Skip to main content

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • All comments will be reviewed by one or more moderators before being posted to the site. This should only take a few moments.
  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed. Commenters who repeatedly violate community guidelines may be suspended, causing them to temporarily lose their ability to engage with comments.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.
Cannabis pro newsletter