Mark Jarvis on the real story in Ontario: Prorogation

Prorogation has a legitimate – and valuable – function, though should not be used as a reply to ‘rancour’


Last evening, after 16 years as Leader of the Ontario Liberal Party and nine years as the Premier of Ontario, Dalton McGuinty resigned unexpectedly. Partisans, pundits, journalists and other observers have already started, and will continue to, pick apart McGuinty’s record as he serves his remaining days.

It was also newsworthy that at the same time as he announced his resignation, McGuinty prorogued the Ontario legislature.

While some will find this of little interest or just merely a distraction from the broader political fall out and machinations, I would suggest the decision to prorogue deserves considerable attention.

Prorogation has a legitimate – and valuable – function within the parliamentary system.

Parliament is prorogued so that the government can efficiently organize sessions, allowing it to conclude one session when its legislative program has come to an end and it wishes to introduce a new legislative program. Each session begins with the Speech from the Throne, when the governor general, or lieutenant governor in Ontario’s case, reads the government’s new legislative program. Prorogation is a mechanism for ensuring effective governing and government.

But prorogation can also be abused.

Prorogation is not a mechanism designed to afford the current government a political advantage in the exercise of power.

Yet, in recent years we have seen first ministers misuse the power of prorogation to avoid confidence votes, delay reporting by officers of parliament, escape questioning and scrutiny, and side-step accountability for matters of public policy and administration.

This most recent prorogation terminates an ongoing investigation of contempt against one of McGuinty’s ministers  and effectively precludes anticipated motions of contempt against an additional minister and McGuinty himself until a new session of the legislature, when McGuinty will no longer be premier.

This alone renders this prorogation an abuse. Where it fits alongside past abusive prorogations will be debated (This excellent Peter Loewen piece is a good start).

Also troubling is that there are no clear timelines for when the legislature will be called back into session.

But there is something even more disconcerting afoot.

Across the country prime ministers and premiers are making it clear that they see legislatures – our elected representatives – as an undue burden. Whether as a means of managing legislative impasses or risks of losing confidence or simply to escape scrutiny, first ministers have demonstrated a predilection for simply shutting down the respective legislative assemblies in their jurisdictions.

It is worth examining the premier’s own words in explaining the prorogation. In an email sent to Liberal supporters McGuinty said: “I’ve asked the Lieutenant Governor to prorogue the legislature to allow those discussions with our labour partners and the opposition to occur in an atmosphere that is free of the heightened rancour of politics in the legislature…”

The “rancour” that Premier McGuinty is so dismissive of is an essential dynamic of public accountability within our democratic system, which sees partisan politics – institutionalized adversarialism – as the best means of securing democracy.

The premier’s tone and message is reminiscent of Premier Christy Clark, who earlier this fall cancelled the fall term of the British Columbian legislature, leaving an open question as to whether or not it would sit at all before the scheduled provincial election in May. On the opposite coast, the Newfoundland and Labrador legislature reopened this March after having only sat for a total of just 33 days in the previous 14 months.

These actions violate the basic premise of responsible government: that the house or legislature, as the case may be, is actually in session in order to fulfill its fundamental responsibilities: to review government legislation, to scrutinize government administration and to extend or withdraw confidence as it deems fit.

These developments should be disconcerting to us all.

Mark D. Jarvis is a doctoral candidate at the University of Victoria. His 2011 book, Democratizing the Constitution: Reforming Responsible Government co-authored with Lori Turnbull and the late Peter Aucoin, was awarded both the Donner and Smiley book prizes. Mark adapted some of the book’s proposals for a contribution to our series on the House last year. You can find more information about the book here:

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Mark Jarvis on the real story in Ontario: Prorogation

  1. There was a long way to go before McGuinty matched Harper on the pro-rogue front, and hopefully the investigations into the plant cancellation costs will proceed duly, but the broader point is certainly worth considering.

    • The investigations (committees) are cancelled in the proroguation. THAT IS WHY MCGUINTY DID IT.

    • Harper did it one time. This is number 3 for Dalton.

      • Harper did it THREE times.

        • So did Chretien. I know that’s not an excuse for Harper–I still haven’t gotten my antipathy for Chretien out of my system.

          • context though, we have two completely unjustifieds for harper, and one questionable for Dalton.

          • I still haven’t gotten my antipathy for Chretien out of my system.

            I can understand how it would be tough to do so given that the Harper government has pretty much modelled they’re whole term on following Chretien’s lead.

  2. Mark, do you think an elected head of state or province would serve as a check to this sort of nonsense? Or would it simply add another layer to the partisan/dictatorial cesspool our houses are increasingly becoming?

    • Imagine a partisan president that can dismiss/dissolve the legislature at will. Our system cannot handle an elected head of state. If we move to it, we need to adopt an entirely different governance structure.

  3. I considered running for MLA last year.. and spoke to Danielle Smith about how she would feel if I didn’t support a government initiative, as I happen to be a social liberal and fiscal conservative. Her response? If I can’t convince at least 51% of the legislature that a new initiative is worthwhile, it probably shouldn’t go forward, and we’ll be fine without it.
    Now. I didn’t run and she wasn’t elected as Premier.. so who knows if that would have truly been the case, but wouldn’t it be great if it was? If our executive branch of government sought to only introduce new legislation that carried relatively broad acceptance?

    • Everything in any legislature has to get at least 50% + 1 to pass.

  4. Can’t really see how prorogation of a dysfunctional provincial legislature is on par with Harper’s defying of the threat of his governments collapse at the hands of an opposition coalition. Both were cynical but the stakes were much higher for Harper, as were the subsequent rewards. McGuinty has fallen on his sword and bought his party some time. Not sure its “gallant” but given the PCs and NDP showed no interest in dealing with the most pressing economic issues and instead focussed on gas plant-gate, he played the cards he was dealt.

    • It’s a bit like the idea that justice deferred is justice denied. That house belongs to the people, via our representatives, and is not an arena for governing parties to ‘buy time’ in an effort to survive. As for ‘dysfunctional’… that seems to be the new buzzword used by minority governments who cannot accept the reality of curtailed dictatorship in what is supposed to be a forum of disagreements, negotiations, and occasional impasses.

      • Agreed, but the it’s easy to point at any one party when in fact all three (in Ontario) are he11-bent on bringing each other down. The inability of our political parties to work together – as mandated by the electorate – is the real tragedy. I much prefer minorities but clearly we are electing the wrong people to work under such conditions.

        • Excactly!

        • The reason our parties are all dysfunctional right now, is that they are working. For the last sixty years we’ve had faux democracy. Three progressive parties that more or less agreed on the way forward. As progressive thought is now seen to have several flaws, the Conservatives are now turning into classic Liberals where the Liberals and NDP are now the progressive bastion.

      • Strangely, McGuinty had a far stronger argument his legislature was dysfunctional than Harper did (McGuinty was trying a right wing approach the NDP couldn’t support, esp. after being burned once, and Hudak wouldn’t budge an inch unless it looked like he would be blamed for school not starting). But Sean is right, if an impasse develops than an impasse develops.

        • McGuinty was being investigated due to $$ for moving a gas plant during an election. Liberals admitted the party moved the gas plant not the Government.

      • Well said Sean. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. So is Harper a goose or a gander…and Dalton?

        • Quack

    • a minority government is by no means dysfunctional and McGuinty dealt the cards.

  5. I think someone in the media has mentioned that the real reason behind prorogation is that the atmosphere in the legislature had become so dysfunctional, hateful, rancourous or whatever that they would not be able to trust the opposition to make deals on voting that would be necessary to allow Ministers who are running for the leadership to be away from the Legislature in a minority situation.
    I would never trust Tim Hudak to pull one of his members out of a vote because Chris Bentley was out on the campaign trail. In a majority, several Ministers could campaign across the province without causing the government to be defeated.

    • Sure the libs were too far from the NDP to be able to deal and had burned them once before, and Hudak was playing games and not coming to the table. but that doesn’t change with D. resigning.

      • Of course it does, McGuinty shut down the committees looking into $$$ for moving a gas plant DURING AN ELECTION.

        • That’s true and hopefully any wrongdoing will still come to light. But the comment is about the “dysfunctionality” of the legislature.

          • Less likely for wrongdoings to come to “light” now. Contempt motion(s) now do not exist.

          • Privilege motions can be brought forward in the next session, or even in the next parliament.

    • And I’d never demand Tim Hudak do so. The point of parliament is to govern. If a person is more concerned about their career as an MP than their duties as an MP, they shouldn’t be an MP anyway.

  6. Thanks Mark. This was very well put.

  7. We have become so complacent with the way it is, don’t demand more from our elected representatives, and that unfortunate comes from the lack of interest by most citizens in politics.

    • Yes, but it is a vicious circle. Citizens show little interest because of the way politicans abuse their power and ignore the electorate.

      • I can see your point but at the end of the day it’s a choice, no?!

    • I remember a party once telling me that they WANTED me to demand better. That I SHOULD demand better. “Demand Better” was their slogan in an election.

      What happened after they got elected made me re-think the efficacy of bothering to demand better.

      • I know frustrating.

  8. In a minority government when opposition members hold MORE seats why did not LG David Onley not confer with the leaders of the opposition before giving McGuinty his wish? It seems Onley’s decision to give Dalton his prorogue was immediate. Does the LG represent politicans or the people of Ontario? If it is the people how can proroguing help Ontario when it is forecast that next year Ontario’s deficient will be more than the whole of Canada’s?

    • LG represents the Queen.

      Effectively, it is legal and constitutional for the head of government to request prorogation at any time. It’s crappy, and has been abused in some very disturbing ways over the past few years, but that’s the way it is.

      I personally think we should change the constitutional convention such that:
      -the House must pass a motion requesting that it be prorogued until a definite time and no later
      -exceptions to this be granted only in emergency situations, and then only for short periods.

      • Lately this action has been to hide corruption and scandals. Would the Queen really be behind and agree to these reasons to prorogue? Think Not! Not what Lt. Gov. Onley did was show a completed INABILITY to deal with his buddys request and drink the gov. cool aid

      • Lately this action has been to hide corruption and scandals. Would the Queen really be behind and agree to these reasons to prorogue? Think Not! No, what Lt. Gov. Onley did was show a complete INABILITY to deal with his buddys Dalton’s request and drink the gov. cool aid forceing us to do the same as well.

  9. Typical. When Harper does it, it’s a national crisis. When a Liberal does it, it’s something that needs to be thought about.

    • Only a half wit could draw that conclusion from that post.

      • Troll.

        • Turn your brain on and open your mind just a tad and i promise you i’ll get lost.

          • You’re already lost.

          • Boo hoo… you made me cry, you bully.

    • When Harper does it, he does it to the national legislature, so yes, it is a national crisis. When McGuinty does it, it is a Ontario crisis. Do I need to draw you a venn diagram?

      • Can you point me to any op-ed’s in the Toronto Star or Globe and Mail claiming that McGuinty’s “ending democracy” in Ontario, or any of the other clap-trap we heard a few years ago? Where’s the 20,000 strong Facebook page of concerned “individuals” expressing “outrage”?

      • Andrew: Is there one piece of legislation that they were working on that you honestly cared about?

        I am actually a Liberal but it seems that every time the Ontario Liberal Party gets involved in anything they screw it up whether it is eHealth, Solar FIT, Ornge, over reaction to Teacher’s bargaining, improved productivity of health care with no concern for getting people to eat and exercise properly.

        If they just stopped their engines for about a year, would we notice any difference, maybe we would be better off?

        • I am Furious.
          There are 132 pieces of legislation that people care about.
          People voted for their respective MPP’s to represent them in the Ontario Legislature. Bills were worked on, they were passing first and second readings – citizens were traveling to present their respective submissions on bills in committee hearings.
          Tax payers dollars, blood sweat and tears of activists, precious time taken away from family and friends in order to participate in the democratic process are all WASTED! In some cases, YEARS of work.
          The democratic process is being abused instead of respected . The process is EVERYTHING in a democratic society, when it abused, we have nothing. It needs to be understood and kept safe by all citizens, most particularly those who our elected representatives. MPP’s and MPs should feel HUMBLED by the very fact that they have been elected to represent their constituents .. Instead..we get arrogance.
          Proroguing parliament does not put the process on hold it KILLS the process, all of these bills are DEAD.
          This work done in good faith by our Democratically elected MPP’s is GARBAGE… and we hear from more than one Liberal Minister that “ha ha ha” Ontario Citizen’s don’t know what “Prorouguing” Means…..
          YES, we do! If people in Ontario continue to put up with this behaviour, I guess the old saying is true, “you get the government you deserve”!

          • Debbie:
            You have answered without naming one piece of legislation that you care about.
            Could you give an example please.

  10. It would be fitting if MPs were not paid during periods of proroguing. They have a lot of parliamentary time off with pay as it is.

    • and the pay cheques also stop the second a report is late or missing.

  11. The current system is not competitive. One political party can take complete power with less than 40% of the votes cast, not to mention the 40% of eligible votes not cast, many because they see no real choices when most of us live in safe ridings. Voters cannot hold political parties accountable unless we get what we vote for. It’s called proportional representation.

  12. I think you are right that it is questionable as to whether Premier McGuinty prorogued because of discussions with labour partners. I think it has more to do with the fact that he is leaving in a minority government. Everyone who leaves a senior position thinks about succession – how to successfully facilitate their replacement. The Premier wants the party to continue to be the government and he would want his successor to have time to get their team together and settle into the job so that they can be in a strong position to face an election, which is inevitable due to his leaving. Andrea Horwath proved to the Premier, when she made an agreement then backed out of it, that she cannot be trusted. Tim Hudak wants to be Premier so bad he would do anything to get it. So the Premier could not trust opposition to not pull a fast one and defeat the government before a leader is chosen or the day after the leader is chosen. So what options did he have??

    • The problem Ms. Green is that we, the public, demand our parliament. It isn’t a toy for either kings or princes to shut at will and at this moment Mr. McGuinty is acting like a prince who isn’t getting his own way. The English had a Civil War over a king’s ability to govern without parliament. Must we do the same?

  13. Finally! While Ontario media has been focused entirely on McGuinty’s resignation, treating Proroguing of Parliament as irrelevant, FINALLY some intelligent and significant coverage as to why this is so fundamentally about McGuinty’s abuse of power! Thank you! Ontario media need to wipe the glazed look from their eyes and do real journalism about what Is significant for the public. I want to know why there is no entity in government which is safeguarding the public from such abuses and ensuring that charges be laid against the MPPs and McGuinty directly – any other company where the CEO squanders millions for personal gain, at the expense of its shareholders, would be held accountable — so why aren’t politicians held financially accountable to the taxpayer in this case? Why is there no appropriate recourse for the public to take McGuinty and the 2 MPPs to court over this criminal act?

    The Opposition parties owe it to Ontarians to use whatever means is at their disposal to act, and there needs to be recourse for the public against such criminal activity as we have clearly all seen at work here. McGuinty “fell on his sword” in order to avoid being held in contempt. And the Ontario taxpayer is left without recourse?! This should be pursued.

  14. Both McGuinty and Harper did something which would have been unthinkable a few decades ago. An old high school civics text put it as follows: the government live or dies at the pleasure of a majority vote in parliament. Ontario is now a banana republic, governed by an illegitimate government until an election is called or parliament recalled.

  15. I put the fault at the foot of the Lieutenant Governor. He has the authority to refuse the request to prorogue the legislature – and, in this case, he should have. He should not be “rubber stamping” everything being requested – which appears to happen with the Governor General at the federal level as well.

  16. Perhaps proroguing could be maintained if MP/MPP salaries were halved or not paid at all during the proroguation?

  17. Absolutely this should be the main issue and I don’t understand why nobody is talking about it. The fact that the parliament is shut down until the “governing” party chooses a new leader is ridiculous. If the Premier wants to resign then he is free to do so. The Liberal party has a deputy premier who can assume the powers of the premier/ leader until a leadership convention is held and a new leader is chosen. Mark is absolutely right that this latest prorogation is an abuse of power.
    But that being said, my biggest complaint is with the Lt. Governor General (and when the PM did this with the Governor General). If they want people to believe that the monarchy (and therefore the monarchy’s representatives) have a legitimate place in the Canadian political structure, then they have to be more than a rubber stamp. While they usually act on the advice of the Premier (or PM federally) they do have certain reserve powers that they can exercise and it is time that they do so. I’m disappointed in David Onley as there was no real reason to prorogue the parliament. His job is to advise, to encourage and to warn and to make sure that we have a government in place that has the confidence of Parliament. It looks like he did none of the above. There were no issues of confidence that would have immediately brought down the government. If he does not have the courage to exercise the discretionary reserve powers that he is afforded, maybe he should resign. I can only hope parliament is recalled before the new year and that our elected represenatives get back to the business for which they were elected.

  18. If the Ontario Parliament has been “locked out ” they should not draw a salary

  19. democracy is over. we need a civil war