Tom Slee on the Proroguing of Parliament

by Henry Farrell on January 27, 2010

Weird stuff happening in Canadian politics, where last month prime minister Stephen Harper prorogued (suspended) Parliament until the beginning of March. Not knowing much about the background, I asked Tom Slee (author of the excellent blog “Whimsley”: and the even more excellent lefty game theory primer “No-One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart”: ) if he could provide some background. Tom’s timeline of what happened when is below.

[Tom Slee]

Sixty separate demonstrations around the country is not bad for January. It’s certainly more than anyone expected a few weeks ago when Stephen Harper closed down the parliament. So here, for those few of you not completely up to date with the latest developments in Canada, is a short prorogue timeline.

Nov 17. Diplomat Richard Colvin undiplomatically accuses the government of complicity in the torture of Afghan detainees: “The likelihood is that all the Afghans we handed over [to the Afghanistan security forces] were tortured.” Calls for a public inquiry are heard.

Nov 18. Defence Minister Peter MacKay expertly smooths everything over: Richard Colvin is relying on the words “of people who throw acid into the faces of schoolchildren”, and nobody in the government knew nuffin about no torture.

Dec 16. Except of course they did. And a 16 page letter by Colvin (PDF) takes 17 separate accusations made against him and does a number on them. Oops.

Dec 21. Oh yes, and Peter MacKay actually met with the Red Cross to talk about torture in 2006. Oops again.

Meanwhile, in the PMO. Stephen Harper remembers that just a year ago he got his minority government out of a scrape by shutting down parliament to avoid a no-confidence vote, and it worked pretty damn well.

So, Dec 30. Stephen Harper extends parliament’s Christmas break through to March, ostensibly so everyone can enjoy the luge and the cross-country skiing in Vancouver. The committee on Afghanistan is shut down, and for the second time in a year searches for the ugly word “prorogue” spike.

Early Jan. In an outbreak of slacktivism, thousands of people join the Facebook group Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament, who also have one of those old-fashioned website things here. The media, always happy for a story that keeps them from going outside in January, meticulously chart the climbing Facebook numbers until they top 200,000, and a set of protests around the country is scheduled for Jan 23, when MPs would usually be packing their bags to get back to their benches. In smaller countries, organizing a big rally in the capital city may make sense, but whose going to book a flight to Ottawa on short notice? So it’s going to be smaller protests, done locally.

Jan 23. 60 separate demonstrations [map], not counting the one-woman protest in Oman, and about 30,000 people in the streets, which is not bad for a movement with no coherent voice, no structure, and no recognizable public face. Reports described the protests as “organized on Facebook” [CBC]. There’s no doubt that many of the organizers were young’uns who naturally use Facebook, and the rapid growth of the group was an early sign of fertile grounds – an indicator that there was sentiment worth picking up on. Yet the rallies themselves seem to have skewed much older than the organizers, and it’s likely that in the end many people who turned out did so because the mass media picked up on the story and then more traditional networks like Liberal, NDP and Green Party riding associations (and the Bloc in Quebec) and religious groups got their members out. If there is anything that Mr. Harper can be happy about, it’s that the talk is all of the act of shutting down parliament, and not so much of the Afghanistan torture scandal that started it all off.

Jan 24. There’s a second wave group started, and the next week or two will probably decide whether this was a winter blip or the beginning of something bigger. It may be that the difficulties of organizing across Canada in winter will let Mr. Harper off the hook. But there’s also just a chance that Saturday’s success will lead to something bigger, and that would be a lot more exciting than the cross-country skiing.



John Quiggin 01.27.10 at 8:21 am

This is a minority government, right? Surely at this point, the other parties should be getting their act together to put up an alternative, then demanding that Parliament be recalled for a no-confidence vote. Sometimes, I despair totally of the left (or maybe I should call it nonright)


dsquared 01.27.10 at 9:27 am

Surely at this point, the other parties should be getting their act together

One of them is led by Michael Ignatieff, whose thirst for democracy and deep moral courage appear to consistently desert him when the issue at hand involves taking risks with his own political career, rather than writing propaganda for wars that other people will fight.


Scott Martens 01.27.10 at 9:28 am

John, the main reason this doesn’t happen is that polling suggests a new election would lead to, at best, another Tory minority government and possibly a narrow Tory majority. But your despair of the left is well founded – a sizable part of the problem is Michael Ignatieff and his total lack of vision, appeal, policies, meaningfully different stands from the government and, IMO, balls. The NDP and the Bloc would probably be happy to bring the government down – they have benefited from anti-government opinion much more than the Grits.

This proroguing nonsense is an unprincipled extension of the power of the executive over the parliament. To use it to prevent an unwanted and possibly destabilizing election is perhaps defensible (barely), but to use it in order to protect the government from the oversight of the Parliament it’s responsible to is a manifest breach of the democratic order of the system. The Governor-General should have used what little power she has to refuse. This is what we get when we appoint heads of state from the CBC instead of political office.


No one 01.27.10 at 9:32 am

I’m not from Canada, but I think one problem is the Parti Quebecois, which is a difficult party to work with for all other parties. But I could be wrong….?

Coming from a Westminster system myself, I find this bizarre as well. As I understand it, Harper insists that while the opposition can bring down the govt, they have no ‘legitimacy’ to form a govt themselves. No one else I know holds such a view.

One problem is that there is confusion about exactly what the head of state’s role is. (In Canada this is the Queen’s representative, the Governor-General). Again, as I understand it, the GG is meant to follow the advice of whomever holds the confidence of the house (ie., enjoys the support of a majority of the legislature). Where this is not clear, it ought to be up to the political parties themselves to work this out between them; but it should also mean the GG cannot follow the advice of Harper either until he can demonstrate he does have support from a majority of the legislature.

So Harper’s stance is also constitutionally damaging, in that he’s putting the GG in a very awkward position. On the one hand, if she agrees to Harper’s advice she will be accused of pandering to him; on the other hand, if she refuses, she will be accused of being partisan etc.

If the convention were clear–ie., that the GG acts on the advice of the minister who has the support of a majority, the GG ought to be able to reject Harper’s ‘advice’ and ask for evidence that he does actually have the support of the Canadian legislature.

but maybe this is too technocratic.


bigcitylib 01.27.10 at 11:57 am

I don’t know why being launched on Facebook means younguns. I’ve been living and working online since 1994, and many of the people I know who went to the protests (I was at the one in Toronto) are the same 30/40/50 somethings I know from on-line.

You are right, though about the parties (esp NDP) getting their people out as well.


Chris Hanretty 01.27.10 at 12:20 pm

What’s the Governor-General’s role in all this? Surely she might choose to refuse the prorogue request if Harper is gorging himself on it over-much?


Barry 01.27.10 at 12:33 pm

This is interesting, because while it’s a truism that presidential systems tend to accumulate power in the president, I’ve never heard of something like this in a parliamentary system (probably due to my ignorance).

What can Harper do while parliament is ‘on vacation’? Could he potentially extend this to a year? Years?


tomslee 01.27.10 at 12:37 pm

” Surely at this point, the other parties should be getting their act together to put up an alternative”

In addition to the usual problems assembling a coalition, it’s politically tricky for the Bloc to take part in the government of a country it doesn’t really believe in. Still, twelve months ago they just about scrabbled one together as the conservatives were suffering for their handling of the economic crisis. But prorogue-the-first managed to postpone the no-confidence vote long enough that the already-dead-duck leader of the Liberals got replaced by Iggy and things fell apart.


tomslee 01.27.10 at 12:53 pm

@Chris Hanretty – In principle yes she could. In practice, she has the power to actually do things only so long as she doesn’t actually do them, so I suspect she doesn’t have much choice here.


Jacob T. Levy 01.27.10 at 1:01 pm

The Bloc Quebecois is the party that sits in Ottawa; the Parti Quebecois is an in-province-only part that sits in the Quebec National [=provincial] Assembly.

The Bloc would indeed be an awkward player in any coalition government– but a minority government can exist at its sufferance. When Harper “just a year ago he got his minority government out of a scrape by shutting down parliament to avoid a no-confidence vote,” that was the bullet he dodged: a Liberal- NDP coalition with the parliamentary support of the Bloc. During the break, two things happened: Ignatieff replaced Stephane Dion (who had negotiated the coalition agreement) as head of the Liberals, and Harper ran a very effective PR campaign on the idea that a coalition with “socialists and secessionists” was unacceptable, and so was a Liberal government when the Liberals had “lost” the election just passed (= had lost a good many seats, while Harper had gained enough seats to forget that he still didn’t have a majority), and so was a new government without a new election (though arguably his minority government wasn’t yet really the government, not having passed a confidence test).

The “no coalition with the socialists or secessionists” campaign may have spooked Ignatieff, though we also have some reason to think that he just preferred to bide his time for a new election and a majority mandate on his own. It also poisoned the well in relations between Quebec and the Tories, and to some degree between Quebec and Ottawa as such or western Canada as such


Jacob T. Levy 01.27.10 at 1:09 pm

Seems to me that the GG had relatively little choice under current norms but to agree to the second proroguing; until there are statutes or constitutional conventions differentiating minority from majority governments, the PM’s ability to determine when Parliament sits over the course of a mandate is clear enough. The first was much different– again, it just wasn’t clear that Harper’s government yet fully counted as the government, and the interregnum when a new government hasn’t formed or crystallized is when the head of state in a parliamentary system must sometimes make non-figurehead decisions.


mds 01.27.10 at 1:39 pm

Yeah, the time to push back and request someone else to have a try at forming a government was the last prorogation. It was noted at the time that the Governer General probably had leeway to choose between options, which is why Harper put together a dog-and-pony show to make his case. This time, the GG was notified via breezy phone call, such was Harper’s confidence. Now, the popular pushback needs to be greater on this one. The PM supposedly works for Parliament, and dissolving it because it’s investigating wrongdoing by his government should have crossed the line. Then again, we’re talking about someone who successfully demagogued against “socialists and secessionists” after forming his first government with the support of the Bloc. And another election might actually give the Tories a slight majority, even as they’ve turned a large surplus into an even larger debt, and only have engaged in effective recessionary stimulus because the other parties threatened them into it. So perhaps Canadians deserve their own George W. Bush-style constitution-shredding corporatist thug. Because being rewarded at the polls for demonstrated contempt for the electorate isn’t going to make Harper behave better.


One of them is led by Michael Ignatieff

Yet again, the Grits manage to blow it. You know what would be handy as a minority government wobbles because it’s trying to cover up what it knew about torture? Not having a party leader who’s okay with torture and going to war under false pretenses.


jacob 01.27.10 at 2:36 pm

As I read it, there’s no coalition talk this time because Ignatieff wouldn’t benefit from one. He can’t win an election, so the best he can do is be Opposition Leader, a position that suits him more that the ignominy that would follow yet another lost election. (He notes what happened to his predecessor, Stephane Dion, after Dion lost an election: he was summarily dismissed by his party, before the official leadership campaign, and replaced with Ignatieff.) To be somewhat kinder to Iggy, he thinks that the longer he waits before forcing an election, the better he’ll do when it finally comes; he thinks (perhaps correctly) that the longer this drags on, the more rope he’s handing to Harper to hang himself with. I also Ignatieff–given his past pro-torture, pro-war views–knows he can’t very well force an election based on the Afghanistan torture probe, which will only highlight his own pusillanimity. If he’s going to take down the government, he has to do it on an issue that will make him and the Liberals look good.

Ignatieff scuttled the last coalition because the NDP would have been the winner in that scenario, not the Liberals. They’d be in government for the first time and and could get some of their platform through Parliament. Moreover, with the NDP in government, the Liberals would have lost their “strategic voting” bludgeon against it, since the Libs could no longer claim that the NDP weren’t a viable party.


Ben Alpers 01.27.10 at 3:10 pm

Seems like an awful lot of bother. Here in the U.S., the entire political class simply avoids calling torture “torture,” creates bully-pulpits for Liz Cheney and others who can explain the necessity of torture (that we didn’t commit, of course), declares that having any official accounting of (let alone accountability for) the recent past would be a partisan witchhunt, and then whisks the whole issue down the memory hole.

Obviously the mistake Canada has made is having semi-functioning opposition parties that are willing, at least occasionally, to actually challenge the foreign policy assumptions and actions of their political opponents.


Trevor 01.27.10 at 3:35 pm

The opposition parties don’t need to get their act together to force a confidence vote since the government will open the next session of parliament with a throne speech and a budget – both of which are confidence measures. Nobody has suggested voting against the throne speech if it doesn’t announce a public inquiry into the Afghan allegations (which are, essentially, that the Conservatives were too slow to amend the flawed Liberal policy of transferring detainees to the Afghan authorities with no Canadian oversight). Also, many people just seem annoyed that politicians are taking an Olympic holiday, rather than worrying about the committee hearings…


marcel 01.27.10 at 4:04 pm

Inquiring minds want to know where the Olympics play in all this? Have they been prorogued too, or are they playing the role of circuses in bread and circuses.


RAD 01.27.10 at 4:26 pm

As a Canadian and fiscal/libertarian conservative I was delighted to see Tom’s post about the proroguing parliament protests. The images reminded me that I have some things I need to pick up at Shoppers Drug Mart (thanks, Tom).

I’ve also never heard the word “prorogue” used in normal conversation so I’m not exactly sure how to pronounce it. I keep thinking of it in terms of a chant at a hockey game: LETS-GO-PRO-ROGUE. I’m hoping it will catch on at the upcoming Winter Olympics.

Other than shopping list reminders and hockey chants I don’t think there is much going on. Canadians are sick of elections. Canadians also hate the idea of a new government based on a coalition (been-there-almost-did-that and there will be hell to pay if someone tries that stunt again).

The current government is surprisingly functional despite its minority standing and lack of a coalition partner. The current equilibrium seems to be better than any alternative at the moment and all the federal parties seem to have lost a bit of their smugness. They are all paying attention to the electorate which is exactly as it should be.


Randy 01.27.10 at 4:37 pm

Marcel @13

One of the reasons given for the prorogation is that it allows the MPs to go to Vancouver and enjoy the Olympics.

For the rest of us, not so much.


Jeff R. 01.27.10 at 7:22 pm

marcel: the proroguation has the effect of preventing Parliament from taking any action with regard to the Women’s Ski Jump business, which, depending on how you think that they and/or the IOC might have played their hands, could have at least conceivably led to an even worse disaster for the administration than the Afghan hearings


jacob 01.27.10 at 7:31 pm

@13: Who cares? No Olympics on Stolen Native Land!

I kid. Kinda.


Mitchell Rowe 01.27.10 at 8:21 pm

Actually polling shows Canadians to be divided on the issue. Also, whatever you may think of the idea, there is no arguing that the proposed coalition would have represented a high portion of Canadians than the conservative government and would have been completely legal under the Westminster system of gov’t. The GG should have refused Harper’s request to prorogue. She set a horrible precedent.


nick s 01.27.10 at 8:27 pm

President-in-his-own-mind Harper and the IOC make for a pretty good match when it comes to democracy and dissent.

One for Canadians: it seems, from the bits I’ve read and heard about Colvin, that there’s a base respect for senior career civil servants and diplomats that isn’t generally found south of the border, and that he’s probably going to get a fair hearing in spite of the spittle from the more rabid Harperites that he ought to be hanged as a traitor.

Still, it’s an example of Canadian tolerance: i.e. putting up with a governing party that a substantial majority of the electorate neither chose nor likes very much, because the alternative would be something that nobody chose, not even the voters for the Grits, NDP and BQ.


RAD 01.27.10 at 9:33 pm

Mitchell Rowe:

I’m sorry, I must have missed the poll that claimed that Canadians were somewhat OK with Stephane Dion, who had already announced his resignation as leader of the Liberals, becoming Prime Minister.

I just assumed that the immediate appointment of Michael Ignatieff as new Liberal leader (without a leadership race even) and the dissolution of the coalition was a hint that the move was unpopular. I guess Lack Layton was misreading the mood of the electorate when the NDP later voted with the government rather than force an election. I always suspected that Layton and Harper really do see eye to eye on most issues.

That silly raw seal heart eating Governor General, its all her fault!!! If she didn’t OK the delay of the no-confidence vote then…. well, ummmmm, people wouldn’t have lost their senses. Yeah, thats it. People lost their senses.


Kim 01.27.10 at 11:05 pm

marcel, that’s a good question, yes, it’s the circus part of the equation. The whole thing has many British Columbians angry about billions in cost overruns, a provincial government that is willing to slash healthcare and public education, the lowest minimum wage in Canada, the highest rate of child poverty, the least affordable housing market in Canada, possibly the commonwealth. The city of Vancouver got to vote on the games, but the rest of the province, (and Canadian taxpayers in general)

Also at issue is the loss of freedom of expression, of the press, of peoples right to voice dissent in public, and in their own homes. Vancouver has a bylaw where the police can enter your house to take down a sign. Corruption in the police forces is rampant, and unscrutinized, journalists and activists have been harrassed by police and the corporate media (highly concentrated in ownership, by conservatives) berate us daily now to lay back and think of the Queen. And for God’s sake, smile!


Kim 01.27.10 at 11:07 pm

sorry, I forgot to finish my sentence

(and Canadian taxpayers in general), did not get to vote.


Kenny Easwaran 01.27.10 at 11:28 pm

I just realized something – isn’t the governor general Haitian? Has this played any role in the Canadian response to the Haiti earthquake? Might it be plausible that the Haiti earthquake has taken up more of her time and duties than keeping track of what Parliament and the PM are up to? I really don’t know about any of these things.


Substance McGravitas 01.27.10 at 11:46 pm

I just realized something – isn’t the governor general Haitian? Has this played any role in the Canadian response to the Haiti earthquake?


So, Dec 30. Stephen Harper extends parliament’s Christmas break

and then the Haitian earthquake was January 12th.


tomslee 01.28.10 at 1:20 am

@Kenny – I don’t think you could measure it, but she’s an accessible and generally popular person whose speeches have certainly emphasized the connection between this country and Haiti. Montreal has a large Haitian population.


Mitchell Rowe 01.28.10 at 3:17 pm

No problem. I forget things sometimes as well. See:

Choice line from article:
“An EKOS Globe and Mail poll published January 21, six days before the budget, showed support for a coalition government at 50%.”

The GG’s actions during that time period set a horrible precedent. The PM can now suspend parliment whenever he likes to avoid having to face the house. This strikes a blow to the very idea of responsible gov’t.


guthrie 01.28.10 at 9:44 pm

Wait a minute – isn’t the Queen head of state for Canada? Can’t she just send someone over to take over from Harper on the grounds that he’s a nincompoop and 500 years ago she’d have had him executed for getting in the way of the smooth running of the country?
Ok, it would open up questions about what heads of state are for, but you know, I’d love to see an official fancy dressed Queens messenger hand delivering a beautifully written missive that tells him to get back to work or else.

(I’m not Canadian by the way, feel free to tell me how different things are over there)


polyorchnid octopunch 01.29.10 at 2:49 am

Well, here’s my take on it.

I’ll start up front by saying I helped organise the anti-prorogation rally in Kingston. Basically, that means I supplied the sound and made sure people could be heard.

The smoking gun in all this is an Order of Parliament that was made on Dec 10th. Here’s the money quote:

That, given the undisputed privileges of Parliament under Canada’s constitution, including the absolute power to require the government to produce uncensored documents when requested, and given the reality that the government has violated the rights of Parliament by invoking the Canada Evidence Act to censor documents before producing them, the House urgently requires access to the following documents in their original and uncensored form:

all documents referred to in the affidavit of Richard Colvin, dated October 5, 2009;

accordingly the House hereby orders that these documents be produced in their original and uncensored form forthwith.”

The next meeting of the Special Committee on the Canadian Mission in Afghanistan was scheduled for the 15 of December. At that meeting (the last one before the Christmas Break) the government is supposed to hand over the documents. However, there is no committee meeting on the fifteenth; the CPC MPs on the committee don’t show up and there aren’t enough committee members there to reach quorum.

Needless to say, there wasn’t anyone from the executive with the uncensored documents requested by the House of Commons at the meeting either.

The MPs broke for Christmas, and over the holidays Harper prorogued Parliament.

I should add that Harper had already stated his decision to not comply with the order voted on by Parliament on the tenth.

We’re actually in the middle of a pretty major constitutional crisis here. Harper basically prorogued until after the Olympics because when the shit hits the fan on Parliament’s return, he wants all those foreign journalists safely out of the country and not paying any attention to us again… especially because people are going to be talking about nasty things like torture and official blind eyes and that sort of thing.

I think that despite his protestations, Harper understood very well that Canadians would not like this second prorogation. There was grumbling when he did it last winter. He had to know that the second time would come at a much greater cost politically. Which makes me wonder… what is in those documents that he’s willing to risk his much-coveted majority government to keep secret?


S. Turner 02.01.10 at 9:36 pm

The word ‘prorogue’ intrigues me. I’d never heard it in over 25 years of following and studying Canadian politics before 2008. It sounds like the Polish word for dumpling, “perogey.” I’d heard that word many times when I lived in Alberta. So I knew what Harper had done had nothing to do with them.

I’m personally more fond of the anti-rogue position but I don’t really know why. I seem to recall various Prime Ministers over the years extending parliamentary adjournments, postponing returns and maybe even suspending parliament while in session. The word ‘pro-rogue’ was never used but if it walks like a duck? Or perhaps what Harper did has not been done before. He is nothing if not a political experimentalist and fast learner.

As has been duly noted by several posters, and whether the word or the deed, the scent of proroguing is irresistable.


Shmoe 02.01.10 at 11:42 pm

This all seems like a bizarre inversion of our filibuster problem here in the States. Maybe the two might cancel each other out! Perhaps, someone should speak to Mr. Obama; or would, as President of the Senate, Mr. Biden be more appropriate? Republics, their apparent straightforwardness is so misleading. I kid, of course, the last thing the US legislative process needs is another off button.

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