An expert panel on prorogation was convened on Thursday at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law. The panel featured law professor David Schneiderman, director of Fair Vote Canada Larry Gordon, Globe & Mail correspondent Michael Valpy, and political science professor Simone Chambers, and its goal was to engage in dialogue about Stephen Harper’s second prorogation of Parliament within a year. The panel was organized by Law Students for Democracy, with Camille Labchuk and Daniel Goldbloom hosting and chairing, respectively, the discussion.
There were two fundamental questions that emerged from the debate: 1) is the latest prorogation legal? and 2) if legal, is the prorogation an ethical abuse of power?
It was conceded by all parties (with the exception of Larry Gordon, who spoke exclusively about voting reform) that the prorogation is legal. It is certainly the prerogative of the Prime Minister to ask the Governor-General to prorogue Parliament. Even if it is perhaps against the spirit of the constitution, there is no black-letter law against prorogation.
So if prorogation is legal, is it right? Without explicitly saying as much, the panellists suggested that the answer is No. Both Schneiderman and Valpy pointed out that the prorogation process has been substantively abused only three times since Confederation: by Stephen Harper in 2008 and 2009, and by Sir John A. Macdonald in 1873 to avoid an inquiry into the Pacific Railway scandal. Chambers argued that it’s a matter of degree: while every past prorogation has been for the advantage of the governing party in some capacity, one must examine the degree of partisanship with respect to the reasons claimed for proroguing.
What were Stephen Harper’s reasons for proroguing? Valpy stated the obvious, that all of Harper’s ostensible reasons are disingenuous (see e.g. the Economist critique of Harper’s “recalibration” reason). Schneiderman suggested that the real motivation was that Harper wanted to avoid having to turn over documents related to alleged complicity in Afghan detainee abuse. Schniederman detailed the history of Harper’s misleading claims that his government was legally obliged to keep the documents hidden – claims that were blown out of the water by Parliamentary law clerk Rob Walsh. Schneiderman suggested the possibility that, had he not prorogued, Harper and cabinet could have been forcibly removed from Parliament for not respecting the majority vote to turn over the documents.
Harper’s behaviour, said Schneiderman, is part of a broader agenda to Americanize the Canadian constitution – evidenced by Harper’s insistence on separation of powers between the Judiciary, Parliament, and the “Executive”; also evidenced by Harper’s desire for an elected Senate.
The panel agreed that the Governor-General did the correct thing in 2009 by agreeing to the prorogation. The Governor-General is not expected to interfere with political affairs beyond what is asked of her; her role today is primarily symbolic, and we wouldn’t want her to begin exercising her black-letter prerogative.
There was debate as to whether Parliament could create a statute governing prorogation. Chambers thought that this would require a constitutional amendment, which is very hard to effect practically. Schneiderman said that it might be possible, and a similar problem is playing out in Harper’s proposed Senate reform.
Perhaps the most crucial point came from Chambers. She said that while the 2009 prorogation is technically legal, it is dependent on the citizens to voice outrage at the audacity of Harper proroguing out of such blatant self-interest. The outrage is manifesting itself in the infamous facebook group, the 10-point hit that the Conservatives have taken in the polls, and the planned protests that will occur all over Canada tomorrow.
In short, the prorogation problem is a political one, not legal.