If you’re not a Canadian, a little background to this will probably help you a bit (and even if you’re Canadian, maybe some of this will be a useful refresher). Please note IANACEOHAINPOTV*, so don’t pillory me for any minor inaccuracies in the following.
- Canada has a parliamentary system of government, where Members of Parliament (MPs) are elected locally to represent the riding you live in.
- The official Head of State is (at time of writing) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II – this being a hold-over from the time when The Dominion of Canada was a British colony, so even though we are now an independent nation (have been for some time), the Canadian Constitution (a relatively recent thing, in fact) still recognizes the Monarch of England as our head of state (as do 15 other sovereign countries in The Commonwealth of Nations). In practical terms, she has no say in the country’s affairs, except through the powers and duties which are exercised on her behalf by the viceregal representative to Canada, The Governor General (currently Her Excellency the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean).
- The Government of Canada is (generally, although not necessarily) is formed by the political party holding the most seats in the House of Commons (er, that is to say having the most elected MPs sitting in Parliament). The leader of said party is (by convention) asked by the Governor General to become the Queen’s Prime Minister (PM) and lead the government. This is in contrast to the republican form of government, where the Head of State is elected directly (usually with the title “President”).
- In contrast to the President of a republic, who is elected by receiving a clear majority** of the public’s votes in the election, the Government of Canada can be formed without a clear majority – that is, where the governing party does not have more than 50% of the seats, just more than any other single party***. That’s the situation we are currently in, with a minority government formed by the Conservative Party of Canada, led by The Right Honourable† Stephen Harper.
- A minority government in the parliamentary system generally has to “play nice” with the other parties and make compromises in the legislation they bring forward, since they otherwise risk losing when it’s voted on by the House of Commons. Some legislation, budgets for example, are considered a matter of confidence that the government is capable of, well, governing. Losing the vote in that case results in the government falling, Parliament being dissolved and an election called.
OK, so what this is all leading up to is the subject of prorogation. Until Stephen Harper first asked the Governor General to prorogue Parliament in December 2008, most Canadians had never heard of the process before. His minority government was very likely going to fall on a confidence vote (since he wasn’t “playing nice” and instead was acting as if he had a majority) over a fiscal update. A coalition of the Liberal Party and the New Democratic Party, with the support of the Bloc Québécois party, was prepared to defeat the fiscal update and form the government. Proroguing Parliament put a stop to this, as well as killing a number of pieces of unrelated legislation.
Ultimately, Parliament resumed after the period of prorogation ended, the Conservative Party managed to survive (through machinations I won’t go into here) and the government got on with business.
Which brings us to the second prorogation of the current session of Parliament, in December 2009. This time, the precipitating factor appears to be Stephen Harper’s reluctance to have his government’s role in the Aghan detainee issue reported to the Canadian public by a House of Commons Special Committee investigating the matter.
According to a statement by Harper’s spokesman Dimitri Soudas, the purpose of the second prorogation was to allow the government to:
…consult with Canadians, stakeholders and businesses as it moves into the “next phase” of its economic action plan amid signs of economic recovery.
The comments on a recent Maclean’s on-line poll seem to suggest the public sentiment is that there are more pressing issues for the government and Parliament to deal with than that. And the results of the poll (as of writing this) would indicate that Canadians are clearly bothered by this abuse of power and the democratic process by the government.
By the way, for a humorous, satirical look at the procedural advantages The Government has over The Opposition in the Canadian Parliament, I recommend reading the Leacock Medal winning novel The Best Laid Plans by author (and much more) Terry Fallis.
There has also been widespread speculation that the timing of the second prorogation at the end of December was carefully orchestrated by Stephen Harper to coincide with the distractions of the holiday season, the announcement of the Canadian men’s Olympic hockey team lineup and the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics – a classic “bread and circuses” move.
There have been a number of public protests to the prorogation, using Social Media tools to organize them. There’s a Facebook group called Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament (CAPP) which has garnered over 200,000 members; as well there’s the No Prorogue! website – the latter is, in fact, the reason for this somewhat rambling post.
Rallies to protest the prorogation across Canada on Saturday January 23, 2010 were planned and coordinated through the No Prorogue! site, and I was able to attend part of the local rally in Guelph. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to stay to hear all the speeches (or, sadly, to partake of the perogies being served – the theme of the rally being “Perogies Not Proroguing”) – in addition to the rally organizers and local labour organization representatives, our local Liberal MP, Frank Valeriote, was there to speak to the crowd.
Here are a couple of photos I took of the rally organizer speaking and the assembled crowd (taken with my cellphone camera – they’re a bit grainy as it only has VGA resolution) – I estimated attendance at a roughly couple of hundred people:
The leader of the Liberal Party, Michael Ignatieff, has made it clear that Liberal MPs will be back on Parliament Hill and at work on January 25, 2010 (the date when Parliament was scheduled to resume sitting after the recess of the holidays) – unlike the Conservatives who will be, as put so succinctly by Canadian political satirist (also TV personality, comedian, author, blogger and a hell of a nice guy…) Rick Mercer, taking “Days of Snow Days“.
Well, that’s already quite a bit more than I had originally intended on writing about my outing to the No Prorogue! rally, so I’m going to prorogue this post… :)
Let me know in the comments how you feel about PM Stephen Harper’s record of serial prorogation.
*I am not a constitutional expert or historian and I never played one on TV
***There is, of course, the possibility, when there is no party with a majority, for two or more parties to form a coalition in order to become the government by pooling their seats to total more than the single party with greatest number of seats. This tends to make for “strange bedfellows” and often results in an unstable, short-lived government.
†That’s the official form of address (for life) for all who serve as the Prime Minister of Canada, certainly not an assessment of character on my part.