The spotlight was on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Tuesday as he announced intentions to prorogue Parliament until Sept. 23 — a move that would effectively kill any unfinished business, including bills and committees, ongoing in the current session.
“Today, I have asked the governor general to prorogue Parliament, which must happen before any government can present a throne speech,” he said.
The move comes hours after Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland was sworn in to replace Bill Morneau, becoming the country’s first female finance minister.
Morneau, who had come under fire amid the WE Charity scandal, announced his resignation Monday evening following reports of clashes with Trudeau over coronavirus recovery spending and funding for green initiatives.
Here’s a look at what proroguing Parliament means, and why it matters.
What does it mean to prorogue Parliament?
As stated by the House of Commons procedure and practice, proroguing the government ends the current session. Legislature is prorogued at the Crown’s prerogative by the governor general, based on the advice of the prime minister.
Protocol states that each Parliament is divided into one or more sessions, starting with a Speech from the Throne and ending with the prorogation or dissolution of Parliament.
If Parliament is prorogued, the move kills all bills that have not yet received royal assent, and no committees are allowed to sit during a prorogation.
This will include several committee probes linking to Trudeau and Morneau to the WE Charity scandal.
This includes finance and ethics committee probes, which seek to determine whether the federal government’s decision to award WE Charity with a $900-million contract was influenced by Trudeau and Morneau’s financial and personal ties to the organization.
In order for a bill to be revived after a proroguing period, it needs unanimous consent from the House. If the motion passes, the bill is reinstated at the same stage it had reached before prorogation.
Proroguing does not remove any elected officials, members of the House or parliamentary secretaries from their posts, nor does it strip them of their rights and privileges.
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Prorogation does not affect legislation that has already been passed.
During a press conference Tuesday, Trudeau said, “whether you’re counting on the CERB or EI while you look for work or on the wage subsidy to keep employees on the job, these programs will not be affected by the prorogation.”
What happens when Parliament is back?
Once Parliament is reinstated in September, Trudeau is expected to give a new Speech from the Throne and economic update on how to best move forward with the country’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
After his speech, opposing parties can trigger an election through a non-confidence vote.
Has it happened before?
Laura Stephenson, a Western University professor who specializes in political behaviour, said proroguing Parliament can be a standard practice, often used by political leaders to cancel existing legislation sitting before the House and set a new government agenda.
However, she said proroguing went from a fairly normal practice to one of contention during the early 2000s when it was used by political leaders in order to “strategically prevent certain business from happening.”
“It got a little bit of a different tone to it when it was used in the 2000s when it seemed to be used by a prime minister who wanted to avoid something nasty happening,” she said.
Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper prorogued the government three times between 2008 and 2013.
The reasoning ranged from avoiding a planned non-confidence vote against his new minority government in 2008 to terminating committee hearings over the treatment of Afghan detainees in 2009, The Canadian Press reported.
Former Prime Minister Jean Chretien also prorogued Parliament in 2003 to bypass the tabling of the Auditor-General report into the “Adscam” scandal, which would clear the slate for the next prime minister.
According to the House of Commons, the second session of the 34th Parliament was prorogued for one day in 1991. The next session started a day later.
During the 2015 federal election, the Liberals pledged to refrain from proroguing for political gain, accusing the Conservatives of taking advantage of prorogation to avoid scandal.
“We will not resort to legislative tricks to avoid scrutiny,” their platform read. “Stephen Harper has used prorogation to avoid difficult political circumstances. We will not.”
When asked how his prorogation would differ from his predecessors, Trudeau claimed the Conservatives had prorogued parliament in order to shut it down and avoid a confidence vote.
“We are proroguing parliament to bring it back on exactly the same week it was supposed to come back anyway and force a confidence vote,” he said.
“We are taking a moment to recognize that the throne speech we delivered eight months ago had no mention of COVID-19, had no conception of the reality we find ourselves in right now.”
There have also been provincial prorogues. Last year, Newfoundland and Labrador’s legislature remained closed for two days in April.
In 2016, Ontario prorogued its Parliament for four months, and closed its government again in 2018 in order to “form a more coherent platform.”
Stephenson said it was “an awkward time” to think about Parliament not being in session, particularly because of the turmoil caused by ongoing COVID-19 pandemic
“The bigger question might be what it signals about what Trudeau is thinking about his government and who’s advising him,” she said. “What’s going on, here?”