Constitutional Refresher Course: What is a Prorogation of Parliament?

By Harold Jansen on Dec 4, 2008

As I write this, Stephen Harper is currently meeting with Michaelle Jean and is reportedly requesting a prorogation of Parliament. I've been asked a lot what exactly this means and how it relates to the current situation in Ottawa. So, here's a refresher course on prorogation.

In parliamentary terminology, we call a "Parliament" the period between two elections. So, we held the 40th general election on October 14, so this is the 40th Parliament. When the governor general ends a Parliament (in response to a request from the Prime Minister), we call that a "dissolution." That triggers an election. That's not what Stephen Harper is asking for, at least not yet. Parliament is divided into sessions. Each session opens with the Speech from the Throne, delivered by the Governor-General. This speech lays out the government's agenda for the session. Generally what happens is that after the government feels it has accomplished its agenda and wants to make a fresh start, the Prime Minister will visit the GG to ask her to prorogue the House. That ends the session. Any bill that hasn't been passed dies and Parliament takes a short break. It will reconvene with a new Speech from the Throne and a new session when it comes back.

That's what Stephen Harper is asking for. The governor general has to grant it. Historically, I am not aware of any situation where a governor general has refused to prorogue the House of Commons in response to a request from a Prime Minister. However, I am not aware of any situation where a Prime Minister has asked for a prorogation when he or she has not actually accomplished anything. The governor general is in a difficult situation. Not granting prorogation would be unprecedented. However, granting it would set a precedent that governments can quickly run to the governor general if they are about to lose the confidence of the House. That could significantly weaken the convention of responsible government -- the idea that the government has to have the support of the majority of the members of the House of Commons. I think it would have been better had the Prime Minister not put Michaelle Jean in this situation, but we're here now and we have to deal with it.

If the GG grants the request either completely (or conditionally: some people argue she might put limits on the government), then there will be a delay in the drama. The Conservatives will blitz the airwaves, try to win the battle of public opinion, and regain the initiative. It would set back the coalition significantly. But, if they can stay cohesive, they will defeat the government in January.

If, however, she says no, Stephen Harper and the Conservatives are in big trouble. Some constitutional experts are arguing he would have to resign if she refuses his advice. If he does not, though, he would have to face the Liberals' confidence motion in the House on Monday. If he's lost the confidence of the House, he would then make another trip to Rideau Hall. But that trip is another blog post for another day.

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