Prorogation: Approach with Caution

What should we make of the Prime Minister’s decision to prorogue Parliament for the second time in twelve months? On December 30th, as the news cycle was dominated by the tragic death of five Canadians in Afghanistan and by the men’s Olympic hockey team picks, the Government quietly announced that instead of returning from the holidays as planned, on January 25th 2010, it would prorogue parliament until March 3rd.

As a result, 36 of the 70 bills introduced during this legislative session that were working their way through Second Reading, Committee and the Senate will now have to be reintroduced. This includes much of the Conservatives’ greatly hyped “tough on crime” legislation. If the bills that died on the order paper, (i.e. 51% of the bills introduced during this legislative session) have to be re-introduced, what will it cost taxpayers? Although this is difficult to estimate, we do know that it takes roughly $277 million annually to keep Parliament running. Therefore, Parliamentarians should be giving Canadians their money’s worth instead of taking an extended paid holiday.

The NDP is calling it a “generalissimo-like” move, meant to help the government avoid grilling by a Commons inquiry on the Afghan detainee issue. The detainee issue was originally under investigation by a Military Police Commission inquiry, but a Commons Committee was launched after the government intervened to prevent a key witness from testifying, thus stalling the military investigation.

Peter Tinsley, the former head of the Military Police Complaints Commission told The Hill Times that one of the country’s democratic foundations—the supremacy of Parliament itself—was at stake in what he called “an unprecedented standoff”.

The government, on the other hand, has used many talking points to justify its move, including the country’s supposed inability to focus on both politics and the Olympics. If this is indeed the case, Canadians are apparently unique in this regard, as no other country that has hosted the Olympics has felt the need to suspend its legislature for the occasion. Not exactly a distinction that should make us proud. In fact, the move has attracted some negative international press. The Economist panned the move, saying that “having prorogued Parliament last winter to dodge a confidence vote he seemed set to lose, Mr. Harper has now established a precedent many Constitutionalists consider dangerous.”

Another reason that’s been given is that the Prime Minister is in a position to fill five Senate vacancies, giving the Conservatives a majority in the Senate. Prorogation also gives the Prime Minister the ability to re-set Senate Committees.

The Senate’s traditional role as the upper chamber is to be a place for sober second thought. Parliamentary tradition holds that the Senate’s role is to debate legislation more thoughtfully than the House of Commons and that it should therefore rise above partisan politics. On the other hand, stacking the Senate is a method that is within the Prime Minister’s power and it is a tactic that’s been used before. However, if this was the motive for prorogation, why not prorogue just long enough to re-set Senate committees and continue running the country on, say, January 27th 2010?