When Prime Minister Stephen Harper shut down Parliament for just six weeks in 2010, he was called a dictator.
“What’s Stephen Harper trying to hide?” the opposition Liberals asked in a televised ad. “What’s his real agenda?”
New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton called Harper’s decision to prorogue — his second in two years — “the kind of thing you hear of in dictatorships.”
In downtown Toronto, about 3,000 people demonstrated in the streets.
But when Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty announced Monday that he was suspending the Ontario legislature indefinitely — and probably for at least six months — the political classes responded with a collective yawn.
Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath and Progressive Conservative chieftain Tim Hudak said they’d both prefer the legislature to stay in session.
But both were remarkably blasé. Hudak said he’d use his paid time off to promote Tory policies. Horwath said she found prorogation “quite concerning” and hoped McGuinty would reconsider.
Nary a mention of jackboots at all.
Yet there’s not much difference between the Harper and McGuinty situations.
Both have used prorogation to avoid the perils of minority government. In late 2008, Harper shut down parliament for almost eight weeks to avoid being turfed from office by a Liberal-NDP coalition.
At the time he bet, correctly, that the coalition would quickly shatter.
A year later, the prime minister prorogued parliament again — this time to forestall embarrassing questions being raised by a Commons committee looking into the abuse of Afghan prisoners.
The official explanation then was that the Conservatives needed time to “recalibrate” and focus on the economy.
Which is pretty much the excuse that McGuinty trotted out on Monday evening. He said he wants a “cooling-off period” so he can focus on public-sector wage cuts.
Like Harper’s Conservatives in 2008 and 2009, McGuinty’s Liberals today are taking a bashing in the legislature — for the way they handled the controversial ambulance service ORANG, for the hundreds of millions of dollars they wasted in relocating two electricity generating plants, for their labour relations with public-sector workers.
Like Harper before 2011, McGuinty does not command a majority of seats in the legislature and must make common cause with one or more opposition parties to get anything done.
And like Harper’s Conservatives in those days, the McGuinty Liberals complain bitterly about having to do so.
They were miffed when they had to compromise with the NDP to get their 2012 budget passed.
They seem outraged that the two opposition parties want Energy Minister Chris Bentley to follow the age-old practice of taking responsibility for mistakes made by his department.
Specifically, the Tories want Bentley to resign because he or his department misled MPPs about business that legislators are supposed to oversee. It is a perfectly reasonable opposition demand, grounded in parliamentary precedent.
Yet the Liberal government considers it an affront — proof that the legislative atmosphere is irredeemably poisoned.
The only solution, says McGuinty, is to shut down the assembly so that his ministers can go about the business of governing — without having to worry about pesky things like democracy.
Harper would understand this. But at least when he prorogued Parliament he set time limits — six weeks in one instance, eight in the other.
McGuinty is just shutting everything down indefinitely. He says he’ll leave it to whoever replaces him as Liberal leader to recall the legislature.
That may be in six months, which is estimated to be the minimum amount of time it will take the Liberals to choose a successor.
Or, if the new Liberal premier, too, wants to avoid legislative scrutiny it may not be until after the next general election.
Welcome to democracy in Ontario. For McGuinty, who by all accounts is a decent human being, it’s a sad way to bow out.