It was a small but explosive mutiny.
Senate page Brigette DePape lost her job and launched a political career when she displayed a “Stop Harper” sign just as Governor General David Johnston was reading the Stephen Harper-written speech from the Throne.
The rebel is an extra-smart 21-year-old woman, only three years younger than the second William Pitt was when he became prime minister of Britain in 1783. I can imagine DePape as prime minister in 2020.
Her bold move have gained her recognition as a likely future leader in a radically changing political system. The credentials are solid. She graduated in international development studies from the University of Ottawa, which she attended on a $75,000 scholarship. As a teenager she acted in one-woman plays at Fringe festivals.
Her revolt makes an interesting contrast to the political obedience of former Governor General Michaëlle Jean. The two women live in far-separated mind-spaces. DePape defied power for a reason. Jean upheld power — the power of Harper.
On Dec. 4, 2008, six weeks after a general election, Harper lost the confidence of the House. The combined Liberals and NDP, outnumbering Harper’s Tories, wanted to govern; but Harper wanted to stay in charge.
Jean faced a challenge on that Friday. She could let Parliament go on sitting and clear the way to a no-confidence vote. The formal vote was scheduled for Monday.
Under Harper’s pressure, Jean closed Parliament. She licensed Harper to dodge a vote that would have placed Canada under new managers. She thereby strengthened the Prime Minister’s already muscular one-man command. The vote would have ended the Harper party’s control of the House of Commons. Jean enabled Harper to ignore Parliament.
The governor general is supposed to represent the continuing flow of government, above the partisan fray. The job of that high office is to maintain continuity when elected politicians lose their majority grip. Jean’s way of doing the job was to affirm the solo power of the prime minister.
The alternative choice which Jean avoided at Harper’s urging would have been to acknowledge Parliament as supreme, and let it go on with its work. A third choice became more clearly visible as Commons sergeant-at-arms Kevin Vickers grabbed mutineer DePape and impelled her out of the Senate chamber.
By flouting the ceremonial rules dear to supporters of things-as-they-are, the dissenter threw light on that third choice: declaring and fortifying the latent authority of the people to make and change public policy between elections.
The mutiny carried several messages. It told us that unspoken key parts of Harper’s program, such as privatizing health care, are directly opposed to majority and mainstream expert public opinion; and other policies, such as the Harper version of “tough on crime,” arguably trash science and expertise.
DePape’s revolt dramatized the “people-power” redirection of the political system, a movement that seems to be gathering strength and sharpening its edge.
Maybe it already has a keen enough blade to cut pieces out of the Harper program.
The revolutionary hardware is materializing in such agencies as auditors-general, such public enquiries as the Romanow health commission, and laws allowing citizen initiatives and recall of elected members of legislatures, plus reform in parliamentary representation, already enacted in most “democratic” nations.
The evolving growth of “people-power” is the current chapter in the story of our changing political system. It links us forward from the last big change in Westminster tradition, which burst on Britain in the early 19th century with riots and massacres and ended with the downsizing (not serious weakening) of control by a privileged elite.
If we think our present way of doing politics is comfortably wedged in place for all time, we are kidding ourselves. DePape reminded us of that fact.
—G.E. Mortimore is a Langford-based writer. Think About It runs every second week in the Gazette.