With the recent prorogation of parliament, Canadians face the chance of an election come September after the government introduces its Speech from the Throne. Many are criticizing the government’s decision to prorogue.
Perhaps as all the national parties prepare for that moment, it is finally time to examine prorogation and set some limits on the practice.
Prorogation is the ending of a parliamentary session, which differs from a recess, adjournment, or dissolution requiring a new election. It is a royal prerogative that flows down to the Governor-General and is only done on the advice of the Prime Minister who has the confidence of the House of Commons.
Prorogation is supposed to occur after a government achieves its objectives flowing from the Speech from the Throne. However, this often does not happen as the government will use prorogation strategically.
Governments in Canada using prorogation as a tool to avoid scrutiny or an embarrassing political situation is nothing new.
Back in 1873, Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald advised the Governor-General of the day to prorogue parliament in a calculated move to stop the work of a committee that was examining the Pacific Scandal, a situation involving bribery of politicians over the national railroad contract.
Many political observers in Canada are looking at the recent prorogation of the House of Commons as a political move by the government to avoid scrutiny into its actions in the ongoing WE charity scandal.
The current government is of course not alone or novel in manipulating a parliamentary session for political advantage or to avoid embarrassment.
In the situation of Macdonald’s government, there was some pushback from the Governor-General. He stated that although he would accept the prorogation, he would insist on limiting it to 10 weeks and that a commission would continue the hearings into the Pacific Scandal.
In 2002, Governor General Adrienne Clarkson accepted Prime Minister Chretien’s advice to prorogue Parliament to avoid tabling a House committee report that was looking into the Sponsorship Scandal.
But prorogation is not limited to government avoidance of scandal. In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper asked the governor general to prorogue his minority parliament when faced with a likely vote of non-confidence when the other parties came together in a coalition agreement. The Governor-General, however, did not view her role as simply rubber-stamping the move and only after consulting with constitutional experts, gave her consent with conditions.
This seems to vindicate the role of the Governor-General as an institution that can stand above partisan politics and look to the interests of all Canadians in having a stable government that does not behave too arbitrarily. One hopes the Governor-General will always perform this extremely useful function while maintaining restraint that Canadians have come to expect.
The 2008 debacle challenged the idea that the governor general must acquiesce to whatever the government wanted. However, some political scientists made some odd observations, remarking that this prorogation was somehow unique in Canadian political history. It was also interesting that that prorogation generated so much attention and protest from scholars and activists while ignoring other politically motivated prorogations.
In other parliamentary governments – such as New Zealand and Australia – prorogation is rarely used and in the United Kingdom – where our Westminster system originated – they are more annual and predictable and much shorter in duration.
Canada seems alone in its constant abuse of this legislative feature.
The late NDP Leader Jack Layton – after the debacle involving a proposed “coalition” government in 2008 – called for a requirement to have most MPs to approve a prorogation. However, this also seems fraught with opportunities for partisan posturing with the government of the day.
Also, prorogation is very disruptive because it shuts down all parliamentary business, including any bills or committee work. It should at least at a minimum be done for important reasons, rather than to just help the government’s electoral prospects or allow it to avoid scrutiny.
Perhaps before the next election, all parties should come together and set down some minimal and reasonable limits on prorogation that will grant the government prerogatives while ensuring the government does not abuse parliament. Otherwise, we are doomed to repeat this scenario again and again.