the Canadian press surveyed the old, large Westminster systems and found only three times when prorogation was used to avoid political inquiries: all three were in Canada; two were by Harper.

Harper has paid a high price for his, apparently, careless decision. Late last year, the Conservatives were running as much as 15 per cent ahead in the polls. Given that Harper runs a minority government, the lure of majority territory, were he to call an election, was strong. After the prorogation, his support plunged. Now he is back to being neck and neck with the opposition Liberals.

Recurring ailment

While the Conservatives will probably bounce back, the experience points to a recurring ailment of Harper's: each time he stands on the verge of majority support, he seems to do something which reminds Canadians of why they don't want to entrust him with a majority government. In particular, Harper's centralising tendencies and seeming disdain for the rough and tumble of debate sit uncomfortably with the Canadian attachment to limited government.

His course won't get any easier. His Conservative government is now entering a budget-cutting phase, which will make it harder to spend its way to popularity. Should the Liberals finally build a head of steam, they might topple the Government with a confidence vote at any time, unless another party props it up. But with all three opposition parties being on the left, nobody will want to be seen to be supporting an unpopular government of the right.

Harper's best hope is that the Liberals mess up, and lose momentum. In this possibility, his disdain may yet find some justification.

John Rapley is president of the Caribbean Policy Research Institute (CaPRI), an indepen-dent research think tank affiliated with the University of the West Indies, Mona. Feedback may be sent to