Dalton McGuinty’s move to have the Ontario legislature prorogued indefinitely is the latest in a string of decisions by governments across Canada to dispense with the inconvenience of parliament.
From St. John’s to Ottawa to Victoria, first ministers have prorogued, cancelled or otherwise avoided the unpleasantness of opposition questions by governing without the consent of elected representatives.
This increasing tendency to arbitrarily short-circuit parliamentary conventions “unbalances the very fragile balance of power that exists between the different parts of government,” maintains Daniel Weinstock, professor of law at McGill University.
But ultimately only the voters can decide whether to punish politicians for their high-handedness by defeating them at the polls. Thus far, they appear not to care.
Even at the height of the prorogation furor in Ottawa in 2010, observes pollster Nik Nanos, “prorogation never registered as a significant issue of concern.
“For average voters, it’s still all about jobs, the economy and health care.”
Prorogation was traditionally an uncontroversial tool. A government leader who wanted to hit the reset button would ask the governor-general or lieutenant-governor to prorogue – to suspend – the legislature in preparation for a new Speech from the Throne that would set the agenda going forward.
But Prime Minister Stephen Harper set a very different precedent in December of 2008, when he asked governor-general Michaëlle Jean to prorogue Parliament to ward off the defeat of his minority government. By the time Parliament resumed seven weeks later, the threat had passed.
The Conservatives repeated the manoeuvre in December of 2009, to circumvent the unwelcome attention of a House of Commons committee that was examining alleged abuse of Afghan detainees.
Yet Mr. Harper won a majority government in the next election.
The Prime Minister, and now the Ontario Premier, are not alone in this capricious treatment of the parliament. In British Columbia, Liberal Premier Christy Clark, whose government is deeply unpopular, has cancelled the fall session of the legislature. And the opposition howled in Newfoundland and Labrador after the October, 2011, election, when victorious Conservative Premier Kathy Dunderdale chose not to convene the legislature until the following March.
“Governments across Canada are sidelining their legislatures,” protests Jamie Biggar, executive director of the citizen advocacy group Leadnow. His organization is planning a national campaign “to raise public awareness about Canada’s growing democratic crisis.”
So are federal and provincial governments undermining democracy by reaching for the prorogation shield whenever the political heat becomes too intense? Eric Adams, who teaches constitutional law at the University of Alberta, isn’t convinced.
“There needs to be healthy leeway” for first ministers to have a legislature prorogued, he believes, including in “situations where governments need to stop and refocus.”
While Prof. Adams emphasized that strong debate among politicians, scholars, journalists and citizens in general is healthy, democracy is preserved “provided the legislature returns for the government to face the music.”
But for Prof. Weinstock, the increasingly casual abuse of parliamentary conventions may have reached the point where “we have to discipline power with procedures,” that would define and limit a government’s right to prorogue, to introduce omnibus bills, to invoke closure, and the like.
Though he admits, with a bit of a sigh, that these “wonkish problems” appear to be of greater interest to professors and pundits than to the average voter.
If the Ontario legislature is still dark six months from now, we’ll see if they notice.