OTTAWA - Furious opposition MPs accused Prime Minister Stephen Harper of muzzling the House of Commons after he moved for the second time in a little more than a year to suspend Parliament.
Mired in controversy over an alleged cover-up on the torture of Afghan prisoners and eager to increase the Conservatives' power in the Senate, the government is closing down Parliament until March 3, the Prime Minister's Office said Wednesday.
The decision is "about one thing and one thing only - avoiding the scrutiny of Parliament at a time when this government is facing tough questions about their conduct in covering up the detainee scandal," Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said in a statement.
"Mr. Harper is showing his disregard for the democratic institutions of our country."
Harper spoke Wednesday by telephone with Governor-General Michaëlle Jean, who agreed to the suspension, a PMO spokesperson told the media in a hastily arranged telephone news conference. The Prime Minister did not comment publicly.
The prorogation of Parliament until after the Winter Olympics in Vancouver will likely scuttle dozens of pieces of legislation, and give the Tories a chance to increase their representation on Senate committees.
Instead of coming back to Ottawa on Jan. 25, MPs will return on March 3 to hear a throne speech setting out the government's new political agenda, followed the next day by the 2010 budget statement.
The government has been on the defensive for weeks over allegations it failed to act on information that prisoners being passed to Afghan authorities by Canadian soldiers were at risk of being tortured. But the Commons committee holding hearings on the detainee issue is being disbanded as a result of Parliament's suspension.
"Harper is showing that his first impulse when he is in trouble is to shut down Parliament," Ignatieff said.
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Harper spokesman Dimitri Soudas flatly denied the government is suspending Parliament to slow investigations into the Afghan prisoner controversy. "The answer is no," he told reporters. "The (Commons) committee ... has found absolutely no evidence of wrongdoing by Canadian soldiers, diplomats and the Armed Forces."
It was just over a year ago - on Dec. 4, 2008 - that Harper went to Jean to have Parliament suspended, or prorogued, to avoid the defeat of his minority government by the opposition parties, which claimed Harper's lacklustre response to the economic crisis had destroyed their confidence in his ability to govern.
While it is within the power of the Prime Minister - with permission of the Governor-General - to wrap up a session of Parliament, the opposition said Harper is manipulating the rules to favour his own political needs at the expense of the rights of elected MPs.
"This kind of thing can't happen in the U.S. or most other parliaments - it's the kind of thing you hear of in dictatorships," NDP Leader Jack Layton said in an interview.
"It's a slap in the face and it's a denial of the democratic process. He has absolutely no good reason to prorogue the House."
Layton said urgent action is needed on the pension crisis, the Afghan detainee issue, the high jobless rate and Canada's follow-up to the Copenhagen climate-change summit.
The government is halfway through a two-year plan to combat the economic recession and needs to look ahead, Soudas said.
Sources said Harper would like to make suspending Parliament before the annual budget a regular practice so the government can bring in a throne speech to give the economic message a wider context.
Soudas told the media Harper will use the break to undo what his party sees as a Liberal logjam in the Senate. By filling five vacancies with Conservatives, Harper's party will hold more seats than the Liberals in the 105-seat Upper Chamber and can strengthen its position on Senate committees.