Legal Affairs Reporter
The secret process that led to Governor General Michaëlle Jean's decision to prorogue Parliament is out of step with constitutional norms and must be opened up so Canadians can understand how and why such crucial decisions are made, politicians and legal scholars said yesterday.
Several constitutional principles came under siege during this week's events in Ottawa, which culminated in Jean's private meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the decision to shut down Parliament without explanation, one noted expert said.
"It is simply not acceptable to have a closed door at Rideau Hall at moments like this," argued Lorne Sossin, a professor and constitutional law expert at the University of Toronto's faculty of law, which held a conference yesterday to examine the merits of Jean's decision. One core value in Canada's constitutional law is that transparency goes hand in hand with democracy, but transparency was missing when Jean agreed to Harper's request without giving reasons, he said.
Simply indicating what she had decided and why – without having to elaborate or issue written reasons – would have created transparency and helped build public confidence in an increasingly divided nation, Sossin argued.
Liberal MP Bob Rae (Toronto Centre) and NDP justice critic Joe Comartin (Windsor-Tecumseh) were also on the panel. Rae told the audience at Flavelle House, the law school headquarters, that by asking Jean to suspend Parliament, Harper was acting like a law student who knew he was going to fail an exam and decided to pull the fire alarm "to shut down the law school."
Comartin recalled watching the doors of Rideau Hall for two hours on Thursday, hoping Jean would give some consideration to the Liberal-NDP coalition's position that it was ready to form a government when a vote was lost.
Nobody knows if she did, he said.
"We will probably never know that, unless we get some of her advisers ... drunk some day and they tell us," said Comartin, who argued more "due process" must be incorporated into decisions to prorogue or dissolve Parliament, which are largely guided by unwritten constitutional convention.
Opposition parties should have the right to make representations, said Comartin, who believes it would also be better to take the process out of the Governor General's hands and ask Canada's chief justice to make these decisions, following a hearing in open court.
But political scientist Peter Russell disagreed. Decisions about the integrity and operation of Parliament must reflect "the values of the people, not (Chief Justice) Beverley McLachlin, bless her heart, but the people," said Russell, a professor emeritus of political science at U of T and a Supreme Court expert.
In some parliamentary democracies, including Belgium and the Netherlands, heads of state can appoint an "inquisitor" to question elected representatives and report back when confidence in government is at issue, said Russell.
As the country moves forward, perhaps the most "troubling" development of the past week is that the constitutional tradition of accommodating minority views and "reaching across the floor" has taken a beating, Sossin said.
If Harper survives, he's burned his relationship with Quebec "for short-term gain," said U of T political scientist David Cameron, referring to Harper's painting of the Bloc Québécois as separatists, a label many of its supporters reject.
But if a Liberal-NDP coalition prevails, the West is going to be "very, very pissed off," he said.