'Harper goes prorogue,' The Economist laments

The Economist, an influential British magazine that once deemed Canada "rather cool" and later dubbed former prime minister Paul Martin "Mister Dithers," is not amused by Stephen Harper's recent parliamentary tactics.
The Economist, in an article criticizing Prime Minister Stephen Harper's decision to prorogue Parliament, ran this image of a stop sign near the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. ((Blair Gable/Reuters))

The Economist, an influential British magazine that once deemed Canada "rather cool" and later dubbed former prime minister Paul Martin "Mister Dithers," is not amused by Stephen Harper's recent parliamentary tactics.

The weekly newsmagazine's print edition Thursday published two pieces on Canadian politics — a critical story about the Conservative prime minister's suspension of Parliament, and a scathing editorial under the headline, "Harper goes prorogue."

"Never mind what his spin doctors say: Mr. Harper's move looks like naked self-interest," says the editorial.

The Economist — which has a circulation of about 1.4 million, about half in North America — endorsed Harper in both the 2006 and 2008 elections, but the bloom appears to be off the rose.

Harper's move to prorogue Parliament 'looks like naked self-interest,' The Economist says. ((Graham Hughes/Canadian Press))

The editorial likens Canadian ministers to hapless former U.S. president Gerald Ford, "who could not walk and chew gum at the same time."

Harper's government, says the magazine, "cannot apparently cope with Parliament's deliberations while dealing with the country's economic troubles and the challenge of hosting the Winter Olympic Games."

It suggests, tongue in cheek, that Harper should simply shut down Parliament until the economy is running at full throttle.

The editorial opines that Harper may in fact be correct that "Canadians care more about the luge than the legislature, but that is surely true only while their decent system of government is in good hands. They may soon conclude that it isn't."

The Prime Minister's Office declined to comment directly on critique. Spokesman Andrew MacDougall responded by email that "beginning tomorrow" the prime minister, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and others in cabinet will be "meeting with and hearing from Canadian families, homeowners, workers, business owners and industries from across the country."

In a followup email, MacDougall added that "a large part of the success of the government's Economic Action Plan is attributable to the time the government took to consult and listen to Canadians."

The massive spending program followed a December 2008 parliamentary crisis and prorogation, and was delivered last Jan. 27, exactly two days later than this January's scheduled resumption date for Commons sittings. But instead of returning Jan. 25, Harper has shut down Parliament until March 3.

No reason given for prorogation

While various reasons, including the Feb. 12-28 Winter Games in Vancouver and Whistler, B.C., have been provided by the government for suspending Parliament, no minister or government representative has explained why it was necessary to pull the plug on Dec. 30, a month before parliamentary sittings were even scheduled to resume.

Pollsters and pundits have been furiously debating whether Harper's decision to prorogue is resonating with the electorate.

A Facebook site against prorogation had more than 88,000 members as of mid-afternoon Thursday, but a number of pundits have dismissed the numbers as a statistical blip. Facebook sites on far less weighty issues routinely rack up six-figure membership lists.

The Economist critique may prove harder to dismiss.

Liberal MP Gerard Kennedy said the attention by a serious British magazine might just give Canadians a jolt.

"It's not only insider baseball, it's international disrepute," Kennedy said of the repercussions of the parliamentary fracas.

"The distinctiveness of Canada as a good democracy and as a leader on altruistic issues … we've lost that. We're losing that root idea of 'Good old Canada."'

'Mister Dithers'

Then-prime minister Jean Chrétien was said to be chuffed about the magazine's 2003 cover story that featured a moose wearing sunglasses and called Canada "rather cool," lauding balanced budgets, same-sex marriage legislation and informed debate about marijuana decriminalization.

Serious Conservative pundits, bloggers and even MPs, meanwhile, routinely cited The Economist after it dubbed Liberal prime minister Martin "Mister Dithers" in February 2005.

"Because of the source, it could be a hugely damaging story for the prime minister," conservative blogger and author Adam Daifallah wrote at the time.

"Could this be to Paul Martin what the fumbled football was to Robert Stanfield? Impossible to know at this point."

Stanfield was the Progressive Conservative leader whose electoral fortunes plummeted after he was photographed dropping a football during the 1974 federal campaign.

Martin never shook the "Dithers" moniker and less than a year later his Liberal government was voted out of office.