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The House of Commons lies empty on Sept. 10, 2009, a few days before Parliament resumes amid threat of an election. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
The House of Commons lies empty on Sept. 10, 2009, a few days before Parliament resumes amid threat of an election. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Ottawa buzzing with talk of proroguing Parliament Add to ...

Rumours swirling around Ottawa suggest the Conservative government is thinking of shutting down Parliament until after the Olympics, killing some of its own bills but also ending the discussion of Afghan detainees that is nibbling away at Tory popularity.

"I have heard that from some of the public servants," Liberal House Leader Ralph Goodale said Monday of a potential prorogation. "The word they are getting is 'get ready to clear the decks. Anything that needs to get done before a parliamentary session ends, get it done.' "

Conservative staff members said they also have received hints that a prorogation may be in the offing. But a spokeswoman for Government House Leader Jay Hill said his office "won't indulge the Hill rumour mill."

The rumours suggest that Parliament would return in March, when the Games are over, with a new budget that could be used to provoke an election.

Majority governments normally prorogue after a couple of years in office as a way of recalibrating.

But minorities, like the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, may decide to end Parliament after a shorter period. Mr. Harper asked that Parliament be prorogued a year ago, soon after winning his second minority government, to avoid being defeated by an opposition coalition.

The House of Commons has already started its annual Christmas break, effectively ending the daily grilling of the government about the possible torture of Afghan detainees who had been turned over to Afghan officials by the Canadian military. MPs are not due to return to Ottawa until the end of January.

But opposition members of the Special Committee on the Canadian Mission in Afghanistan have asked to hold special meetings before the session resumes. Among other high-profile witnesses, they want Defence Minister Peter MacKay and his predecessor, Gordon O'Connor, to return for more interrogation about what they knew of the torture allegations. The committee could not sit during prorogation.

A poll by Angus Reid released Monday suggests that, since mid-November when the detainees story became front-page news, Conservative popularity has taken a hit. Across the country, the survey said, the Tories fell by 2 per cent, to 36 per cent of decided voters, while the Liberals climbed by 6 per cent, to 29 per cent of decided voters.

Mr. Goodale said changing the channel on Afghanistan would be a good reason for the Conservatives to prorogue. "They've obviously taken a real drubbing on that issue," he said.

Ending Parliament would also give Conservative cabinet ministers the chance to attend the Olympic Games and to get positive publicity by appearing at medals ceremonies, Mr. Goodale said.

And it would help Mr. Harper take control of the Senate.

The Prime Minister has promised to fill the five Senate seats that become available on Jan. 2. But, the makeup of Senate committees changes only when parliamentary sessions end. So, even with the new appointments, the Liberal-dominated committees that have recently amended government bills - to the consternation of Conservative cabinet ministers - would remain exactly as they were a year ago unless there is a prorogation.

Libby Davies, the NDP House Leader, said she had not heard the rumours that the parliamentary session could be ended.

"I can't imagine what reason they would have to prorogue the House," she said, "especially when it's the Conservatives who make such a big deal of their legislation and their crime agenda and things being held up."

Bills that have not received Royal Assent die when Parliament is prorogued. That means legislation, including the consumer protection act that the Conservatives have urged the Senate to pass without amendments, would have to be reintroduced in the new session.

The most critical piece of legislation before the Senate is the bill that enriches the Employment Insurance program. The New Democrats averted an election this fall by allowing it to pass in the House of Commons. The Senate will sit again Tuesday and the bill could pass before senators leave for their own Christmas break.

With a report from Bill Curry

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