A Brief History of Prorogation

If you find yourself at a really lame party this weekend where everyone is asking “what the hell is going on in Ottawa right now,” here’s a handy primer so you can look both smart and horrifically nerdy.

We now know the Harper government is proroguing Parliament, which means they’re basically shutting everything down and starting fresh in the fall with a new agenda. The question is whether this is a sleazy move to run away from the Senate controversy.

(Spoiler: it’s not, but that’s a reasonable misunderstanding.)

Here’s how prorogation came to be a bad word: In late 2008 the Harper government was on the brink of being brought down and replaced by a Liberal-NDP-Bloc Quebecois coalition government lead by Stephan Dion in a series of events that will keep alternate-reality fiction writers busy for years.

Harper saved his government when he convinced the Governor General to prorogue/shut down Parliament until early 2009. A combination of the Conservatives giving in to demands and the Liberals losing their nerve meant the coalition government never came to pass. (Which is too bad from a reporter point of view because covering those three parties trying to work together would have been crazy fun.)

So a year later Harper prorogues again, and this time it completely blows up in his face. Harper said the reason for prorogation was so that Canadians could enjoy the Vancouver Olympics. The opposition said it was to avoid criticism over the Afghan detainee controversy.

This put the Conservatives on uncharacteristically poor footing. While they usually reduce issues down to simple messages (think “Jobs, growth and long-term prosperity”) to repeat ad nauseum, they were now stuck defending an obscure procedure few were familiar with. Worse, the opposition had a devastatingly simple attack line: the government is shutting down Parliament to run away from criticism.

In his book Harperland, Lawrence Martin writes that Harper himself was skeptical of proroguing in 2009, but was persuaded by his advisers to use it since it worked so well the first time. Whether this is true or just Harper staffers trying to mythologize their boss’s instincts, it was clearly a major misstep.

The thing is, prorogation is pretty routine. It’s only the way it was used in 2008 and 2009 that was so unusual (though certainly not unprecedented. Even Sir John A. MacDonald shut down Parliament to avoid some, er, unpleasantness.)

We’ve known this has been coming for months. The legislative agenda had already dried up in the spring as the government made a final push to pass bills before the summer break. This means plans for prorogation were in the work before Senate expenses became front-page news.

So in short: prorogation is a tool that can and has been used by governments to run away from trouble. But usually it’s a routine procedure and that’s true in this case. While it does give the Conservatives the added benefit of not recalling the Senate for a while, I suspect the air of scandal will be there, waiting, whenever they return.