Dale Smith is a journalist in the Parliamentary Press Gallery and author of The Unbroken Machine: Canada’s Democracy in Action (Dundurn, 2017).
After Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced last week that he had asked Governor-General Julie Payette to prorogue Parliament, many critics immediately seized upon the Liberals’ 2015 election promise that “we will not use prorogation to avoid difficult political circumstances.” But many have forgotten that, in 2017, Bardish Chagger – the Liberals’ government house leader at the time – put forward a package to modernize the Standing Orders that included proposals to change the processes of prorogation. It is instructive to note how those plans, had they not been defeated, would have potentially changed the government’s approach.
In that 2017 package, Ms. Chagger put forward two options: One, the government would be required to table a document early in the new session that explained the reasons for prorogation, which could then be sent to committee for study or become the subject of debate on a Supply Day, one of the allotted periods in which opposition motions take precedence over the government’s in the House. Or two, prorogation ceremonies, which had been part of our process until 1983, would be restored. These would require the Governor-General or her deputy to read a speech laying out the government’s accomplishments in order to justify the prorogation and the need to put forward a set of new priorities.
In defending her proposal at the Procedure and House Affairs Committee, Ms. Chagger said that the government wanted to “build accountability into the process and force the government to justify its decision and let the House pass judgment on it.” She later added that because the House of Commons belongs to all Canadians, it was important for governments to show MPs their reasons for resetting Parliament.
In the wake of Stephen Harper’s 2008 prorogation crisis, some academics proposed changes to impose a mandatory Commons vote before prorogation is allowed, with a supermajority required for the effort to be successful – something that never made sense, considering that a government can lose confidence with a simple majority of votes. If there was that much discontent about a prorogation – particularly in a hung Parliament – MPs could simply withdraw confidence.
The 2017 package was ultimately defeated. Ms. Chagger’s mistake was in trying to put these proposals in a package to reform the Standing Orders – which wouldn’t have even affected prorogation, which is a Crown prerogative and therefore not born from the rules of the House of Commons. Indeed, the exercise of prerogative powers wouldn’t really be within the scope of committees to debate, and opposition parties can already use their allotted Supply Days to debate whatever motion they choose; they don’t need a document as an excuse.
But restoring prorogation ceremonies is a good idea.
As I outlined in my book The Unbroken Machine: Canada’s Democracy in Action, a public display in which the government is forced to list their accomplishments and how they met the goals of their previous Speech from the Throne is an exercise in accountability that we have gotten away from. It should be read, however, by the Governor-General, rather than the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, which was the practice between 1939 and 1983, when Pierre Trudeau did away with the ceremonies. (The 1939 change away from the governor-general reading the speech does not have some higher principle undergirding it, anyway; Mackenzie King’s petty dislike of Lord Tweedsmuir, the governor-general appointed on the recommendation of his Conservative predecessor, led to the chief justice getting the honour.)
Associating a certain amount of pomp and pageantry with prorogation ensures that there is visibility for the exercise, and would absolutely curb its tactical usage. After all, it would have been hard for Mr. Harper to write a prorogation speech in 2008 about what he had accomplished from his Throne Speech three weeks prior. In 2009, it would have prevented him from simply phoning in a prorogation request to former governor-general Michaëlle Jean, forcing him instead into the visible exercise of him walking up to Rideau Hall to make the request. In this year’s example, it would have compelled Mr. Trudeau to draw attention to his request for prorogation, so he couldn’t simply append the news to his announcement about a cabinet shuffle that same day.
There is, unfortunately, one hitch: The current Governor-General is reportedly not a fan of the ceremonial aspects of her job. Compelling Ms. Payette to make a prorogation speech in advance of a Throne Speech may cause a lot of headaches for the government. Then again, maybe that’s just more reasons not to deploy prorogation for partisan tactical reasons.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.