On the evening of October 15, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty announced his pending resignation as Premier and leader of the Liberal Party, after nine years as Premier but just one year after the last provincial election. But that’s not all – he’s also shutting down the legislature for an unspecified period of time.
Earlier in the day, he visited Lieutenant-Governor David Onley to obtain a prorogation of the Ontario legislature. This means that the legislative session ends, MPPs will not meet and all of the work of the legislature, including committee proceedings, comes to a halt. All government bills that are still in progress die where they are and must be reintroduced when the next session commences.
It is customary (and, some argue, necessary) that when a legislature is prorogued, the Premier must identify when the next session will start, but not this time. The Globe and Mail has reported that the House will not meet until the Liberal Party has chosen a new leader. So, the business of the Ontario legislature is on hold while the Liberal Party gets its house in order.
This is an unnecessary abuse of the Premier’s prerogative to advise the Lieutenant-Governor to prorogue; the surprise adjournment serves no democratic purpose whatsoever and it prevents the legislature from fulfilling its fundamental purpose – to hold the government to account.
“Prorogation” has become an increasingly common word in Canadian politics over the last few years. In 2008 and again in 2009, Prime Minister Stephen Harper prorogued the House of Commons, the first time to avoid an imminent vote of non-confidence and the second to dodge opposition criticism regarding the ongoing investigation into the Afghan detainee issue. Prorogation can sometimes be seen as “routine” – a convenient and sensible way to adjourn the legislature when the government has finished implementing its agenda. Too often, though, first ministers make strategic requests for prorogation that are designed to silence a legislature when it suits them and prevent it from performing its scrutiny function.
Mr. McGuinty’s prorogation certainly smells politically motivated. After all, members of the government were facing allegations of being in contempt of parliament for failure to disclose information related to the closure of two power plants and not disclosing all related documents after they claimed to have complied with the legislature’s demands. The McGuinty government is at war with doctors and teachers over its plan to implement wage freezes and the opposition is not letting up in its scrutiny and criticism. It makes sense that the government would want to use any escape clause available.
Though the decision to prorogue has come at a serious democratic cost – the unnecessary closure of the people’s legislature – the strategy seems to be working well so far: the legislature has been prevented from expressing its criticism of the government and pursuing its contempt investigation and, instead of focusing on the important policy issues facing the people of Ontario, the press is focused on Mr. McGuinty’s legacy, the many possible reasons for his departure, and whether he’ll go on to prevent Justin Trudeau’s coronation as the new leader of the federal Liberals. The heat is off, at least for a while.
There is debate among legal, political and constitutional scholars and practitioners about whether Lieutenant-Governors and Governors-General, the representatives of the Crown in Canada, have the right to refuse a first minister’s request for prorogation. In other words, can the Crown prevent abuses of the prerogative powers? Prime ministers and premiers have become accustomed to getting their way; William Lyon Mackenzie King was the last man to hear the word “no” from a Governor-General, and that was in 1926 on a request for an early dissolution.
If there is anything left to the Crown’s discretion, and past Governors-General have insisted that there is, perhaps the Lieutenant-Governor ought to have given this one a second look before signing off. It’s not as though there were no other options than to prorogue. Why could the Liberals not choose an interim leader and get on with the business of governing, instead of making the whole province wait for their new leader to emerge? It is incredibly troubling that the functioning of Ontario’s democracy has been delegated to a political party’s executive.
Lori Turnbull is a visiting scholar at Carleton University and an Associate Professor of political science at Dalhousie University. Her book, Democratizing the Constitution: Reforming Responsible Government, written with Mark D. Jarvis and the late Peter Aucoin, won the 2011 Donner Prize for public policy innovation.