A bluffer's guide to prorogation

With the Prime Minister asking to prorogue Parliament until October, we provide answers to all of the questions you might have.

So what’s this all about?

The Prime Minister has asked Governor General to prorogue Parliament. If he feels like some exercise, Mr. Harper will walk over to Rideau Hall and ask the Governor General to grant his request for prorogation and issue a proclamation to recall Parliament on a specified day (in this case, October 16). Maybe they’ll sit down for a bit and drink tea and chat about their respective summers. Or maybe the Prime Minister will just call.

Prorogue is kind of a weird word.

It is. Apparently it dates to the early 15th century. The parliamentary practice dates to King Henry VIII.

So what happens when Parliament is prorogued?

The current session of Parliament comes to an end. All government bills that are currently before Parliament die—though bills can be revived once Parliament returns with the agreement of the House of Commons and private members’ bills are not effected. All committees are dissolved and no further parliamentary business can be conducted until Parliament is recalled and a new Speech from the Throne is delivered. For a more thorough explanation, feel free to consult the House of Commons guide to practice and procedure.

The Speech from the Throne is kind of a silly conceit isn’t it—the Prime Minister having to sit there while someone reads a speech about what the Prime Minister’s government is planning to do?

Kind of yes, but we could all use a bit of pageantry in our lives, I suppose. Perhaps baby George could come visit this time and the Governor General could cradle our future sovereign in his arms while he reads and then we could measure the quality of the speech by how quickly it soothes baby George to sleep. Anyway, let’s stay on topic.

So why would the Prime Minister want Parliament to be prorogued right now?

In this case, the current session has lasted two years and the government has passed most of the legislation it introduced and at the halfway point of its mandate it is understandable that it might want to set out a new agenda with a Throne Speech. Under those circumstances, prorogation seems a fairly reasonable maneuver.

Ah, good. Well then I guess we’re good here and I’ll go back to not thinking too much about this.

Well, thing is, the House of Commons was due back on September 16. And the Prime Minister would now rather it return on October 16.

Oh. Why’s that?

Good question. The House of Commons is set to lose 17 sitting days, but prorogation does not necessarily need to last longer than the time it takes the Prime Minister to say when he would Parliament to be recalled. Mr. Harper could, for instance, prorogue Parliament on Friday and still ask that Parliament be recalled for Monday, as previously scheduled. Comparatively speaking, this prorogation is less problematic than when Mr. Harper sought to prorogue Parliament in 2008 (when his government was facing a vote of non-confidence) and 2009, but it is not unimpeachable.

Could the Governor General refuse Mr. Harper’s request to prorogue Parliament?

Technically, yes. Practically, only in extreme situations, of which this should not be considered to be. The Governor General holds what are known as “reserve powers,” which conceivably might be exercised to protect parliamentary democracy. If, for instance, a government is defeated in the House shortly after an election, the Governor General can call on another party leader to attempt to form a government. But likely only under dramatic circumstances—perhaps something like the coalition situation in 2008—would the Governor General consider refusing a request for prorogation and any Prime Minister who was rebuffed would likely be compelled to resign. It’s not going to happen in this case. And the Governor General would almost surely plunge us into a constitutional crisis if he did, in these circumstances, refuse a request from the individual who currently has the confidence of the House.

Could something else be done to restrict the Prime Minister’s power to request prorogation?

A few ideas have been kicked around and proposed, but nothing yet adopted that has had the effect of limiting the Prime Minister’s discretion. Perhaps it is the sort of thing that Mr. Harper’s successor, in those heady days after an election and with a mandate for change, might pursue.

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