Is prorogation diminishing Canada’s democracy?

Rebekah's picture

An empty House of Commons, where democratic debate has been shut down.In the past year many more Canadians have become familiar with the term prorogation. Parliament was due to resume on January 25, but for the second time in just over a year the government decided to prorogue, killing all bills currently before Parliament, and more importantly shutting down the venue for democratic debate for two months.

The announcement came on December 30, 2009 while many Canadians were preoccupied with holiday celebrations and family commitments. Parliament will reopen with a new session and Speech from the Throne in early March 2009.

Prorogation is a common constitutional option for governments who wish for a new parliamentary session. Often governments will call for a prorogation upon achieving most of their agenda, or after a change in leadership.

This is not the case for the most recent prorogation. Of the 64 bills introduced since the beginning of the past Parliamentary session in January 2009, only 27 have been passed. Many of the uncompleted bills were top priorities of the current government, including tougher crime legislation.

Bills, however, can always be reintroduced and unanimous consent from the House of Commons could restore all the bills to the status they held in the House before prorogation. The real concern generated by this prorogation is the shutting down of democratic debate, both around ongoing and unresolved Parliamentary business as well as new issues as they arise.

Open debate is essential within Canada’s system of governance and democracy. Under a multiparty system, Canadians have the right to vote for parties and individuals that represent their interests and views. As a result, Parliament is composed of a number of different parties with representatives from across the country. These representatives bring with them a variety of perspectives on the issues that matter to Canadians.

As new policy options are introduced in Parliament, representatives can debate, call for amendments and help shape these policies. Without this venue of democratic debate, as is the case in prorogation, the government can proceed without hearing alternative perspectives.

For example, in the first week of 2010 the government decided to install new and controversial scanners in several major Canadian airports. The move is at the centre of a debate between security, personal privacy and human rights violations through profiling. The opposition will eventually have a chance to debate this issue, but not before the scanners are in place.

How many other issues will pass without democratic debate during this prorogation?

At the root of these concerns is another fundamental principle of Canadian democracy – government accountability. Political accountability requires that governments have to answer for their actions and the outcomes of their policies. In Canada’s parliamentary system opposition parties play a critical role in this regard through open debate. However, if no one is there to challenge the government or offer an alternative perspective, where is the accountability to the Canadian people?

Public justice also calls for governments to be accountable, ensuring policies work to promote well-being and just societies. Through this prorogation the government is diminishing the opportunity for active citizen participation in decision making and accountability.

Spokespeople for the government claim the prorogation will give the government more opportunities to refocus on the economic recovery with a fresh start in 2010. As Canadians begin the slow recovery from the recession, questions such as how long the stimulus funding should be maintained and how the deficit should be cut back are at the forefront. However, discussion and planning on such important issues should be open to all Canadian perspectives.

In addition, managing the economy can be done just as easily while Parliament is in session. In fact, during recent months some of the reports released and legislation in progress was about economics and poverty. For example, on December 8 the Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology’s Subcommittee on Cities released a report, In From the Margins: A Call to Action on Poverty, Housing and Homelessness. This report called for extensive government action for poverty reduction and eventually elimination.

Two weeks earlier the House of Commons passed a motion that the government develop an immediate plan for poverty elimination. The Standing Committee on Human Resources and Social Development and the Status of People with Disabilities (HUMA) was approaching completion of a major study on the federal role in reducing poverty. HUMA was also working on Bill C-304 which was introduced last fall calling for the government to develop a national housing strategy, especially concerning affordable housing.

Regardless of the motivations behind proroguing Parliament, it looks like open debate, alternative perspectives and complete government accountability will be on hold for the next two months.

Rebekah Sears is CPJ’s former policy intern.

Comments

Submitted by Dave on
Yes, this proroguing is diminishing Canadian democracy, but in my opinion, it's in a darker more sinister way than the examples in the opinion piece here. The government has directly refused to respect democracy. On December 10th, 2009, <a href='http://www2.parl.gc.ca/HousePublications/Publication.aspx?Mode=1&Pub=hansard&DocId=4313365&File=0&Col=1&Language=E'>Parliament ordered</a> the Government to produce certain documents right away. Some have compared Parliament's Order to a subpoena but is actually far stronger, more like a super-subpoena. In our system, the people's democratic will is expressed through our Members of Parliament and so Parliament is supreme, as we the people, in a democracy, are supreme, instead of kings or dictators. So when Parliament votes an Order, it is law, and must be obeyed. Since Confederation, in 1867, no Canadian Government has ever outright refused to obey a parliamentary order: that would be illegal, and mean the government was placing itself above democracy and above the people's elected representatives, making the government illegitimate. On December 11th, 2009, the current Government announced it would not obey the Parliamentary Order. At that moment, 10:19:15 am EST apparently, the Government became illegitimate, having placed itself above and outside the law (press conference was <a href='http://www.afghanistan.gc.ca/canada-afghanistan/news-nouvelles/2009/2009_12_10a.aspx?lang=eng'>scheduled for 10:15</a> and relevant statement started after <a href='http://www.cbc.ca/video/news/player.html?clipid=1356496043'>4min 15sec</a>). Until the Government obeys the Parliamentary Order, it remains illegitimate. Parliament could do what is needed to enforce the Order, but on December 30, 2009, the Government unexpectedly closed or "prorogued" Parliament until March 3, 2010. So the current Government is refusing to obey the super-subpoena that is a Parliamentary Order. It has closed Parliament and run away. It is breaking the law. The Government is saying it is above democracy and democracy's rules, and as a result, by democracy's standards, the Government is not legitimate: the Government is an outlaw. And every day the Government remains outside the laws of Parliament & democracy, it becomes more illegitimate. I'm trying to start an Internet campaign on this point, and have made a site that people can get HTML code for banners to this effect at: http://www.electionnightincanada.com/

Submitted by Joan Russow on
Yes, and A forgotten prelude to the evading of investigation and to the avoiding of a vote of non-confidence. It should be pointed out also that Harper used the Governor General to dissolve Parliament, in 2008, to avoid the investigation, by the Parliamentary Ethics and Access to Information Committee, into the in-and-out Conservative funding scheme in the 2006 election. Background from 2008 and the dissolution of the Ethics Committee because the Governor General dissolved Parliament and granted Harper an election Harper’s rationale for calling the election was that Parliament was dysfunctional. He deemed that Parliament was dysfunctional because the three opposition parties representing over 66% of the electorate disagreed with his policies. He had presumed that he would be successful in obtaining a majority and thus his policies would then be implemented. While he increased the number of Conservative members he failed to attain a majority government, and thus the Parliament is still dysfunctional. If the dysfunctionality of a minority government was the reason for going to the polls then when he obtained another minority government equally dysfunctional - he should have stepped down and called upon the Governor General to form a Coalition Government. But he didn 't. Why? Was there another reason for calling a quick election? Was it that with an election there would be the dissolution of the Parliamentary Ethics Committee that was investigating the Conservative violation of the Elections Act in the 2006 election? Serious questions arise about the condoning of potentially fraudulent election practices, the reneging of responsibility by the Governor General; the disregarding, by the media, of this issue during the election; and the legitimacy of Harper speaking on behalf of Canada with less than 40% support of the population.. DELIBERATIONS OF THE PARLIAMENTARY ETHICS COMMITTEE IN THE HEARINGS IN AUGUST, 2008 There is not doubt that the public interest would certainly be served by exposing the fraudulent practice used by the Conservatives in the 2006 election. On August 14, 2008, at the Parliamentary Committee, it was revealed that there is sufficient evidence that this practice occurred and that the practice was condoned by the Conservative Party. One Conservative witness even referred to the scheme as being a creative fund-raising scheme benefiting in the long-<RANGE the be on even and Conservative The to have not disregard]. WITNESSES: Chantal Proulx and Don Beardall from the Office of the Public Prosecution of Canada. PAT MARTIN from the NDP raised a serious question about the potential that the case before the Office of the Public Prosecution might not even be resolved before the next election (either before, in 2008, or on the fixed election date in 2009), and that the Conservatives could even adopt the same in-and-out scheme. CONSERVATIVES TRANSFERRED NOT JUST FUNDS BUT EXPENSES WITNESS: Mark Mayrand, Chief Electoral Officer In response to questions asked by various opposition members, Mark Mayrand confirmed that the transfer of funds from the Central Campaign to the Riding Associations, is permitted. What is not permitted is the transfer of expenses of the local candidates campaign. When asked if he had determined if this practice had occurred with other parties during the 2006 election, Marc Mayrand responded: No. CONSERVATIVES EXCEEDED THEIR NATIONAL SPENDING LIMITS BY TRANSFERRING FUNDS TO THE RIDING ASSOCIATIONS. It was pointed out by a Committee member that by passing on expenses to local ridings the Conservative National Election Campaign superseded its national spending limits by 1.3 million. It was also noted that political parties benefit in a number of ways such as issuing tax receipts for donations with tax benefits of up to 76%, paying $1.75 per vote, and providing rebates, of 60% of election expenses, for candidates receiving 10% of the vote. Marc Mayrand indicated that in cases where the expenses were under investigation, rebates had not been made. This point was not clear; it is possible that rebates were made before the investigation was undertaken, and it was not clear whether or not an investigation would result in the re-imbursement of the rebate. CONSERVATIVE CANDIDATES AND OFFICIAL AGENTS WERE WILLING TO SIGN A FALSE EXPENSE FORM Official agents and candidates both sign off and attest that the expenses occurred in the local campaign are at fair market value. Both the Conservative candidates and their agents who are under investigation apparently signed the required documents even though they knew that the expenses were not incurred locally by their campaigns. CONSERVATIVE PARTY DID NOT COMPLY WITH THE ADVERTISING REQUIREMENTS OF FAIR MARKET VALUE It was pointed out that in three adjacent ridings in Toronto, the same ads were recorded, by the Conservative candidates, as costing a different amount. The implications of this are that the expenses were accounted for in relation to the range of spending limits for the candidates. CONSERVATIVE CANDIDATES PROBABLY WOULD NOT HAVE BEEN ABLE TO DEMONSTRATE THAT THE NATIONAL ADS WOULD HAVE BENEFITED THE LOCAL CANDIDATES. Richard Nadeau, Bloc MP, made the distinction between pooling of resources to collectively benefit the candidates, and the practice of in-and-out national campaign ads. Marc Mayrand responded that "it must be sure that it benefits the candidates…" and that "I am not satisfied that all the expenses claimed were of benefit to the candidates.…" CONSERVATIVE CANDIDATES AND AGENTS WERE NOT APPRISED OF THE REGULATION UNDER THE ELECTIONS ACT Ricard Nadeau also raised the issue of the need for proper training of candidates and their agents so that this Conservative practice would never happen again. He proposed that Elections Canada should do this across the country. Marc Mayrand responded that "we hold training sessions regularly throughout the country." He cited the problem of late selection of agents at election time, and that the agents are already overwhelmed. He neglected to mention that there are meetings, of representatives of the registered parties at the Elections Canada office in Ottawa, and that this issue could be raised at that time and all party riding headquarters apprised of the regulation related to expenses. CONSERVATIVES MIGHT BE EMBROILED IN ALL LEVELS OF TAX EVASION BECAUSE OF THE SCHEME Marcel Proulx raised the issue of discrepancy in provincial taxes and that the taxes were not applied before the assessment of GST. This might indicate a problem with the invoices submitted by Retail Media, the agent acting for the National Conservative Ad Campaign. Conservative members of the Committee continually raise issues related to process, rather than recognizing that it is clear that the Conservatives did engage in a widespread way in at least 67 ridings, that this practice was against the Elections Act, and that the Conservatives benefited unfairly in the 2006 election from this practice. TIME FOR THE GOVERNOR GENERAL TO INVOKE ARTICLE V AND REMOVE HARPER AND THE CONSERVATIVES INVOLVED IN THE FRAUDULENT FUNDING SCHEME, FROM OFFICE FOR NEGLIGENCE AND FRAUD Canadians must be prepared to no longer tolerate an unethical government which has engaged in fraudulent practices, evasive techniques, and unscrupulous actions, to govern. How much longer will a compliant Governor General support such practices, techniques and actions? The Governor General has erred thrice in dissolving and proroguing Parliament, (under Article VI) of her Letters Patent. Now she must correctly use her residual powers under Article V to remove Harper and the Conservative MPs benefiting from 2006 in-and-out funding, from office for criminal negligence and for election fraud. It is incumbent upon the Governor General, on January 25 2010 when the Opposition Parties appear at Parliament, to invoke Article VI of the Lettres Patent to summon Parliament, and then call upon the Opposition Parties to govern.

Submitted by Martin D.Geleynse on
Dear Ms Russow, It may be true that the opportunity for parliamentary debate has been killed, but in actual fact what have we lost? I have been watching parliament's sessions for quite a while now and am simply disgusted with the way parliamentarians act. I have not heard much real debate in the sense of exchange of opinions aimed at improvement of what was proposed. The noise in the chamber, the calling and heckling is sickening. We did that as students in our fraternity, but these are representatives of the constituency. I often wonder if the constituents ever listen to what is going on in parliament and how their own representative is behaving. It seems to me that parties are simply not able to live with a minority government, where no party will get its own way and everything is done by compromise and mutual consultation. In such a situation it makes sense to have a real debate and to put all options on the table; to listen to each other and make a sincere effort to reach an solution acceptable, if not to all, certainly to the majority. But in our Canadian situation the conservatives will propose their points of view and the liberals do not listen because it comes from the conservatives so it cannot be acceptable. Just imagine that a liberal member of parliament would dare to propose that there is something good in a conservative proposal. he would be censured by his whip, I'm sure. And if the liberals were in power the conservatives would undoubtedly act the same way. Conclusion: if I was prime-minister I too would be sick of the negative attitude of the opposition and prorogue! Let me add though that real debate is going on in many of the committees and I have found it rather fascinating to listen to discussions held in committees. And as far as that goes: the committees have not been prorogued, have they? Respectfully, Martin D.Geleynse

Submitted by Joan Russow on
If you were also Prime Minister would you have entered into an in and out funding scheme which was clearly in violation of the Elections Act. And when it was being investigated by a parliamentary committee, you advise the 67 impugned MPs not to appear or respect supoenas to appear?. And then would you step down and ask the GG to dissolve parliament, so you could evade an investigation? Or would you avoid a non confidence vote, by asking the GG to prorogue Parliament. Or would you also evade an investigation of Canada's violation of the Convention Against Torture, by again asking the GG to prorogue Parliament? If so, would you not be acting strategically but not ethically, and in the first case, not legally? Under the Elections Act MPs and their agents can be prosecuted for such offences, and as you know there is still and outstanding case, launched by Elections Canada, against the Conservative MPs. He has made a mockery of Canada's Constitution. It is off topic, but Canada has become an international Pariah, by receiving the Colossal Fossil award in Copenhagen, and there is no way of excavating the Alberta oil Sands with public justice!!!!

Submitted by Rebekah on
Martin, You raise a really good point about the quality of debate in the House of Commons. Unfortunately it doesn't always look very productive, and minority governments often make the bickering more intense. It can be very frustrating. But at the same time, it still is the venue for bringing up the issues that matter to Canadians, and many of the issues raised in Question Period get picked up by the media, which allows the ideas to spread further. And more importantly it is a venue where the government has to answer questions about their actions and be held accountable by the opposition. You make a good point about the work of committees as well. I have sat in on a number of committees and the nature of debate often seems more productive. But in the case of prorogation, committees are closed. During Parliamentary breaks, such as during the summer or over Christmas, committees can still meet, but during a prorogation they cannot. They have to start all over again, often with some shifting in the membership, once the new session starts.

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