The Liberals should have included an addendum to their 2015 campaign promise to “not use prorogation to avoid difficult political circumstances.”
Perhaps: “We will not use prorogation to avoid difficult political circumstances as often as the Harper government did.”
Or else, just a little tweak: “We will not admit to using prorogation to avoid difficult political circumstances.”
Either revision would have made Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision this past week to ask the Governor-General for permission to prorogue Parliament until Sept. 23 somewhat more palatable. Yes, it still would’ve been a nakedly cynical tactic to shut down committee work on an ethical scandal that impugns the Prime Minister and at minimum contributed to the exit of his Finance Minister, but at least it wouldn’t have also betrayed an explicit promise for better behaviour from this government compared with the last.
Had the intention on the part of Mr. Trudeau been only to press the “reset” button – to set a fresh course for Parliament with a new Throne Speech that reflects the pandemic reality in which Canada now finds itself – the Prime Minister could have requested the Governor-General prorogue Parliament for a day (or two, or three) in September, just before the House of Commons was scheduled to resume. That would have allowed committees to continue their work, and members of Parliament to convene for the one remaining summer sitting, scheduled for Aug. 26.
Instead, the committees that had been investigating the WE Charity controversy have been shut down (along with the Special Committee on Canada-China Relations – the creation of which the Liberals opposed), meaning the live testimony, the direct questions and the resulting regular news stories have all come to an abrupt stop. The opposition can still lob questions into the ether about the thousands of pages of documents recently released on the WE matter, but no one from the government is under any obligation to answer. And while the standing committees are free to resume their work in the fall, the interruption will absolutely kill the opposition’s momentum – and, if the Liberals are lucky, much of the public’s interest.
Stephen Harper recognized the advantages of a well-timed shutdown when he prorogued Parliament to delay a confidence vote in 2008, and again in 2009 when a committee was probing the Afghan detainee issue. The opposition parties at the time cried foul, and justifiably so. Yet Mr. Trudeau’s strategically long prorogation – to those not huffing the fumes of partisan politics – is just as patently cynical and self-serving. The difference is that the Liberals have the hubris to pretend it is not.
We’ve seen Mr. Trudeau unabashedly adopt other tactics his party once decried. In 2015, the Liberal campaign platform charged that Mr. Harper “used omnibus bills to prevent Parliament from properly reviewing and debating his proposals.”
It promised: “We will change the House of Commons Standing Orders to bring an end to this undemocratic practice.”
And yet, in 2018 the Liberals tabled a 500-plus-page omnibus budget bill, which a Finance spokeswoman insisted was just about budget measures – but also contained an amendment to the Criminal Code that allowed for the use of deferred prosecution agreements in Canada. That small but significant revision, tucked away in that mammoth bill, was a big win for Quebec engineering giant SNC-Lavalin, who had long lobbied the government for the change. Of course, the win in that case was short-lived, as we all well know.
By 2019, the Liberals’ budget implementation bill had come down in size by hundreds of pages, but the government still tossed in a few legislative extras, including changes to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act that made asylum seekers ineligible to seek refuge in Canada if they had previously made a claim in another country. The move was in line with the majority of Canadians’ views (which was surely not a coincidence in an election year), but by burying the change in an omnibus bill, the government avoided a level of scrutiny that could have alienated traditional Liberal supporters. It was precisely the sort of “legislative trick” the Liberals swore in 2015 that they would never use in government.
Perhaps the only way to make sense of all of this is to recognize that, to the governing party, dirty moves become clean when the right team is in charge. Proroguing Parliament to avoid committee probing and relentless negative headlines, and burying legislative changes in omnibus bills to duck discussion and debate, is now good – righteous, even – because Mr. Trudeau is not Mr. Harper, because blue is now red and because the Prime Minister smiles when he shuts down Parliament, rather than just slamming the door.
Maybe the Liberals’ promise back in 2015 should have simply been: Justin Trudeau will not be Stephen Harper when he resorts to legislative tricks. At least that would have been a promise the Liberals could actually keep.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.