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: http://www.emp.ca/democratizing-the-constitution-reforming-responsible-government.html