All about contempt
In today's Globe, a useful preview of the issues surrounding the Speaker's coming ruling on Afghan documents.
The analysis omits one important aspect, however, and that's the coalition crisis of late 2008, early 2009. The Speaker of the Commons, if you think about it, is in much the same position as the Governor-General was back then -- forced to decide whether the government was flouting the institution of Parliament. Technically, Prime Minister Stephen Harper had shut down the Commons in defiance of the majority's will in that chamber. Three parties, forming more than 50 per cent of the seats in the Commons, had sent a clear signal that they'd lost confidence in the government.
The government responded with a massive PR campaign, portraying this as undemocratic and a separatist conspiracy. That PR campaign, repulsive as it was, probably saved Harper's skin. I'm told, by reasonably reliable authority, that the Governor-General realized she'd face the same onslaught if she gave approval to the coalition to replace Harper's government. So she gave the Prime Minister a lecture instead, with the instruction -- and this is important -- that he work harder at co-operating with the majority in the Commons.
Flash forward now to last December. Those same three parties have passed an order that amounts to a legal instruction -- produce the Afghan documents. The government has resisted, more or less. The Speaker has to decide if this is contempt.
The Governor-General and her advisers are watching this debate, obviously. In many ways, it's a sequel to developments during the coalition crisis. The Speaker is being asked to judge, effectively, whether Harper has followed instructions to play better with others. Like it or not, separatists or no separatists forming the majority opposition in the Commons, we do live in a parliamentary democracy, and minority governments can't go around bullying those institutions and using negative, PR campaigns to justify it. Saying that the military's interest prevails over the Commons is even more worrisome for those of us who are fans of democracy -- if the military trumps the will of the elected, why not just turn over Parliament to the armed forces, as they do in banana republics?
My bet is that the Speaker tries to find some middle ground, like the Governor-General did, to avoid precipitating a crisis of trust in Parliament too. He may give the government another chance to comply with the parliamentary order. He may regard the massive document dumps in recent weeks as partial compliance.
But there's another event too that will be at the front of his mind -- the more recent controversy over prorogation. Canadians have shown they're not entirely uninterested in whether Parliament is working or not. I wouldn't assume that the public is simply going to roll over and agree that the government has every right to do what it wants in the House of Commons. The Speaker has an unenviable balancing act to do with this ruling.