The Prime Minister’s plan to prorogue Parliament until October, when he will return with a new legislative agenda and a Throne Speech, is relatively routine. But in large part due to his own use of prorogation in the past, opinion has hardened against the measure.
Prorogation is merely a means to wipe the slate clean in Parliament and start fresh, something that majority governments often do. But the recent uses of prorogation has turned the public against the parliamentary mechanism.
It was used in late 2008 to avoid defeat in a confidence motion that might have put a Liberal-NDP coalition in power, and again in late 2009 so that, as it was claimed at the time, the government could consult on the economy and Canadians could focus on the Vancouver Olympics. There was also some tension in the House related to Afghan detainees. In late 2012, the Ontario Liberals prorogued the legislature and then-premier Dalton McGuinty resigned, the move seen as having been related to the gas plant scandal.
This latest prorogation is far more routine, but considering that it will reschedule the return to work from mid-September to October the Prime Minister will benefit from being free for a few extra weeks of grilling in the House of Commons over the spending of a few senators.
In this context, and with the way prorogation has become a dirty word in politics, it should come as no surprise if the reaction to this previously unremarkable legislative mechanism is negative.
Public opinion turned against prorogation when it was used in 2009. Though its most plainly political deployment was during the coalition affair, it was not as badly received as subsequent prorogations.
An Ipsos-Reid poll found in December 2008 that 68 per cent of Canadians preferred ending the parliamentary session rather than the government accepting defeat at the hands of the coalition. An EKOS poll at the time showed support for prorogation at 45 per cent, compared to 43 per cent who opposed the decision (80 per cent of Conservative voters were in favour). Even a year later, a poll by Harris-Decima found 43 per cent believing the decision to prorogue was a good one in retrospect, against 38 per cent who disagreed.
But its use in 2009 seems to have been seen as much more unnecessary. Only 15 per cent said they would be happy with prorogation in a Harris-Decima poll of December 2009 before the decision was officially made, compared with 34 per cent who said they would be unhappy (46 per cent were indifferent). When the legislature was prorogued, 58 per cent of Canadians told EKOS they opposed it while only 31 per cent supported prorogation. Agreement in the Tory ranks sank as well, with 60 per cent of Conservative voters in favour. When asked, 63 per cent said that shutting down Parliament was anti-democratic, and only 38 per cent of Canadians agreed that the Prime Minister even had the right to seek prorogation in an Ipsos-Reid poll of February 2010.
Opinion had turned sharply against the tactic by the time Mr. McGuinty decided to prorogue last fall. Only 12 per cent of Ontarians approved of the decision in a Forum poll of October 2012, compared to 73 per cent who disapproved (for comparison, 30 per cent of Ontarians approved of Mr. Harper’s prorogation in 2009). Even a plurality of Ontario Liberal voters disapproved of prorogation, and a clear majority favoured the premier recalling the legislature.
The atmosphere is perhaps much less heated than it was in these past cases, so it is unlikely that the degree of approbation will be as high. But the word has become so toxic that governments everywhere would do well to use the mechanism wisely. Delaying the start of the session by a month or more, as Mr. Harper has done, was perhaps not an example of that.
Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at ThreeHundredEight.com.