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Jeffrey Feldman

Jeffrey Feldman

Posted: December 4, 2008 06:18 PM

Oy, Canada! Conservative PM Uses Rare Act To Suspend Parliament


If you think the economic crisis is putting strain on the American government, go stand on your back porch and look at what happened, today, in Canada.  With the fiscal situation worsening up North, the current Prime Minister has gone rogue -- or rather 'prorogue.'

OK, just in case you were wondering,  'prorogue' is not the name of a new X-Men character or some newfangled baldness prevention cream.  It is a particular condition of a commonwealth parliamentary government and it has everyone north of the border on the edge of their seats wondering about the fate of their country.

Let's start off with the actual news, after which we will try to figure out what it means.  This is the most recent report on the Canadian prorogation crisis as reported by the CBC (and...just so nobody is forced to embarrass themselves by asking, Steven Harper is the Prime Minister of Canada):

Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean has granted a request from Stephen Harper to suspend Parliament until late next month, a move that avoids a confidence vote set for Monday that could have toppled his minority government.

"Following my advice, the Governor General has agreed to prorogue Parliament," Harper said outside Rideau Hall after a 2.5-hour meeting with Jean.

Harper would not reveal the content of the discussion, citing constitutional traditions, but he said the first order of business when Parliament resumes on Jan. 26 will be the presentation of the federal budget, to be delivered the following day.

"The economy is the priority now, and the public is very frustrated with the situation in Parliament. We're all responsible for that," Harper said in French.

Monday's no-confidence vote could have precipitated the rise of a proposed Liberal-NDP coalition, supported by the Bloc Quebecois, or could have resulted in another election, depending on the Governor General's response.  (link)

Suspend parliament until late next month--goodness. Has this ever happened before?  Well, it has happened before in England--in 1628 when King Charles I gave a prorogation speech and dissolved parliament.  

Yep, 1628.  Getting the picture, now?

OK, now take a big sip of coffee and prepare for some Canadian civics 101 (yawn...OK, I'm ready).

The technical definition of 'prorogue' is as follows:

To suspend (parliament) without dissolving it. (link)

Uh...thanks Mr. Webster, but that is not very helpful.  Here is what the open source Wikipedia says about 'prorogation,' preceded first by a quick intro to how a parliamentary session generally works in a commonwealth system:

In Commonwealth realms, each session begins with a speech from the throne and a pro forma bill to allow the Parliament to deviate from that speech. Sessions can thereafter last from a few weeks to over a year. Between two elections, there are usually anywhere from one to six sessions of parliament.

Bills are numbered within each session and they expire if they do not become law by the time the session ends. In Canada, for example, each session's government House bills are numbered from C-2 to C-200 and when a new session starts, the first new bill is numbered C-2 again.

OK, that makes sense, and on a personal note:  I like any definition that manages to use the word 'realm.'  So, a parliamentary system in a commonwealth takes place under the symbolic authority of the crown, but in reality the legislators use a quick maneuver allowing them to do what they want. Still, individual sessions of parliament cover a specific agenda, and when that agenda is over, the session ends and a new one begins. Sounds nice and tidy. Let's keep reading:

Historically, sessions would run for several months continuously and be followed by a prorogation of several months when members of parliament would spend time in their home constituencies. This pattern has become less necessary in modern times; transportation and communication technology make it easy for members to return home for short visits throughout each session. It is not uncommon for a session of parliament to be put into recess during holidays and then resumed a few weeks later exactly where it left off. Governments today end sessions whenever it is most convenient, and often, a new session will begin on the same day that the previous session ended.

Ah! So 'prorogation' is actually a kind of normal thing or was a normal thing back in horse and buggy times.  It simply meant the period between a session of parliament, but within the same electoral period. And--here's the crucial point--once parliament is prorogued, as opposed to being put on temporary recess, the session and all it's remaining bills and motions were thereby annulled, which made sense at one time to do when the agenda was complete.

Well, what happened today in Canada--not unlike 1628 England--was not an ordinary prorogation, but a strategic prorogation sent down by the Governor General of Canada, Michaelle Jean, at the request of Conservative Prime minister, Stephen Harper, specifically to head off a direct challenge by a Left coalition--after only two weeks of the current session of parliament.  Two weeks--that's it. 

By requesting prorogation in this unprecedented way, Harper successfully headed off a challenge that would have brought down his government at a time when more and more Canadians seemed to be blaming the Conservative Party for the nation's economic woes. 

All of this drama came about on the eve of a no confidence vote that was to be put to Mr. Harper's government this Monday.  The amazing circumstances that brought about the no confidence vote was a coalition of two parties--the Liberal Party and the New Democratic Party--with non coalition support from the Bloc Quebecois. 

What set the whole crisis off was the economic crisis in Canada.  Specifically, last week (Nov 27) the Finance Minister of the Conservative Party delivered a dire 2008 fiscal update to the Canadian House of Commons.  In the update, he proposed a series of spending cuts that enraged just about everybody else in the Canadian government.  The updated included proposals to "suspend the right of public employees to strike until 2011, sell off crown assets to raise capital, and eliminate political party subsidies, in which parties receive $1.95 for each vote they win" (link). 

Well, yep, that would get the other parties upset.  But more than that, the Conservative fiscal proposal was widely lambasted as a recipe for tipping Canada into a broad scale economic tailspin.  And since the Harper government controlled only a minority of the seats in Parliament as a result of the last federal election (Oct 14, 2008--in case you missed it), the opposition to his fiscal report was enough to set in motion the LP-NDP coalition.  With the main Conservative stronghold in Ontario, it seems that the rest of the Canadian provinces would not mind seeing Harper exit stage right--or stage left, as the case may be.

So, as bad as it may seem down here--with every investment bank on earth and the Big 3 to boot busking for change in the halls of Congress--at least the demoralized Republican Party still shows up for session. Canadian conservatives, on the other hand...they've have gone prorogue.

(cross posted from Frameshop)

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