A view from Parliament Hill: What the heck is prorogation?

By Robert Rivers

When former prime minister Stephen Harper prorogued parliament there were mass demonstrations -- including one in Montreal where a young Liberal leader named Justin Trudeau attended.

To understand prorogation, we must first have a quick refresher on the parliamentary cycle.

Following an election, the party with the most seats in the House of Commons is to ask the Crown, represented by the Governor General in our case, to form government.

This is a formality, as the Crown rarely rejects this request. The next step is for the new government to lay out what it plans to provide for Canadians.

This is presented through the Speech from the Throne, which is proposed by the Prime Minister and then read in the Senate by the Governor General.  This speech indicates the start of the first session of a new parliament or the beginning of another session within an existing parliament. Once government is formed there is a limited amount of time to complete their legislative business as outlined in the speech.

There is generally a maximum of four years before an election must be called. A government that holds a majority may take the entirety of the allotted four years to address its mandate.

A minority government may have much less time available to it, as the opposition parties may pull their support at any time, triggering a confidence vote, which in turn can defeat the government and cause an election. In our federal parliamentary system time is the single most important factor that determines whether a government can actually do its legislative work.

What does prorogation do?

According to the rules within the House of Commons Procedure and Practice:

“Prorogation of a Parliament results in the termination of a session. Parliament then stands prorogued until the opening of the next session. Like the summoning and dissolution of Parliament, prorogation is a prerogative act of the Crown, taken on the advice of the Prime Minister.”

Let’s use an analogy to illustrate the process. Think of a session of parliament as a blank sheet of paper on which all parliamentarians, including those who are in the government, opposition party members, back bench Members of Parliament (MPs) and Senators, are simultaneously writing down a ‘to-do’ list.

The list begins small but quickly grows as more is added, some things get crossed out when accomplished, others just sit there waiting to be started or are abandoned altogether, but everything remains on this continuously growing publicly available list.

Due to the rules of our parliament, much of the business on this list must go through very specific stages of debate (readings) that require minimum amounts of time before moving onto the next stage. Ultimately, the goal is to have the work either pass for adoption (in the case of motions) or receive Royal Assent (in the case of legislation) before parliament is dissolved.

With the passage of time the size of the ‘to-do list’ begins to outpace the time left for the government to accomplish the goals set out in the Speech from the Throne. One option to get more time is for the government to dissolve parliament altogether and cause an election to refresh the clock and provide a blank sheet by creating a new parliament. This route is risky and expensive.

If a majority of Canadians believe it to be too early to undertake the expensive and inconvenient task of conducting an election, they may punish the government (or the opposition parties triggering an election in a minority government) by voting them out.  The other, less costly option is the prorogation of parliament which provides a fresh start for the to-do list (aka a new session of parliament) without going into another election.  This approach allows the parliamentary clock to continue running.

But isn’t prorogation bad?

No. Sometimes. Yes. These are all correct answers, because the answer depends on which political party is proroguing parliament, which position this party is in, or which Canadian is answering the question.

Majority Government

Think of a scenario where a party holds a majority government and the opposition parties are unable to win any vote in the House of Commons because they simply do not have enough elected MPs.

When the majority government decides to prorogue without consulting the other parties, then the process is often considered an abuse of process or power by opposition parties, because it erases all the progress of their outstanding parliamentary business on the Order Paper. This can include ongoing committee studies, motions or debates about legislation.

If one believes that a majority government represents the will of most Canadians, then the use the prorogue is just business as usual. If another believes that the majority government is using the process to stifle the work of opposition MPs representing the minority of the Canadians, then it can be interpreted as an abuse of power.

The 42nd Parliament which lasted from 2015 to 2019 consisted of a single session, because the majority Liberal government decided not to prorogue. However, this is an unusual decision in the context of the history of prorogation use by most past majority governments.

Minority Government

In a scenario where there is a minority government, such as the current situation in Canada, there is no guarantee that the prorogue of parliament will achieve the result of completely resetting all the outstanding work from the previous session. The opposition members have the option of bargaining with the government in exchange for their support during the new session of parliament, in order to restore their most important legislation or committee work from the previous session.

There is also a larger danger for a minority government when proroguing the parliament without support from the opposition parties. Since prorogation restarts the parliamentary process with another Speech from the Throne, the ruling minority government is at risk of a non-confidence vote if the Speech from the Throne is rejected by the majority of MPs in the House of Commons.

When this occurs, the parliament is automatically dissolved, and Canadians are once again called to the polls to elect the MPs who will form the next parliament. This resets the parliamentary cycle once again.

Looking Forward

Since the current minority Liberal government prorogued parliament on Aug. 18, there has been plenty of speculation about whether any opposition parties will support the Speech from the Throne on Sept. 23.

If the answer is yes, the second session of the 43rd parliament will begin. If the answer is no, we will be back at the polls to elect members for the 44th parliament soon.

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