Stephen Harper’s tactical use of prorogation during the last minority Parliament triggered nationwide protests, as critics accused the Prime Minister of abusing his powers to get out of political jams.
Now, with opposition parties itching to question the government over the Senate expenses scandal, Mr. Harper is hitting the reset button for the first time as head of a majority government.
This time the situation is quite different. Mr. Harper’s plan to prorogue Parliament until October, which he confirmed on Monday, is generally in line with the traditional use of the power. Between elections, Parliament is divided into “sessions.” Prorogation ends one session and makes way for a new one. It gives the government a fresh start and an opportunity to deliver a new Throne Speech, which gives policy direction to ministers and the public service.
Mr. Harper is opting to have Parliament return in October – sources say likely after Thanksgiving – rather than Sept. 16 as scheduled. That would effectively wipe out more than a third of the sitting days for the rest of the year. The NDP says Mr. Harper is trying to avoid parliamentary scrutiny.
Rule changes have diminished the legislative significance of prorogation. At one time, prorogation meant that all bills that had not received royal assent were dead. Since 2003, private members bills – which are introduced by backbench MPs of any party – are exempt. Governments also can now pass a motion that would return government bills to the stages they were at before prorogation. Governments sometimes use prorogation to abandon unpopular bills, or bringing them back in a new form.
During the first session of this government, the Conservatives passed 61 bills. There are 19 government bills that will be terminated when the House is officially prorogued. Most are in the early stages, including a bill to set nine-year terms for Senators and a bill updating the rules around political loans.
Prorogation – an obscure procedure few Canadians had ever given much attention – became one of the most talked-about issues during Mr. Harper’s last minority government.
Shortly after winning re-election in 2008, Mr. Harper terminated a session that was not even a month old. The widely criticized move killed momentum among Liberals and New Democrats who were planning to defeat the Conservatives and form a coalition government without triggering a new election.
Mr. Harper then prorogued Parliament on Dec. 30, 2009, eliminating 22 scheduled sitting days. The government said it needed time to consult Canadians on the economy. The opposition called it an attempt to “muzzle” Parliament and avoid controversy over the government’s approach to Afghan detainees.
The Prime Minister has been signalling for over a year that he was planning a major cabinet shuffle and Throne Speech at the mid-point of his government’s mandate.
But NDP MP Craig Scott said it would be “totally beyond the pale” for Parliament’s return to be delayed by six weeks.
Mr. Scott noted that Mr. Harper was rarely in the House in the final weeks before the summer recess to answer questions about the $90,172 secret payment to Senator Mike Duffy by Mr. Harper’s then chief of staff Nigel Wright.
“Now he’s going to try to add weeks on top of what is already a 2 1/2-month summer recess,” Mr. Scott said. “The way he’s using this is transparently for delay and to run away from the House of Commons.”
With a report from Steven Chase in Whitehorse