It played well with open-market supporters and Conservatives, but several academics see it as an abuse of power
Pardons might be justified for some farmers who ran the border to protest the Canadian Wheat Board’s former monopoly, but several university professors say it’s wrong for the prime minister to be conferring them.
“The fact that it was done by the prime minister makes it look like a party political stunt and that leaves a bad taste,” Arthur Schafer director of the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics said in an interview last week.
Normally pardons, as well as prosecutions, are done at arm’s length from the government, said Paul Thomas, professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba.
“There’s undoubtedly some partisan politics involved,” he said in a separate interview.
“That is a worrisome thing. Harper has played fast and loose with a lot of political conventions that surround the exercise of prime ministerial power.
“It fits in with a pattern where he has taken direct, personal control through his office and made things happen in a way that isn’t consistent with the prevailing norms of behaviours from the past.”
Harper announced the pardons Aug. 1 at a farm near Kindersley, Sask., where farmers gathered to celebrate legislation ending the wheat board’s monopoly on the sale of western Canadian wheat destined for export or domestic human consumption.
Government officials declined to name the farmers getting pardons or the number, citing privacy concerns.
Open-market supporters welcome the gesture.
One of the pardoned farmers, Jim Chatenay, told PostMedia, it felt as if a “black cloud” had been lifted away.
Some, as Harper said in his speech, only drove a few loads of grain across the border — acts that were “purely symbolic.” However, at least one of the farmers exported more than $300,000 worth of grain.
There’s a time-honoured tradition of citizens using civil disobedience to draw attention to laws they believe to be unjust, Schafer said. But lawbreakers have to be prepared to pay the penalty, he added.
Farmers who broke the law for economic gain are akin to thieves, he said.
The Royal Prerogative of Mercy had its origins at a time when English monarchs had absolute power. Now that authority rests within cabinet. But invoking that authority feels like an attack on the rule of law, Schafer said.
“It feels like Harper is saying — and not for the first time — ‘L’Etat, c’est moi,’ — ‘the State is me,’ as Louis XIV, the Sun King, famously said. It’s not true. He’s one man.
“We need the rule of law not the rule of individual men, even if they happen to be prime minister. Favouritism when it comes to the administration of justice, favourtism even to your ideological cronies or sympathizers leaves a bad taste.”
There are also questions about whether the farmers qualified for pardons under the criteria for the Royal Prerogative for Mercy posted on the Parole Board of Canada’s website.
It says: “The exercise of the Royal Prerogative of Mercy is not intended to circumvent other existing legislation.
“An act of executive clemency will not be considered where the difficulties experienced by an individual applicant result from the normal consequences of the application of the law.
“Furthermore, the Royal Prerogative of Mercy is not a mechanism to review the merits of existing legislation, or those of the justice system in general.”
When asked if these pardons met the criteria, a government official said in an email that clemency under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy “is a largely unfettered, discretionary power vested in the office of the Governor General… who may grant this exceptional remedy in appropriate circumstances to deserving cases.”
Peter Russell, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Toronto, is also troubled by Harper’s move.
“I find it difficult to accept such a blatantly ideological use of the royal prerogative,” he said in an email. “I have always thought that the Crown and those who act in its name should not use Crown power for partisan political purposes.”
It’s not, however, inconsistent with the Harper government’s actions, especially given its attack on the wheat board, Thomas said.
“In my view they have rigged referenda with questions that were intended to produce certain results and they coerced the board (of directors) and tried to intimidate the board in various ways,” he said. “The minister (responsible for the wheat board) has attacked people who had resisted the campaign to get rid of the wheat board so in many ways it’s not that surprising.”