Canada’s parliamentary crisis

by Allison McNeely

Our lady in Canada gives us an insider’s view of prorogation – the art and science of parliamentary politics.

On December 30th 2009, most Canadians were wrapping up their Boxing Week shopping, enjoying the last vestiges of the holiday season, and pulling together plans for a New Years Eve to ring in the next decade. They weren’t thinking about the economy or Afghan detainees, two issues upon which the Harper government is facing criticism from the opposition parties and Canadians.

On December 30th 2009, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper prorogued Parliament for the second time in a year.  His critics say that he chose this day so that no one would notice.

The Parliament of Canada defines prorogation as, “The prorogation of Parliament ends a session… The principal effect of ending a session by prorogation is to end business. All government bills that have not received Royal Assent prior to prorogation cease to exist; committee activity also ceases. Thus, no committee can sit after a prorogation.”

To prorogue Parliament is to suspend it and reset it.  The Prime Minister must ask the Governor General of Canada to sign the proclamation in order for it to be official, but they will never say no.  The Head of State in Canada is purely ornamental.  Parliament is prorogued for a set period of time, during which no work can be done – all bills currently in the pipeline die and no committee can sit.

Due to prorogation, Parliament is delayed by 22 days and is set to return on March 3rd, with a speech from the Throne.  The Governor General gives the Throne Speech on the first day of every new session of Parliament; it outlines the goals and direction of the body for that session.  On March 4th, the budget will be presented.  Originally, Parliament was supposed to return from its holiday recess on January 25th.

When asked why the Prime Minister suspended Parliament, Harper spokesman Dimitri Soudas said that the government wanted a break in order to consult with Canadians, stakeholders, and businesses on the next phase of Canada’s economic recovery plan.

Soudas told CBC news, “This is quite routine but it is also important to give Canadians an overview of where we will be taking the country over the next little while.”

The first suspension of Parliament by Harper occurred during the 2008 holiday season, because the Conservatives wanted to avoid a vote of non-confidence that would force an election and potentially end Stephen Harper’s tenure as Prime Minister.

The Conservative party says that the average Parliamentary session only lasts for 109 sitting days, and the last Parliamentary session was 128 days.  They also believe that prorogation will allow for a Parliamentary truce for the Vancouver Olympics.

Critics believe that Stephen Harper chose to suspend Parliament to avoid criticism over the Afghan detainee issue.  It is believed that Canadian soldiers knowingly handed over Afghans under Canadian detention to Afghan prisons, where they were tortured.

There is also speculation on the part of the media and the opposition parties that the Prime Minister wished to gain a majority on the Senate committees.  The Liberal party had a majority until January 29th, when Harper appointed five Tory supporters to fill vacancies.  In order to change the makeup of the Senate committees through appointment, Parliament cannot be in session.

The response to the prorogation of Parliament was overwhelmingly negative from the media, the opposition parties, and the public.

John Ibbitson, a leading journalist and commentator on Canadian politics for The Globe and Mail, published a searing indictment of the prorogation on January 8th entitled, “Few countries can claim such a pathetic Parliament.”

Ibbitson claims, “Government MPs are cowed; parliamentary committees are too often irrelevant. Three consecutive minority governments haven’t strengthened the powers of the House to hold the government to account; instead, they’ve encouraged new methods by which the Prime Minister’s Office seeks to centralize authority.”

The opposition parties allege that the suspension is suspicious and that Harper has a habit of proroguing Parliament when the government is under fire.

The Liberal Party announced on January 25th via a press release that it seeks to amend the Standing Orders of the House of Commons in order to make it more difficult for a Prime Minister to prorogue Parliament.

The Liberals would like 10 days written notice from the Prime Minister of their intention to prorogue, require a full debate on prorogation in the House of Commons, prevent prorogation within the first year after a Throne Speech, forbid prorogation of longer than one month without consent of the House of Commons, forbid prorogation if a confidence motion has been scheduled unless the House consents, and allow Parliamentary committees to continue to function under prorogation.

On January 20th, the New Democratic Party also announced that they would be requesting restrictions on the power of the Prime Minister to prorogue Parliament.  Specifically, they would like a majority vote in the House of Commons in order to be able to suspend.

Across Canada, rallies and protests against prorogation have gained a considerable turnout and coverage in the press.  On January 23rd, protests occurred in 50 cities and towns across the country, including major hubs such as Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, and Vancouver.

According to Maclean’s, over 200 political scientists, constitutional lawyers and other academics signed a petition expressing their displeasure with prorogation.  Professor Daniel Weinstock of Université de Montréal, an attendee of the Montreal protest said in an email, “The voices of dissent have come too insistently, and from too many quarters, for this just to be a momentary reaction.”

Ipsos-Reid poll results published on January 24th in the National Post show that Canadian support of the Conservative government has slid in the wake of prorogation.  If an election was held today, 34% of Canadians would vote for the Conservatives, compared to 31% of Canadians for the Liberals.  The Conservative party is down 3% from their November high of 37%, but the Liberals are up 7% from 24% only two months ago.

On Facebook, numerous protests groups have been formed – Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament has 221,541 members.

Critics of prorogation are concerned that Harper’s move to suspend Parliament for the second time in a year sets a dangerous precedent in which parties can prorogue when they do not feel like being held accountable for their actions.

In the wake of the current prorogation of Parliament, 36 pieces of legislation have died on the order paper – more than half of which were crime bills.  Although the bills can be reintroduced in the new session, the process, which was already moving slowly due to conflict between the Liberal Senate and Conservative government, will be further delayed.

Because the Parliamentary committees have also been suspended, there has been no further progress on the hearings on the Afghan detainee situation.  The opposition parties have made political hay out of the controversy thus far, and it is a situation that casts the government in a very bad light amongst Canadians.

The Senate will become Conservative controlled, as Prime Minister Harper has appointed five Tory supporters to fill vacancies.  It will be the first time that the Senate has a Conservative majority since Stephen Harper took office in 2006.  A Conservative majority will make it that much easier for Conservative legislation to become law, particularly the controversial crime bills, as it will not be hindered by the Liberals in the Upper House.

Finally, the prorogation of Parliament sets up the perfect political terrain for the opposition parties to consider forcing a vote of non-confidence in the spring.  If they choose to bring down the government, it will be the third time that Canadians will go to the polls in just over four years.

After the prorogation period has ended, it remains to be seen how to the public will punish the government.  Public opinion was not condemningly negative after the first prorogation, but it is much more severe this time around.  Rick Anderson, an advocate of democratic reform who worked, like Stephen Harper, for the defunct conservative Reform Party when it was advocating for politics less dominated by prime ministerial power believes, “It’s solidifying a very deep sense that there’s something wrong with the way we govern ourselves.”

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