Justin Trudeau – Trudeau’s prorogation of Parliament in August is deservedly controversial
The House of Commons standing committee on Procedure and House Affairs has been investigating the reasons the Trudeau government prorogued Parliament last August. Earlier this week, Ian Brodie testified about comparisons between Harper’s prorogation of December 2008 and Trudeau’s. This opinion piece is adapted from that testimony.
Until 2008, prorogation was considered a routine matter. Prime ministers decided when to prorogue Parliament, and they usually did it once every year or two. Prorogation let them reset Parliament’s legislative agenda and present a new throne speech.
When Stephen Harper prorogued Parliament on Dec. 4, 2008, it was turned into a matter of partisan division. The Trudeau government’s report on its August 2020 prorogation perpetuates that division when it falsely claims: “The government of the day prorogued to avoid a confidence vote that could potentially have caused its fall.”
More than 12 years have passed since the 2008 prorogation, enough time to allow a more sober, non-partisan evaluation of the event.
The election in October of the same year disappointed all three opposition parties. Stéphane Dion’s Liberals lost 18 seats. Jack Layton and the NDP fell well short of their historic high of 20 per cent. Gilles Duceppe and the Bloc Québécois failed to eliminate the Conservatives’ Quebec beachhead established in 2006. Dion announced he would resign as Liberal leader, and the other two faced tough internal questions about their futures.
On Nov. 30, Dion, Layton, and Duceppe announced a pact to defeat Harper’s government on a non-confidence motion and install a coalition cabinet. Dion was to serve as prime minster until his party replaced him as their leader. The pact was depicted as a response to Harper’s effort to phase out the per-vote subsidy for political parties, but it was later reported that the leaders had been discussing a pact for several weeks, before Harper’s proposal of the subsidy was made public.
It quickly became clear that the Nov. 30 pact was little more than a way for the three weakened party leaders, particularly Dion, to protect their weakened leadership positions against internal party challenges. As soon as Parliament was prorogued, the Liberals ousted Dion as leader and replaced him with Michael Ignatieff. When Parliament returned a few weeks later, the Liberals supporters Harper’s government in a confidence vote on the 2009 budget.
The only “crisis” of December 2008 was the breakdown of good governance inside the Liberal caucus. The public controversy about the prorogation that year was an effort to distract attention from that crisis.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s prorogation in August 2020 deserves to be seen as controversial.
- First, Parliament hadn’t had a normal debate since five months previous, in March, so all parliamentary proceedings had already been curtailed. Prorogation ended even the limited work of Commons committees that was going on.
- Second, Trudeau prorogued Parliament when it was already rushing to respond to the Quebec Superior Court’s Truchon decision, which upended the prime minister’s legislation on medical assistance in dying. Prorogation put more pressure on the House and Senate to speed up their debate of Bill C-7. That showed, in effect if not in intent, a disregard for parliamentary debate verging on contempt for Parliament.
- Finally, Trudeau’s decision to prorogue Parliament ended ongoing committee investigations into the major conflict of interest when he rammed through a grant worth hundreds of millions of dollars to a charity that had been employing his family members since he became prime minister.
The so-called “prorogation crisis” of December 2008 was triggered by a crisis within the Liberal Party. When Harper prorogued the House, he gave the party time to resolve its internal crisis. The August 2020 prorogation took place in a similar situation: a breakdown of governance within the Liberal Party, one triggered when Trudeau put himself into what appears to have been a direct conflict of interest.
Ian Brodie is associate professor of political science at the University of Calgary, who served as chief of staff to former prime minister Stephen Harper. His most recent book, At the Centre of Government, was an Amazon Canada politics bestseller.
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