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Rogue prorogation or prorogation by a rogue?

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper

As Aaron Wherry has pointed out, all political junkies should be grateful to Stephen Harper for having brought the word prorogue into vogue. Prior to the 2008 prorogation -- which Stephen Harper used to forestall a confidence vote that would have brought down his government; and the 2009 prorogation -- which Stephen Harper used to flee from the messy Afghan detainee scandal threatening to tar his government (although so many scandals have subsequently swept the Harper Conservatives that this one now seems almost tame in retrospect) -- the process of prorogation, while widely and extensively used in Canadian political history, was little known to Canadians beyond the confines of Parliament Hill.

Now, not only can most Canadian properly pronounce "prorogation" in their sleep, Stephen Harper's conduct in both 2008 and 2009 has so charged this word with political gerrymandering that its mere mention sends many Canadians into apoplexy. Consequently, when Stephen Harper recently announced that he would prorogue Parliament until the middle of October, it immediately set off volleys of protest and fulmination. However, is there any reason for such an outcry?

It's important to note that prorogation is actually a routine Parliamentary procedure and in the past was used extensively and for lengthy periods. Prior to World War II (and before the advent of mass air travel) Parliament was often prorogued for extended time frames allowing parliamentarians to spend time in their home ridings. It is, moreover, a normal feature of parliamentary democracy in the Westminster tradition, a kind of re-setting of the Parliamentary clock which doesn't involve the dissolution of Parliament and a new election. There are a number of legitimate reasons why a government might want to do so, and shift governance gears with a new speech from the throne. As such, there's nothing inherently suspect about prorogation as a parliamentary procedure.

It was the so-called "rogue prorogations" such as those that took place in 2008 and 2009 (called, moreover, while Parliament was in session), when the Harper Conservatives were clearly fleeing from activities transpiring in Parliament, that have drawn the legitimate ire of ordinary Canadians and constitutional experts alike. It is clearly a de facto abuse of Parliament when legitimate parliamentary or legislative activity is artificially terminated in this way. Parliament should be a place where the government faces accountability and not flees it.

In this regard the 2008 prorogation was a particularly egregious instance, since the opposition parties had clearly signalled that they intended to bring down the government, chiefly over its plans to eliminate the existing $1.95 per vote subsidy. It had only been six weeks since the previous election and in such circumstances where the government lost the confidence of the House of Commons, the Governor General would almost certainly have been obliged to ask the Leader of the Opposition (at the time, Stéphane Dion) if he could form a government that would command the confidence of the House, and such an agreement was in place between the Liberals and NDP (supported by the BQ) and all opposition party members had signed onto the plan.

The fact that the Governor General (at the time, Michaëlle Jean) acceded to Stephen Harper's request for a prorogation, allowed the Harper Conservatives to escape from a vote of confidence -- the only time this has taken place in Canadian political history -- thereby establishing a dreadful precedent that may haunt Canadian parliamentary democracy.

In the case of the proposed 2013 prorogation (which will not be called while Parliament is in session) relatively little legislation appears to be at stake. While a few bills (on Senate reform, changes to the Canada Elections Act, and a bill to change parole rules) will die on the order paper, these bills can be re-introduced in a new Parliament at their most recent stages. The highly contentious Bill C-377, which would target unions with unnecessary and discriminatory disclosure regulations, and which was rejected by the Senate through amendments and sent back to the House of Commons, would be restored to third reading in the House of Commons. This would wipe clean the slate of Senate debate on the bill and it would go back to the Senate after third reading. While the prime minister might hope that he could coerce some of the 16 Conservative senators who voted against this legislation to change their minds, this seems highly unlikely. Given the critical microscope that the Canadian Senate is presently under as a result of the Senate expenses scandal, flip-flopping on this issue would provoke a very negative backlash.

Now of course, as Aaron Wherry points out in Maclean's, if all Stephen Harper would like to accomplish is a new speech from the throne (and an occasion to show off the beaming and brightly-polished faces of his new cabinet appointees in an occasion of parliamentary pomp and circumstance) there is nothing that would prevent Stephen Harper from going to Rideau Hall on the morning of September 15 (the day Parliament is currently scheduled to resume), asking Governor General David Johnson to prorogue Parliament, and then immediately asking him to recall Parliament that afternoon. Why waste some 20 parliamentary sitting days waiting until mid-October? It's a fair point, pointing out the pointlessness of the delay. 

That said, sittings can always be extended, and in any event are only productive if the government actually sets out to do something useful in them. In his years as prime minister, with his endless use of time allocation and omnibus legislation, Stephen Harper has shown a deft touch in terms of turning what ought to be the most important and meaningful exercise of democracy in Canada -- the processes of Parliament -- into a pointless and empty charade. As such, this wastage of 20 sitting days may be the most significant dimension to this prorogation. If the prime minister regards Parliament as an obstacle at best, and a thorn in his side at worst, dispensing with 20 days of pain may be the most compelling reason for this action. As such, rather than a rogue prorogation, this is an example of a prorogation by a rogue.

Christopher Majka is an ecologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and writer. He is the director of Natural History Resources and Democracy: Vox Populi.

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