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What’s at stake

Andrew Coyne on why prorogation is an insult to Parliament


Just to reassure anyone who might be in any doubt: I am not actually calling for civil war. What the government has done is not illegal. It is merely wrong: an abuse of process, an insult to Parliament, another step on Parliament’s long slide into irrelevance. Those of us who worried about the precedent set by the last prorogation of convenience, during the coalition crisis a year ago, must now worry about the even worse precedent this sets.

Prorogation the last time sailed close to the wind of unconstitutionality — the government had not actually lost the confidence of the House (as it had in May 2005, when Paul Martin’s government barricaded itself in office for nine days), but was almost certainly about to — but could be justified, perhaps, by reasons of state: namely, to avert the far more destabilizing consequences if the coalition, Bloc and all, had been allowed to seize power. I rather think that’s why the Governor General acceded to it, as the least bad option. I said at the time that she gave the right answer to a question that should never have been asked.

But no such crisis attends the current exercise. The government’s professed rationale, that this is all about economic planning, is obvious bilge: nothing prevents a government from planning and meeting Parliament at the same time, or certainly shouldn’t. The informal justification its supporters are putting about is scarcely better: it may be inconvenient to the government that its appointees do not yet control all Senate committees, but that is no reason to shutter Parliament. It is a motive, not a defense.

So that leaves the obvious. As KDO has explained, the fact that the government is proroguing in December, rather than in late January, suggest this had more to do with shutting down inquiries into the Afghanistan detainee affair than anything else. Is this what we should now expect: governments shutting down Parliament whenever the questioning gets too intense? What will remain of Parliament’s ability, already greatly weakened, to hold governments to account then?

Each time Parliament allows one of these abuses to pass, its power is reduced a little more. Indeed, so diminished has it become that it is hard for some observers to muster much indignation at this latest assault: it’s only Parliament, after all. It’s exactly this sort of whittling away by degrees that has allowed closure, for example, to be invoked more or less routinely to cut of Parliamentary debates, where once it was to be used only in the most extreme circumstances. It was the improper use of closure, recall, that set off the wild, four-week brawl known as the Pipeline Debate. Now, nobody can be bothered.

The time has long since passed for Parliament to take a stand against its own evisceration. The really substantive issue is whether the government will yield to the Commons demand that it produce the Colvin documents, and perhaps that fight can be resumed in March. But proroguing to delay that day of reckoning, possibly in hopes of sneaking through another snap election in the interval, is worthy of some sort of Parliamentary rebuke, which is why the symbolic measure (and it could only be that) of MPs meeting in another place came to mind.

I recognize that Parliament always retains the ultimate sanction of voting no confidence in the government — or at least, on those days that the government will allow it to do so, or deigns to bring forward legislation, or recognizes confidence votes when they occur (see Paul Martin, above). But this is a very blunt instrument. It shouldn’t have to take a vote of non-confidence to get the government to obey basic norms of accountability. I don’t mean only that the government should observe conventions of respect for Parliament, regardless of whether it is conforming to the strict letter of the law. I also mean there should be mechanisms for curbing such abuses, short of dissolving Parliament.

For example, should the power to prorogue rest solely with the Prime Minister (I know, I know: the Governor General, acting on his advice)? Should it not require a vote of Parliament? Might the same rule not also apply to dissolutions?