QJPolitics: Prorogation is totally democratic - sometimes

When the toaster suddenly starts smoking, generally the response is “oh s**t!” as one rushes to unplug it. That’s one of the philosophies behind proroguing parliament.

However, in recent years, the act of prorogation has taken on a negative connotation and some regard it as anti-democratic. Yet, this tool of democracy has existed for hundreds of years and has been used numerous times in Canada’s history. So, can prorogation be democratic and anti-democratic? Do we really need to unplug the toaster?

On Sept. 13, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced he would prorogue Parliament for 31 days. Governor General David Johnson signed the instrument of prorogation last Friday morning. Parliament was originally supposed to begin Sept. 16.

Prorogation is the closing of a session of Parliament until the opening of a new session. Although the power to prorogue rests with the Queen through the Governor General, it’s used on the advice of the Prime Minister.

When Harper announced he was going to prorogue Parliament in December 2008 to halt the threat of a coalition from taking power, there were mixed reviews. When he did it again in December 2009 for the Winter Olympics and to avoid the discussion of the Afghan detainee scandal, people protested. Many believed this was a direct threat to responsible government.

Prorogation is a blanket term for suspending the legislature and it can be used for different reasons. For certain reasons it can be undemocratic.

“As a tool of Parliament it is totally democratic,” said Jonathan Rose, associate professor of political studies at Queen’s University. “When it’s used to forestall debate or avoid a non-confidence motion, that is a violation of responsible government.”

Before you believe this is only a Conservative tool, look back to 2002 and 2003 when former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien prorogued Parliament. Federally, it has been used 126 times ever (counting the latest).

Even provincially, former Premier Dalton McGuinty prorogued the legislature in October 2012 after he announced he would step down. He justified it as a way to ensure an easy leadership transition — although he was also mired at the time in a scandal about gas plants.

Just recently, British Columbia’s Premier Christy Clark prorogued the provincial legislature until next spring, after she had also prorogued it last fall. This means provincial representatives in B.C. only sat for 36 days this year. This is a stark contrast the 31 days Harper is proroguing. In the case of Prime Minister Harper’s recent prorogation, it can be seen both ways: to avoid hot issues and to hit the reset button.

Some believe he’s trying to avoid questions on the Senate scandal while others believe he’s just resetting his government as he reaches the halfway point of his term. In all likelihood, this latest prorogation should be just seen as a planning tool. He’s just shuffled his cabinet and needs some fresh policy ideas to take him until the next election. The Senate scandal will not disappear within the month and more news will probably come to light as a RCMP investigation continues.

So unlike in 2010, when thousands protested prorogation, it’s not quite time to pull out the bristol board and sharpies. Instead of jumping when you hear the word “prorogation”, look at why Parliament is taking a break and then decide whether it upholds responsible government.

You can check out three reasons why not to panic this time by the CBC’s Kady O’Malley.

All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to journal_editors@ams.queensu.ca.

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.