Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/5/2010 (2560 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Parliament has been prorogued 120 times in the 143 years since Confederation in 1867. Of those, 117 prorogations were routine. Three were not: one in 1873, and then, 141 years later, two, back to back, in 2008 and 2009. All three "rogue" prorogues are similar.
In 1873, prime minister Sir John A. Macdonald wanted to avoid a non-confidence vote over the Pacific Railway Scandal. In 2008, after only 13 sitting days of a new minority Parliament, Prime Minister Stephen Harper wanted to avoid a non-confidence vote over a fiscal statement designed to beggar all his political opponents.
One year later, Harper used prorogation as a strategic move to gain a majority in the Senate and avoid further opposition criticism over his government's handling of Afghan detainees.
Citing these facts, political scientists, C.E.S. (Ned) Franks of Queen's University and Nelson Wiseman of the University of Toronto, put paid to insistent Conservative claims that Harper's prorogations were "routine."
Franks, Wiseman and University of Manitoba professor of government Paul Thomas were among experts participating in the Commons Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs' examination of "all relevant issues pertaining to prorogation."
Franks agrees prorogation is "a necessary and useful tool." Problems arise only when a government abuses it to avoid facing Parliament or to escape the consequences of its actions.
Prorogation puts an end to all business before the House and Senate while adjournment merely delays all business until Parliament resumes. Parliament has no say in prorogation, which is exercised solely by the governor general on the advice of the prime minister. Adjournment, by contrast, is controlled by the two houses of Parliament.
Prorogation's abuse is just one aspect of Canada's growing parliamentary malaise, Franks warns. "Parliament's transformation from the halcyon days of the majority parliaments of King and St. Laurent to the turmoil and rancor of unproductive recent minority parliaments constitutes close to a fundamental system change."
Wiseman says no Canadian prime minister has abused the prorogation power to the extent Harper has. He quotes Canada's pre-eminent parliamentary expert, Sen. Eugene Forsey. Forsey viewed "an unwanted and uncalled-for prorogation a usurpation of the rights of the House of Commons, a travesty of democracy and a subversion of the constitution. Prorogation is more than mere delay for it prevents the House from voting, holding the government to account and possibly bringing it down." Wiseman also quotes the director of the constitution unit at University College, London, that Canada's Parliament "is more dysfunctional than any of the other Westminster parliaments...in Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Scotland."
Only in Canada has a government secured the prorogation of Parliament to save itself from political defeat or difficulty. And only in Canada has a governor general been a party to it.
Wiseman calls on opposition leaders to make the power to prorogue an issue in the next election. Thomas, however, is concerned that new rules in reaction to short-term developments carry the risk of unforeseen consequences.
"Unlike the lawyers and procedural experts, I do not see the problem of abuse of prime ministerial power as best solved by the imposition of more written rules to be enforced by constitutional watchdogs like the governor general or the courts. I have more faith in political sanctions to deal with prime ministers and governments who play 'fast and loose' with unwritten constitutional conventions."
Still, Thomas continues, "Harper and his government seem to have made an unprecedented number of attempts to evade parliamentary accountability." He cites the calling of a snap early election ignoring the government's own fixed-date elections law; published reports of political staff interfering in access to information and open attacks on the honesty, credibility and competence of public servants and independent agencies.
"Experience since the passage of the Conservatives' much-ballyhooed Federal Accountability Act reveals the limits of rules in prescribing for all circumstances and preventing abuse if politicians are unethical and determined to make use of loopholes," Thomas continues. "It may sound old-fashioned and naïve, but ultimately we must depend greatly on the character and integrity of the people we put in public office."
Frances Russell is a Winnipeg author and political commentator.