Actors, Targets, and Guardians: Using Routine Activities Theory to Explore the 2008 Decision to Prorogue Parliament in Canada

By Wheeldon, Johannes | Canadian Journal of Sociology, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Actors, Targets, and Guardians: Using Routine Activities Theory to Explore the 2008 Decision to Prorogue Parliament in Canada


Wheeldon, Johannes, Canadian Journal of Sociology


Introduction

The 2009 decision by the Harper government to request that parliament be prorogued was loudly criticized from coast to coast and among columnists of all political stripes. By contrast, few expressed the same concern about the 2008 prorogation, although the outcome of the governor general's decision at that time was far more significant. Having lost the support of all opposition parties, Prime Minister Stephen Harper delayed a nonconfidence vote by asking Governor General Michaelle Jean to prorogue parliament. When she assented, Harper was able to avoid this vote by circumventing principles of responsible government inherent within Canada's parliamentary system of governance. While this decision was widely commented upon by political scientists and constitutional scholars at the time, Canadians themselves seemed largely uninformed.

The official narrative is that while the 2008 decision to prorogue parliament may have strained constitutionality, it was justified by the global economic downturn and the political unacceptability of the proposed coalition between the Liberals and New Democratic Party, supported by the Bloc Quebecois (Russell and Sossin 2009). Yet almost immediately cracks within this conventional wisdom emerged. Noted political scientists have demonstrated how a pattern of political populism has undermined democratic notions of responsible government (Smith 2009; Weinrib 2009) and constitutional scholars have argued the 2008 decision by the governor general will have a profoundly negative impact on Canadian governance going forward (Heard 2009; Miller 2009). It is safe to say the legitimacy of the 2008 decision remains contested. Even defenders who justify the outcome of the crisis that emerged between December 2008 and January 2009 have acknowledged the problematic means by which it was realized (Cameron 2009). While these contributions are valuable, they are rooted within specific fields that often resist the multidisciplinary potential of more pragmatic approaches to public policy (Rorty 1999). Without a unified theoretical basis and compelling narrative to better engage the electorate, existing analyses will get lost and their lessons go unlearned.

This paper applies theoretical contributions drawn from sociology and criminology to explore the 2008 prorogation. By relying upon existing treatments and past analyses, I unpack notions of responsible government and demonstrate how the prime minister's prorogation request represented the culmination of a pattern of parliamentary disregard, relied on the manipulation of nationalistic tensions, and had the effect of up-ending core principles of responsible government based on an unexplored and untested theory of an unitary executive. By using a framework based on routine activities theory (RAT), this paper argues that the decision to prorogue parliament was the result of a confluence of three factors. These included: Stephen Harper as a motivated actor, the Canadian parliament as a suitable target, and the absence of a capable guardian, in this case Governor General Michaelle Jean.

RESPONSIBLE GOVERNMENT AND PROROGATION: CONTESTING CONSTITUTIONAL PRINCIPLES

In Canada, as a constitutional monarchy, it is the Crown that acts as head of state and oversees the parliamentary system based on the principle of responsible government. Responsible government, in general terms, is a system making the government responsible to the electorate. In Canada, the executive is accountable to the House of Commons; those who exercise executive power need the support of the House to use that power (Smith 2009). If a government loses the confidence of the House, it is an important, though unwritten, constitutional convention that it either resign or request dissolution of parliament to call an election (Forsey 1990).

In a constitutional monarchy, the duties of head of state and head of government are distinct. Canada's head of state is Queen Elizabeth II, but the queen's Canadian duties are normally deputized to the governor general and lieutenant governors in each province.

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Actors, Targets, and Guardians: Using Routine Activities Theory to Explore the 2008 Decision to Prorogue Parliament in Canada
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