2012, Politics, Society

The Slow Death of Precedence-Based Democratic Safeguards in Canada

A prorogue is a device: the suspension of parliament, traditionally at the end of that parliament’s “legislative business,” with a planned date of resumption. It was intended to allow parliaments to take breaks without calling an election.

The first problematic prorogue occurred in 1873, when John A. McDonald prorogued parliament not because their legislative business was at an end, but because he was trying to avoid a scandal. When parliament resumed, he was forced to resign. He became Prime Minister again later.

For the next 125 years the prorogue was, to the best of my knowledge, used in the way it was intended to be used: to conclude a parliamentary session because of a lack of government legislation and not for the purposes of avoiding political crises. This changed in 2002.

In 2002, Jean Chretien, ever the parliamentary historian, chose to prorogue government to avoid the Sponsorship Scandal. It didn’t work. Chretien resigned and, eventually, the Liberals lost power.

At the end of 2008, Stephen Harper prorogued parliament in the most famous use of the device prompting what I have erroneously called a “constitutional crisis.” (It is more aptly called a parliamentary crisis, since it never officially brought the constitution into question, though it should have.) At the time, this blog did not exist. But another did. However, that post has since been deleted.

This was a watershed moment in the history of Canadian democracy for two reasons:

  1. this was the first time a prorogue was actually used to avoid a no-confidence vote, rather than to avoid the tabling of a report that could cause a scandal which would then prompt a no-confidence vote and
  2. this was the first time that the Prime Minister who prorogued parliament didn’t feel the need to resign after the prorogue.

Both of these are extraordinarily dangerous precedents. Future Prime Ministers and Premieres now see proroguing as a legitimate option to avoid a crisis and there is no shame attached the the measure any more.

To confirm our worst fears about the results of the December 2008 parliamentary crisis, Harper again prorogued parliament in the winter of 2010, ostensibly for the Olympics. (Many have suggested it was really to avoid Afghan detainee blow-back.)

I was mad and may have exaggerated the novelty of the situation slightly in my discussion of the issue. I wrote letters to the PM, to the GG, to Jack Layton, to my MP, David Christopherson, and to my MPP, Andrea Horwath, who is now the leader of the Ontario NDP. I received a response from Mr. Layton only. (Though it is understandable that Mrs. Horwath didn’t respond as I misspelled her last name.)

The lack of concern from both politicians and people was remarkable and saddening, during both crises. Opposition leaders played their roles, but no more. Most people writing into the Hamilton Spectator, where I was living at the time, didn’t even understand our Canadian political system, many claiming that Harper could do what he wanted because they had elected him. I wondered how people living in Hamilton could have voted for someone in Edmonton but it seemed completely lost on most people that they vote for MPs and not party leaders.

Yesterday, October 16, 2012, Dalton McGuinty resigned from office. This was a surprise to some who, like me, hadn’t been paying enough attention to what the Ontario Liberals had done since being elected to only a minority government. But the issue isn’t the resignation, which is of course what is getting play in the papers this morning. The issue is the prorogue.

I was worried in 2008 and again in 2010 that such behaviour would set a precedent where PMs and Premieres would now prorogue for any reason. McGuinty’s actions confirm my worst fears. McGuinty has clearly been forced out as leader. But instead of doing the right thing, he has suspended Ontario’s lone democratic institution so his party can get their act together.

To be clear, the ‘right thing’ would have been one of two choices:

  1. Call an election at a significantly far removed date so that the party could have a leadership convention in the interim; McGuinty serves as lame-duck leader and Premier until the election begins; the new leader participates in the new election.
  2. Or: McGuinty resigns and appoints an interim Premier. While the interim Premier governs Ontario through parliament, the Liberals have a leadership convention.

Either of these choices would have been fairly tactically bad for the Liberals, but so what? What is tactically bad for the Ontario Liberals is of no concern to those of us who aren’t members of the party.

Instead, McGuinty suspended parliament because he felt like it, which echoes the 2010 decision by Stephen Harper. Essentially this is what he is saying: “I have let my party down by only gaining only minority and then screwing that up to. Because we are all rather unprepared for this, I am asking [read: forcing] you to extend us the consideration of picking another leader before parliament continues. We would never extend you, are opponents, this consideration, if it were up to us, but we expect you to understand and tolerate this, as it’s for the good of the Liberals, which is the good of all Ontarians”. Or something to that effect. We lose our parliament because one party can’t get itself together. That seems fair. (As an aside: the track-record of leaders who take over mid-parliament going into first elections is not good, Ontario Liberals. Good luck with that.)

British societies are heavily dependent on tradition and precedent. In most British societies there is a reverence of tradition – among both leaders and lead – that keeps people in line, most of the time. Even the greatest disruption of that tradition in English history – the Civil War – resulted in a peaceful return to the institutions of the past. Tradition-based British societies rely on this reverence to constrain future behaviour. It has worked much of the time in the UK and it has appeared to work well in Canada as well.

The problem is that Canada is not a British society any more. Yes, we are still governed mostly by old, white men of British extraction, but our society is far removed from the one that existed in 1867. And the problem with precedence-based checks on political power is that, once the reverence and power of tradition disappears, the checks stop working.

Clearly the traditional use of prorogue in only its proper context has been replaced by the use of prorogue in any context, as an opportunistic way of saving one’s (or one’s party’s) political skin. We need a constitutional amendment to ensure, from now on, that prorogues can only ever be approved by a super-majority (66%) of MPs, MPPs, MLAs.

We now know that the Governor General or Lieutenant General will not exercise their role to curb this abuse. We cannot expect Prime Ministers or Premieres to avoid abusing power when they clearly will get away with it. It is up to us. We need to vote the Liberals out in the next election, to show that this kind of abuse has consequences. And we need to all support a constitutional change which will force this measure out of both federal and provincial politics. And we need to do this now, before someone does something dangerous with it.


  1. John Maisonville says:

    Hi Riley,

    Great article! I agree with everything you spoke of pretty much. I think you’ re right that not enough people care. unfortunately we are living through an economic disaster right now. I like many am worried about jobs more at the moment. I believe until the economy takes a steep upturn. These sorts of political issues will fly under the radar.

    Cheers John

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.