Look overseas for prorogation lesson
The U.K. can teach Canada the benefits of a predictable practice, PAUL THOMAS writes.
Prorogation has become a hot-button issue in Canada, and is often seen as a tool for the government to avoid parliamentary oversight. Yet at the “mother of all Parliaments” in the United Kingdom, prorogation happens regularly and attracts no protest. The difference is that prorogation in Britain is (1) predictable, happening at roughly the same time each year; (2) final, putting an end to nearly all unfinished business; and (3) brief, lasting just a few days. Together these differences mean that rather than helping the government to avoid Parliament, prorogation in the UK actually provides several benefits to the opposition.
Prorogation refers to the end of one session of Parliament and its suspension until a new session begins. It differs from a recess because those bills and motions that have yet to pass are deemed to have failed and are removed from consideration, no matter how close they might be to becoming law (the only automatic exception is for private members bills). A new session then opens with a throne speech that sets out the government’s agenda, including new bills. In this way prorogation serves as a reset for Parliament, clearing away unfinished business and leaving a largely blank slate for new initiatives.
In the Westminster parliamentary system used in Canada and the UK, the decision to prorogue officially rests with the Queen, or with the Governor General as her representative. In practice, however, it is exercised at the prime minister’s discretion. The prime minister also controls the length of the prorogation, which can vary from a few hours to several months.
In Canada this discretion has recently led to several instances where Parliament was prorogued for an extended period in the midst of intense conflicts between the government and opposition, creating the impression that the government was seeking to sidestep accountability. Earlier this month the government also sought to reduce the impact of the most recent prorogation by seeking to allow a substantial portion of unfinished legislation to continue in the new session.
By contrast, in Britain conventions have developed that place three major limits on the use of prorogation. First, prorogations in the UK happen on an annual basis, no matter what other political developments might be taking place. While the government has some flexibility regarding the exact date, there has been just one non-election year since 1950 where a prorogation was not held, and that was a special exception in 2011 to align the cycle of prorogations with the country’s new fixed election date.
Second, prorogation in the UK produces a clear end to government business, with only a handful of bills continuing from one session to the next. Moreover, bills that do carry over must be identified before a prorogation takes place, and Parliament must approve separate motions for each bill that the government wishes to continue.
Importantly, this combination of regular prorogations and the limited continuation of bills works to strengthen the influence of the opposition. Since the vast majority of government bills must pass within the annual session or lose what progress they had made, the opposition can extract concessions by threatening to delay bills until the session ends. In fact, the convention that legislation must be passed within this limited time has become so entrenched that the current UK government was accused of a “major power grab” when it cancelled the 2011 prorogation as described above.
Finally, convention has also limited the duration of British prorogations to a matter of days, not weeks or months. From 1993 to 2013, average prorogation in the UK lasted just 7.8 days, for a total of 125 days in two decades. In contrast, Canada’s 2008-09 and 2009-10 prorogations continued for 53 and 62 days respectively, meaning that in just two years Canada’s Parliament lost nearly as much time to prorogation as the UK did over two decades. These lost days reduce the influence of Parliament and particularly the opposition since they are a time when the government is not subject to regular scrutiny through question period, committees, or debates.
In place of the current arbitrary and lengthy interruptions, moving to a system of brief, annual prorogations would bring predictability to Parliament and help to strengthen the opposition. The UK government needs only a few days to regroup between sessions even though it presides over a more populous country, manages a larger economy, and handles more policy areas. The UK parliament is also able to pass nearly all of its legislation within one year without needing to carry over bills between sessions. As such, there seems to be little reason why Canada can’t follow its lead. As in the UK, it would only require the commitment of our federal party leaders.