As part of his bid to be “open and transparent,” prime minister Justin Trudeau came up with the brilliant innovation of tabling a prorogation report to be examined by committee in the wake of this summer’s prorogation. This is an idea that he has floated for a few years now, but as might be expected, this gesture was hollow and nigh on useless. It makes no actual sense, and ignores the restoration of other measures that would provide more accountability, but then again, hollow gestures are this prime minister’s stock in trade.
Much of this was borne out of Stephen Harper’s tactical use of prorogation, first in 2008 and again in 2009, which caused a national debate on a perfectly legitimate parliamentary practice, and in 2008, which turned out to be warranted as the so-called coalition that was threatening to vote non-confidence in the government and set themselves up in its place fell apart. Nevertheless, in the years that followed, academics came out of the woodwork to propose myriad ways to limit the use of prorogation – most of them cockamamie schemes that defied logic such as requiring a two-thirds vote in the House of Commons when confidence remained a mere 50 percent-plus-one.
In 2017, Trudeau’s House Leader, Bardish Chagger, tabled a suite of proposed reforms to the Standing Orders that included two potential reforms to prorogation – a return to prorogation ceremonies, that were done away with in 1983, or tabling a report post-prorogation that Commons committees could study. Trudeau chose the latter, and it was put into the Standing Orders – something that makes no sense because prorogation is a Crown prerogative and has nothing to do with the Standing Orders. Furthermore, sending said report to the Procedure and House Affairs Committee is similarly inscrutable because it has previous little to do with the operation of the House of Commons or its standing orders. It’s about the government setting its own agenda, and not the Commons managing its own affairs. And yet here we are with the inaugural report now before PROC, while they try to decide what to do with it.
It’s also a useless document. It never actually explains the government’s rationale for prorogation – it recounts some of the timeline of the pandemic, quotes the prime minister’s press conference announcing prorogation and segments of the Speech from the Throne, and then reprints the full remarks from the PM’s press conference and Throne Speech. It’s political theatre, wrapped up in some familiar Liberal back-patting about how “open and transparent” they are for taking this step that hasn’t been done before. But there is nothing actually novel here other than the cynically creative way to waste the time of Commons and PROC in particular.
The way to reform prorogation in a meaningful way is to restore the prorogation ceremonies as they were initially intended, which is a sort of flip-side Throne Speech, whereby the Governor General arrives at the Senate in all of the pomp and ceremony that this entails, and reads a speech about everything that the government accomplished over that session. And despite the fact that between 1939 and 1983, where the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada read the prorogation speech (thanks to a particularly petty bout of churlishness from William Lyon Mackenzie King, who disliked Lord Tweedsmuir because he was the recommendation of his Conservative predecessor, and the practice stuck), this should be the duty of the Governor General. This focuses the attention on what was accomplished in the session as the reason to clear the decks with a prorogation in order to set up a new parliamentary session.
The public spectacle of these ceremonies is precisely why they would be more effective than the report that Trudeau settled on – which is nigh-impossible to find on the House of Commons’ website, incidentally. Imagine in 2008 if Stephen Harper not only was kept waiting several hours by Michaëlle Jean, but had to justify a three-week session where nothing was accomplished – it would have forced him to think twice about his actions and the request for prorogation, or to at the very least, have to very publicly eat some more crow in his plea to calm the situation. Even more to the point, in 2009, he wouldn’t have been able to just phone up Jean and request another prorogation the night before New Year’s Eve, but would have been forced to go through the pomp and ceremony of it all. Trudeau would have been the same this past summer rather than holding a press conference on the end of a Cabinet shuffle.
Like the previous Harper prorogations, Trudeau’s tactical prorogation this summer was also at a time when nothing on his legislative agenda had been accomplished. He inexplicably delayed the reopening of Parliament by several weeks in 2019 even though there was no actual transition to manage – merely a Cabinet shuffle – and even then, only sat for seven days before the Christmas break. Little else had been accomplished before the pandemic hit, and the decision was made to suspend and then return in a “special committee” format rather than figuring out a way to return to proper sittings, insisting that merely asking questions of the government was good enough, while emergency bills were rammed through in a repeated abuse of process. Yes, the pandemic sidelined the agenda, but Trudeau was also dragging his feet before it arrived.
One would hope that once PROC dispenses with this report, that MPs start to realize that this was a waste of everyone’s time, and enough of them will start agitating for a return to prorogation ceremonies because it’s how our system was designed, and it provides a much more public exercise in accountability – you know, the kind of “openness and transparency” that they like to claim. But as with so many of this government’s “innovations,” it’s a half-assed measure that is big on performance and devoid of substance, and MPs should be demanding better of their parliament and their government.
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