The mere fact that Prime Minister Stephen Harper is proroguing Parliament for the third time since assuming office in 2006 matters less than what he manages to divine after gazing squarely into his Conservative government’s naval during the forced retreat.
His two other legislative session-enders (in 2008 and 2009) were clear attempts to undermine political opposition from the Liberals and the NDP. That’s not so obviously the case in this instance, coming on the heels of a long, hot summer recess.
In this instance, Mr. Harper faces a growing malaise both within and outside his ranks and a palpable, though not yet politically fatal, unease among the electorate. Taking a break from the legislative calendar to reboot the Tory agenda seems both strategically wise and timely. But is it already too late to make much of a change?
Few seriously doubt the Harper government’s competence in managing the economy. Canada was one of the few western economies that fared relatively well during the global, financial meltdown of 2008 and the subsequent recession. It can thank its federal shepherds – Jim Flaherty and Mark Carney, among them – for a good deal of the official probity at that time.
Still, jobs growth across the country remains inconsistent, up sharply in some months, down dramatically in others. At 7.2 per cent, the overall unemployment rate hasn’t budged in more than a year.
For economists, that’s not bad news, exactly. As BMO economist Doug Porter told CBC News earlier this month, “Aside from providing great sport and serving as an eternal source of embarrassment for forecasters, do the wild gyrations in monthly jobs actually mean anything for the economy? Not really. The big picture here is that the unemployment rate is virtually unchanged from a year ago, and total employment is up 1.3 per cent, both broadly reflective of an overall economy growing modestly.”
But for just about everyone else – tradespeople, professionals, entrepreneurs, working students – it feels like stagnation. Worse, perhaps, some evidence indicates that Canadians, overall, are growing skeptical about the government’s commitment to the issues that matter most to them, specifically the economy, healthcare and vital social programs.
“Our research suggests that Canadians aren’t seeing those issues reflected in politics,” Jane Hilderman of the think tank Samara said in an interview with news media earlier this year. “Canadians sense that MPs are doing a great job representing the interests of their party, but not doing such a good job on representing their constituents.”
In fact, the Samara study states that while 55 per cent of Canadians say they are satisfied with the system, that response was off from 75 per cent in 2004 – a factor which may help explain why the Conservative government, compared to its Liberal and NDP rivals, has been stumbling in opinion polls throughout most of this year.
Of more immediate concern to Mr. Harper are the effects on party and government morale of a Prime Minister’s Office that runs the tightest ship of state in decades.
“There has been predominantly informal discussion about what is, or what is not, our rights, and MPs have to decide what’s wrong and what’s right, and what our rights are,” a Conservative Member told the CBC anonymously in March. The piece continued: “A series of tactics seem to have led to the rebellion, including PMO staff denying MPs the right to make statements in the House of Commons, and a move by a three-member subcommittee to deny a Conservative MP the right to bring a non-binding motion on sex-selective abortion to the floor of the House for debate.”
Then, of course, there is the Senate expense scandal which has implicated two formerly Conservative appointees and further tarnished an institution that several polls say most Canadians want abolished. Mr. Harper has promised major reforms, but he hasn’t proceeded. And that deeply offends his mostly Western base of voters.
Whatever the Prime Minister expects to achieve during his prorogue – whatever feats of party-building and consensus-gathering he hopes to engineer – the issues he faces today will be there to greet him upon his return.