Is there anything inherently wrong with proroguing Parliament? No, of course not. But that’s not really the question.
Is it wrong for the Prime Minister to desire, now two years into his government’s most recent mandate and with most of its legislation passed through Parliament, to begin a new session with a Throne Speech that will lay out an agenda for the next two years? No, of course not. But that’s not the relevant question here either.
The relevant question, instead, is this: When will the House of Commons be recalled? And, if the answer to that question is anything other than September 16, as scheduled, the next question is this: How does the Prime Minister justify putting off the return of Parliament?
That prorogation is now a rather fraught exercise is almost entirely the result of the actions of Mr. Harper (with an assist from Dalton McGuinty). Having used it to avoid a confidence vote in 2008 and having scuttled a committee investigation of the treatment of Afghan detainees when he asked the Governor General to prorogue Parliament in 2009, Mr. Harper made prorogation a focus of debate and suspicion. Personally, I applaud his efforts to raise public awareness for the workings of Parliament—and selflessly expending his own political capital to do so. From here on, every use of prorogation will be subjected to a new level of scrutiny and perhaps never again will a Prime Minister, or Premier, be able to think about proroguing the House without considering how they will explain the move to a public that has seen the measure exploited for purely partisan reasons. For that, we should thank the Prime Minister.
If, as he suggested, Mr. Harper prorogues Parliament before this fall, it will at least be less obviously problematic than the last two times he’s done so. He won’t be doing it to avoid a confidence vote and he won’t be killing a problematic investigation.
That leaves only the details to explain.
In his comments this week, the Prime Minister suggested the House would be recalled for October. October is a lovely month in the capital, for sure, but the House is currently scheduled to return September 16. According to the Globe’s sources, the House is likely to now be recalled for a Throne Speech after Thanksgiving. That would eliminate 20 sitting days from the current schedule. As I noted last month, that could mean—depending on precisely when Parliament returns and whether any days are added—a parliamentary year of 105 days, the shortest non-election year since 1968.
Is that a problem? I suppose your answer to that question depends on how you feel about the basic principles and practices of parliamentary democracy and how inclined you are to think poorly of the Prime Minister’s decisions.
Is there an alternative? Of course. The Prime Minister could plan instead to wander over to Rideau Hall on September 15, ask the Governor General to prorogue Parliament and, in the next breath, ask David Johnston to recall Parliament for the next day. In theory, I suppose, he could walk over to Rideau Hall on the morning of September 16 and have Parliament prorogued and recalled in the space of five seconds (give or take the time necessary for the Governor General to do whatever he has to do to make these things official). Or, if he insisted on not returning for September 16, he could propose that Parliament return a few days later, but sit the same number of days longer before the end of the year.
Is there an explanation for extending Parliament’s summer break and eliminating 20 sitting days? There should probably be at least an attempt to provide one. And that explanation should be held up to scrutiny. A full year ago, the Prime Minister suggested he would seek to establish a new session of Parliament at the midway point of his mandate, so this moment has not just suddenly arrived. Was it somehow impossible all along for the Prime Minister to avoid delaying the return of Parliament and eliminating 20 sitting days? I confess I don’t see how.
As it is, it’s not particularly clear why 20 sitting days would be eliminated. And, at the very least, we should probably not be casually casting such days aside. If Parliament is to mean something, whether or not it is actually sitting would seem to be of rather primary importance.