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Tom Slee on the Proroguing of Parliament

by Henry Farrell on January 27, 2010

Weird stuff happening in Canadian politics, where last month prime minister Stephen Harper prorogued (suspended) Parliament until the beginning of March. Not knowing much about the background, I asked Tom Slee (author of the excellent blog “Whimsley”: and the even more excellent lefty game theory primer “No-One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart”: ) if he could provide some background. Tom’s timeline of what happened when is below.

[Tom Slee]

Sixty separate demonstrations around the country is not bad for January. It’s certainly more than anyone expected a few weeks ago when Stephen Harper closed down the parliament. So here, for those few of you not completely up to date with the latest developments in Canada, is a short prorogue timeline.

Nov 17. Diplomat Richard Colvin undiplomatically accuses the government of complicity in the torture of Afghan detainees: “The likelihood is that all the Afghans we handed over [to the Afghanistan security forces] were tortured.” Calls for a public inquiry are heard.

Nov 18. Defence Minister Peter MacKay expertly smooths everything over: Richard Colvin is relying on the words “of people who throw acid into the faces of schoolchildren”, and nobody in the government knew nuffin about no torture.

Dec 16. Except of course they did. And a 16 page letter by Colvin (PDF) takes 17 separate accusations made against him and does a number on them. Oops.

Dec 21. Oh yes, and Peter MacKay actually met with the Red Cross to talk about torture in 2006. Oops again.

Meanwhile, in the PMO. Stephen Harper remembers that just a year ago he got his minority government out of a scrape by shutting down parliament to avoid a no-confidence vote, and it worked pretty damn well.

So, Dec 30. Stephen Harper extends parliament’s Christmas break through to March, ostensibly so everyone can enjoy the luge and the cross-country skiing in Vancouver. The committee on Afghanistan is shut down, and for the second time in a year searches for the ugly word “prorogue” spike.

Early Jan. In an outbreak of slacktivism, thousands of people join the Facebook group Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament, who also have one of those old-fashioned website things here. The media, always happy for a story that keeps them from going outside in January, meticulously chart the climbing Facebook numbers until they top 200,000, and a set of protests around the country is scheduled for Jan 23, when MPs would usually be packing their bags to get back to their benches. In smaller countries, organizing a big rally in the capital city may make sense, but whose going to book a flight to Ottawa on short notice? So it’s going to be smaller protests, done locally.

Jan 23. 60 separate demonstrations [map], not counting the one-woman protest in Oman, and about 30,000 people in the streets, which is not bad for a movement with no coherent voice, no structure, and no recognizable public face. Reports described the protests as “organized on Facebook” [CBC]. There’s no doubt that many of the organizers were young’uns who naturally use Facebook, and the rapid growth of the group was an early sign of fertile grounds – an indicator that there was sentiment worth picking up on. Yet the rallies themselves seem to have skewed much older than the organizers, and it’s likely that in the end many people who turned out did so because the mass media picked up on the story and then more traditional networks like Liberal, NDP and Green Party riding associations (and the Bloc in Quebec) and religious groups got their members out. If there is anything that Mr. Harper can be happy about, it’s that the talk is all of the act of shutting down parliament, and not so much of the Afghanistan torture scandal that started it all off.

Jan 24. There’s a second wave group started, and the next week or two will probably decide whether this was a winter blip or the beginning of something bigger. It may be that the difficulties of organizing across Canada in winter will let Mr. Harper off the hook. But there’s also just a chance that Saturday’s success will lead to something bigger, and that would be a lot more exciting than the cross-country skiing.