Skip to main content

What's past is prorogue. It appears that Canadian democracy has survived "the padlocking of Parliament" - however narrowly. Now MPs head back to work traumatically bereft of 22 parliamentary sittings. These lost days must be restored. In figurative terms at least, they caused the contemporary equivalent of the storming of the Bastille. Fortunately, opposition MPs have the authority, all by themselves, to right the wrong. They need merely pass a motion authorizing extra sittings. In a minority Parliament, they have the votes to do it.

Our MPs have plenty of parliamentary precedents - from Westminster, no less - for three ways to restore the lost days.

Our MPs could extend their work day. Rather than convene at 10 a.m., they could convene at 8 a.m., as British MPs commonly did before 1570, or at 7 a.m., as they commonly did after 1570. Alternatively, our MPs could convene at 6 a.m., as British MPs commonly did in the early 1600s. These precedents imply that the more puritanical the times, the earlier the work day begins.

Our MPs could sit on Saturdays, a common practice at Westminster through the 1600s and the early 1700s - until 1732 when Sir Robert Walpole, the prime minister, peremptorily cancelled Saturday sittings so that he "might secure at least one day's hunting a week." By this decree, Sir Robert invented "the weekend," a fashionable concept that would eventually sweep the entire world.

Our MPs could sit during the summer, a common practice at Westminster through the 1800s. For the British MPs, summer sittings were difficult - given the stench from the Thames. They did, of course, give themselves a couple of weeks off in the last half of August. (Grouse hunting season began Aug. 12; salmon fishing season ended Aug. 31.)

Our MPs will do nothing of the sort, of course - they lack the requisite puritanical inclination. This is probably just as well. The fact is that prorogation gave the country a learning experience. We learned that prorogation is a relatively common parliamentary device, however craftily it may be used for the political advantage of the prorogator. (In Prime Minister Stephen Harper's defence, he uses it only when he needs it.) We learned that restaurants, bars, hotels and cab drivers in downtown Ottawa take a serious economic hit when Parliament is not sitting. We learned that MPs could go on strike for an extended period without any compelling need for back-to-work legislation.

The real tragedy of the Commons is something quite different than a three-week coup d'état. It is, simply put, the failure of Parliament to fulfill its most fundamental responsibility - the control of government spending. This is the task for which members of Parliament exist and without which they meet no significant need - without which, as prime minister Pierre Trudeau, speaking for the Crown, so eloquently put it 40 years ago, they are "just nobodies."

Beginning with the Magna Carta as a first draft in 1215, History designed Parliament to control the spending of the Crown. It did so paradoxically, requiring the Commons to sign off on all spending proposed by the Crown yet simultaneously denying it the authority to spend a dime on its own initiative.

Expressed formally, the House of Commons can receive "no petition for any sum of money relating to public service except what is recommended by the Crown." Alternatively, the House "may not vote sums in excess of Government estimates … and consequently, the only amendments that are in order are those which aim to reduce the sums requested [by the Government.]rdquo; In other words, History trusted the Commons to discipline the expansionist aspirations of the Crown - but not to safeguard the nearby pockets of the people. And History was right.

These strictures weren't limited to British parliamentary democracy. The U.S. Constitution gave Congress a line-item veto - which it denied to presidents. In the 1800s, Congress used this authority to specify precisely what expenditures it was approving - right down to the number of candles needed in any particular office.

MPs do work hard - what with all the committee work, constituency work and political work. They just don't work hard at their real job. Although they sat for 130 days last year, it took only hours to approve spending of $240-billion, which works out to roughly $1.8-billion per sitting. With no sense of embarrassment and no appreciation of the dark irony of it, they spend much more time increasing federal spending than they do in supervising it. Prorogation kept these seditious MPs out of the House for 22 days. History would suggest that these spendthrifts are coming back too soon.