The Third Prorogation and why it’s not the offence of earlier prorogations

In some ways, I wish I could pile on with other politicians in attacking Stephen Harper’s latest prorogation.  It is like a piñata waiting to be smashed – yummy candies bursting inside.  The problem is that I am really committed to trying to explain things fairly and not fan flames best doused.

Proroguing the House is normal parliamentary procedure when used in appropriate moments.  That is why the Conservatives could retort to angry parliamentarians at the time of the prorogations in 2008 and 2009 that Liberal prime ministers had also prorogued the House, so what’s the big deal?  So they had.  Proroguing is the normal practice to end one session of the House and re-start with a Speech from the Throne and a new agenda.  That is how other prime ministers have used it.

Stephen Harper’s earlier use of proroguing offended at a fundamental level the nature of parliamentary democracy.  Professor emeritus of political science from University of Toronto, Peter Russell, has argued that earlier prorogations were unconstitutional.  That is because our Constitution places the executive as subservient to the Parliament as a whole.  In fact, the Constitution neither mentions the prime minister nor the Prime Ministers Office. For the prime minister to shut down Parliament to avoid a vote he knew he would lose is about as serious a display of contempt for democracy as one can imagine.

Salt Spring Islander and national treasure, Ron Wright, wrote these words to the Globe and Mail regarding the outrage of the 2008 prorogation:

“Eight years ago, Canadians watched in disbelief as the U.S. failed to carry out a recount in the election that installed George W. Bush.  We had reason to be proud of the advantages of our parliamentary system.  Now Canada has made an even more serious constitutional blunder, and it is our turn to hang our heads in shame.

Modern parliamentary democracy rests on a single great principle: The government must have the consent of the governed.  This consent is delegated by the people to their MPs.  The government must then be able to carry the ‘confidence’ of the House of Commons.  Majority governments rarely lose that confidence; minority governments often do.  When the government cannot carry the House, it falls.

Suspending Parliament to dodge a vote the government fears it will lose is so deeply undemocratic, it should never have been mooted by politicians, the media or the Governor General.  The English Civil War was fought on this very issue – after King Charles I shut down Parliament when h found its restrictions uncongenial.  The King lost his head.

We no longer behead people in Canada, but Stephen Harper’s coup d’état cannot be allowed to stand, not least because of the precedent.  Any future government can now slip the leash of democracy in the same way.  This is how constitutions fail.” (December 8, 2008, Globe and Mail)

At the time of the 2009 decision to prorogue – announced on New Years’ Eve —  searching through the annals of all other constitutional monarchies, operating under the Westminster Parliamentary system, I could find only three cases of prorogation to avoid political difficulties and/or embarrassments.  All three were in Canada.

The first was Sir John A Macdonald’s shame, shutting down the House to avoid the Pacific Scandal.  When the House reconvened, he called an election which he lost.  The other two were both Stephen Harper.  I found one case in Sri Lanka where a prime minister had attempted prorogation in similar circumstances, but the Governor General refused.

Now we have four illegitimate uses of prorogation in Canada – Sir John A (once), Stephen Harper (twice) and former Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty (once).

The difference between a legitimate use and an illegitimate use is whether or not the motivation for shutting down Parliament is to avoid political difficulty, coupled with whether the agenda of the government of the day is mid-stream or nearly out of steam.

In this case, Harper’s legislative agenda has been virtually wiped clean.  We sat until midnight (Monday to Thursday) for the last month of the spring session.  Some nights we did not adjourn until 1:30 AM.  Harper and his House leader, Peter Van Loan, were plowing through any bill that was important to their agenda, and a lot of minor ones too.  Every bill had a limitation of time for debate, so they were being rubber stamped in ways that made it hard to keep track all that had been passed.

True, Harper could have prorogued in July.  He could have mentioned plans to prorogue when he announced his Cabinet shuffle.  Mentioning it in the course of his annual “let’s open up the Arctic to industrial expansion” tour was not the most appropriate.  Nevertheless, I am not grabbing the stick for this piñata. To howl with protest over this one is to allow a blurring of offences.  Shutting down the House to avoid a confidence vote he knew he would lose is at a level of abuse so extreme that it must be remembered for what it was.  Just as blurring Senate spending scandals may allow the prime minister to avoid the most pressing questions surrounding the personal cheque for $90,000 from his chief of staff to Mike Duffy.  Some scandals are all smoke and mirrors.  Let’s focus on the ones roasting democracy over an open hearth.