Ottawa Citizen

Look overseas for prorogatio­n lesson

The U.K. can teach Canada the benefits of a predictabl­e practice, PAUL THOMAS writes.

- Paul Thomas is a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholar and PhD Student in Canadian and Comparativ­e Politics at the University of Toronto. He formerly worked at the Canadian Parliament and in government relations in the UK.

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.

 ?? GEOFF PUGH/AFP/GETTY IMAGES ?? Peers look on during the State Opening of Parliament in the United Kingdom earlier this year. Prorogatio­n in Britain is regular and accepted, thanks to different rules that make it less of a political tool and more of a way to speed up business in...
GEOFF PUGH/AFP/GETTY IMAGES Peers look on during the State Opening of Parliament in the United Kingdom earlier this year. Prorogatio­n in Britain is regular and accepted, thanks to different rules that make it less of a political tool and more of a way to speed up business in...

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