The many problems of prorogation

Publication YearIssue Date 

On December 30, 2009, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, after an unprecedented phone call to Governor General Michaëlle Jean, announced that Parliament would be prorogued until March 3, 2010. As a result, all outstanding bills progressing through the House or the Senate were eradicated and the activity of all parliamentary committees ceased.

Before delving into the controversy surrounding this announcement, it is important to understand what the term prorogation means and what its implementation implies. Prorogation is roughly defined as the period between two sessions of the same legislative body and is granted in Canada by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister. It has generally occurred when the agenda set forth at the beginning of a Parliamentary session has been accomplished, a new government platform needs to be produced and an election is not called, although Parliament is technically prorogued when government is dissolved prior to an election. The prorogation period allows the governing party to reassess its policy goals and priorities and then present its fresh agenda upon Parliament's resumption in a new Speech from the Throne. It is important to be aware that prorogation is different from a Parliamentary recess, adjournment or holiday break. The latter three allow Parliament's work to merely be postponed until Members of the House and Senators reconvene; however, with prorogation all bills are expunged and existing committees are disbanded.

The Conservative government, in defence of this recent prorogation, has stipulated that its suspension of Parliament is "routine" -- one of many prorogations in Canada's history. However, 36 outstanding bills were erased by the prorogation, including a number that were a part of the core Conservative platform -- their supposed "tough on crime" scheme, for example. Dismantling 36 bills can hardly be seen as having accomplished their policy goals and is therefore markedly different from the prior routine prorogations deemed necessary due to a fulfilled legislative agenda.

But Harper has presented another reason for prorogation. In an interview with Peter Mansbridge, the Prime Minister claimed the suspension is necessary for the government to "recalibrate" -- to reassess the economic needs of the country in order to present an effective budget on March 4, after Parliament has reconvened. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, however, talking to Winnipeg reporters, stated that prorogation will not affect budget consultations, thus confirming that Harper should never allow his underlings to speak.

Considering the weakness of the Conservative government's arguments, others have speculated as to why prorogation was deemed necessary: pressure from the Afghan detainee issue, the level of national unemployment, dissatisfaction over the deficit, Senate appointments, the Olympics, et cetera. The most depressing aspect of this entire debacle is not Harper's supposed ulterior motives, but rather why Harper believes he can get away with it.

Canadians have become inexcusably apathetic towards involvement in politics or even maintaining general political awareness -- in a poll conducted by the Dominion Institute during the prorogation following the coalition fiasco, 51 per cent of Canadians reported they believed they elect the Prime Minister directly -- it is this complacency and outright idiocy that Harper hopes to exploit. With pressure mounting from the opposition parties, especially in terms of the inquiry into the Afghan detainee issue, it became easier for Harper to avoid scrutiny and undermine our parliamentary safeguards on the assumption that Canadians simply will not notice or care.

Ironically, Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber described the move to prorogue perfectly: "Democracy and Parliament are not being sidestepped -- they are only being suspended." Even though in a recent Ekos poll 58 per cent of respondents said they disapproved of the prorogation, it's not clear Harper should be worried. March 3 is a long ways away, and an election even further. In-between, there will be many distractions in Canadians' everyday lives that will numb our outrage and suppress our motivations for criticism: the Olympics, the Super Bowl, Valentine's Day, vacuuming, seeing Avatar in Imax 3-D . . . these will regrettably be greater priorities than dealing with a government that simply doesn't believe in governing.