Jean's decision sets 'very dangerous' precedent: constitutional expert

A constitutional expert says he's worried the Governor General's decision to suspend Parliament sets a "very dangerous" precedent that allows future prime ministers to use the same manoeuvre to avert their own government's demise.

A constitutional expert says he's worried the Governor General's decision to suspend Parliament sets a "very dangerous" precedent that allows future prime ministers to use the same manoeuvre to avert their own government's demise.

"This is a major constitutional precedent and that worries me more than anything else," said Errol Mendes, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Ottawa and editor in chief of the National Journal of Constitutional Law.

"Any time that the prime minister wants to evade the confidence of the House now he can use this precedent to do so," said Mendes, who was appointed to the Privy Council Office by former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin in 2005.

Around midday Thursday, Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean granted a request from Prime Minister Stephen Harper to suspend Parliament until late next month, a move aimed at sidestepping a confidence vote set for Monday. 

The New Democrats and Liberals had signed a pact to form a coalition supported by the Bloc Québécois, and intended to ask the Governor General allow them to govern after toppling the government.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay defended the Conservative leader's move, saying the Governor General was "duty bound" by precedent and parliamentary procedure to accept Harper's prorogation request.

He suggested concerns about setting a dangerous precedent were unwarranted.

"This is certainly an unprecedented situation that we saw unfold. I hope that we won't come to the brink of this type of effort to unseat a sitting government going against the democratic wishes of the people of Canada," he told CBC News.

While experts say the Governor General has always approved requests from the prime minister to prorogue Parliament, they note that the vice-regal envoy has never encountered a request so soon after an election. The Conservatives were re-elected on Oct. 14.

Mendes says Parliament should pass legislation to prevent abuse of the prorogation in the future.

"I think that this is a very dangerous precedent," said Mendes. "It's one, however, that could be curtailed by Parliament itself, passing legislation to prevent future prime ministers from seeking prorogation … [to limit] what a future prime minister can do."

Mendes said he wasn't surprised by Jean's choice, considering Harper sent a strong message that he believed the proposed coalition government's plan to bring down the government was endangering democracy and national unity.

That rhetoric will exacerbate tensions across the country, especially in Quebec and in Western Canada, during the two-month period before Parliament resumes on Jan. 26, Mendes said.

Dennis Pilon, a political scientist from the University of Victoria, said in a letter to CBC that he is "deeply worried" about the country heading into a "potentially violent situation."

"I do not mean to be alarmist in suggesting we may be heading for violence. But the actions of this prime minister are coming dangerously close to inciting mob rule," writes Pilon.

He says Harper has ramped up the heat by insinuating his opponents are attacking Canada's democracy and risking national unity for their own gain.

Pilon says there's a reason elections are "highly regulated affairs" meant to capture what might get lost in the crowd — dissent, minority opinions and the balance of views.

All three opposition parties have said they intend to continue efforts to bring down the government when Parliament resumes.

The current political turmoil was triggered when Finance Minister Jim Flaherty delivered a mini-budget that included a number of controversial measures opposed by the New Democrats, Liberals and the Bloc.

The three parties said the fiscal update failed to include a stimulus package they said was necessary to address the financial crisis facing the country.

They also slammed what they saw as ideologically driven measures such as the proposed elimination of subsidies for political parties, a three-year ban on the right of civil servants to strike and limits on the ability of women to sue for pay equity.