Rumour has it that Prime Minister Stephen Harper is planning yet another prorogation of Parliament. This means the work of the House of Commons, including its committees, would stop and our elected officials, as a group, would be rendered incapable of performing their basic functions, including holding the government to account in Parliament.
The prorogation rumours are not surprising, given the other tactics the government has employed to “manage” opposition scrutiny. During the current parliamentary session, the Conservative government has invoked strict time limits on House debates on complex bills, including its omnibus crime legislation, and forced committee proceedings behind closed doors, out of the public eye.
Technically, the power to prorogue belongs to the Crown and can be exercised “officially” by the governor-general alone, but this would never happen without the advice of the prime minister. No Canadian governor-general has refused a prime minister’s advice to prorogue. So history would suggest that the prime minister, not the governor-general, calls the tune, regardless of where the power lies constitutionally. This is not the case in other Westminster jurisdictions.
Some prorogations are routine: They occur when the government has fully implemented its current agenda. Others are political in nature: The purpose is to muzzle opposition criticism, to escape parliamentary scrutiny. A political prorogation is a blatant abuse of a prime minister’s access to the Crown’s prerogative powers. As citizens of an elected democracy, we should not tolerate it and, with a few basic changes to the House rules, we wouldn’t have to.
If the rumours are true, this would be the third time that Mr. Harper has prorogued Parliament. The first occurred in December, 2008, when he requested an end to the session so that his government could avoid a vote of no-confidence that was sure to defeat it. The second was in December, 2009. The Conservative minority government wanted to dodge damaging questions about whether government officials misled the House by denying knowledge that Canadian troops had delivered Afghan detainees to local authorities, knowing they would be tortured.
The 2012 prorogation would be substantively different. First, there is no obvious political land mine to avoid. Second, the Conservatives have demonstrated how majority status confers an immunity of sorts from even the most scathing criticism from the opposition benches. These factors make a potential upcoming prorogation less necessary from a political standpoint, but the fact remains: We live in a country where a prime minister can shut down the House, the pre-eminent institution of our parliamentary democracy, on a whim, for no particular reason.
In our new book, Democratizing the Constitution: Reforming Responsible Government, we argue that prorogations should occur only with the consent of a two-thirds majority of the House. This would place the balance of power in the hands of elected representatives, where it belongs. The House would have to consent to turning the lights off. If we allow the prime minister to unilaterally decide whether and when the House can perform its scrutiny function, we reverse the basic logic of responsible government, which dictates that the government must be accountable to the House. The two-thirds majority threshold is high enough to nearly always necessitate multiparty support.
A simple majority, as suggested by the Liberals and the NDP, would still allow a majority government prime minister to get his way just by whipping the votes of his own caucus. We argue that where prorogation is routine, the supermajority threshold should be reached easily. But, if adopted, our proposal would enable the House of Commons to protect itself against a prime minister who is motivated to avoid it. We seem to be living in an era where elected representatives have to stand up for their right to do their jobs; this reform would change that.
Lori Turnbull is an associate professor of political science at Dalhousie University. With Mark D. Jarvis and the late Peter Aucoin and, she wrote Democratizing the Constitution: Reforming Responsible Government .