Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Outflanked Again

I've written several posts, arguing that for the Liberals to truly capitalize on this prorogation question, they must put something in the window in terms of reform. Many have made the observation, that the opposition is missing partial opportunity, if they simply criticize Harper without offering any alternatives. I've waited to see if the Liberals would stay ahead of the curve and position themselves as a true alternative. Nothing to date, just further compliants, accompanied by essentially nothing. With that in mind, I'm entirely pissed that once again the NDP have outflanked the sloth-like Liberals and seized the agenda:
Fixing prorogation central to New Democrat plan

OTTAWA – New Democrat leader Jack Layton, after slamming Prime Minister Harper for his dismissal of Parliament, today set out constructive proposals for reform, including new rules for prorogation.

"Today I am announcing that the New Democrats will bring proposals for legislation to limit the power of prorogation so the Prime Minister cannot abuse it. The government should only prorogue Parliament on a vote in the House of Commons. This will inform the Governor General of the will of the majority, so that prorogation happens when it is needed – not simply when the Prime Minister feels like it."

Not exactly an earth shattering proposal or particularly daring, but it accomplishes what it intended, namely placing the NDP as the driver for reforming this arcane prorogation power. It speaks to parliamentary supremacy, which is the core slight that Harper engineered. You can debate the constitutional arguments, but that's hardly the optical point- the NDP wants to negate the whims of a Prime Minister. People will respond to the above proposal, a simple measure that confronts the nature of the perceived problem.

The Liberals have been doing a lot of good things lately, plenty of positive signs that have me encouraged. Why we voluntarily ceded this prorogation ground to the NDP escapes me. This proposal is so basic, so transparent, that anyone can understand what it means. Would it have been so "outside the box" to have taken the initiative and put the Liberals out front on this issue? Do we think other parties sit on their hands, while we plot slowly? Outflanked again, and worse still, you could see it coming...


Kirbycairo said...

I think the Liberals lost this ground for the simple reason that the leaders of the Liberal Party aren't actually in favor of any reform in this regard because they don't want to eliminate any of the powers that they themselves hope to abuse in the future. The NDP is not expecting to gain power anytime soon so they don't mind eliminating the powers that they will never be able to take advantage of anyway. It is all power politics as usual.

Steve V said...

There is a little caveat in this proposal, which isn't terribly revolutionary. If you have a majority, you can still prorogue whenever you want. So, even for the timid power merchants, this should ease their reform "pain".

If what you say is true, and I've thought the same, then I call bullshit. So much for the "natural governing party" words we heard today. I'm just about ready to go native and be done with the whole thing.

A reader said...

Steve, you'd be welcome to come on over any time.


A reader said...

You too, kirbycairo.

Steve V said...

Let's not get crazy ;)

Jeff said...

Make it more restrictive to prorogue if you want. Any tool can be abused. It doesn't make the tool flawed, it's the abuse of it that's flawed. If there are ways to make it harder to be abused, that's fine. It's like guns.

The real problem though isn't the tool. The problem is the abuser. The abuse of prorogation is a symptom of a larger disease: a prime minister contemptuous of parliament and democracy, our of touch with the priorities.

Treating the symptom is fine. But it won't cure the disease. That's where our focus should be.

Jeff said...

Sorry, I see I left that guns comment hanging. I meant to say it's like gun control. Guns have legitimate uses: safety and protection. They can also be abused to commit criminal acts. So we don't ban guns, but take steps to restrict their use. Still, gun control alone won't solve crime. The deeper problem is the criminals.

Patrick Ross said...

How would the Liberal Party have a shred of credibility to reform the proroguement process?

Jean Chretien prorogued Parliament to hinder Paul Martin's internal wranglings within the Liberal Party.

In other words, Chretien decided to keep the rest of the country waiting on its own internal political struggles.

Not to mention proroguing Parliament to delay facing questions in the house about the Auditor General's report on the Sponsorship Scandal.

The NDP is the only legitimate party in Canada that has a shred of credibility as it regards reforming the proroguement process.

Steve V said...

If you want to engage the pool of voters that are angry about this prorogation, then you need to address the "symptom" in a way that says the Libs will approach it differently. Agreed on the wider point, but people are right when they say the Libs squander the true opportunity if they don't differentiate themselves.

What the NDP proposed isn't much, but the optics are good strategy. Throwing out a few "reforms" is a no brainer as far as I'm concerned.

Steve V said...


Why is Ignatieff saddled with the Liberal legacy? If we were smart, we would position him as a break from the past, embrace his time abroad and his lack of "career politican" status. Why does Ignatieff have to assume the lineage like he owns it?

LifeonQueen said...

Maybe the LPC hasn't done it because it's a legislative & constitutional non-starter? Prorogation is a necessary tool of Parliament that allows governments to introduce a new legislative agenda. Legislating that prorogation can only happen at the discretion of the majority of the legislature would replace one form of abuse with another. The issue isn't prorogation, the issue is, as Jeff said, this government's tranparent abuse of prorogation to avoid public debate and their unparallelled contempt for Parliament. The problem is that the precedent set when the Governor General agreed to prorogue Parliament in 2008 is fundamentally unsound. The redress may be changing from an appointed to an elected executive to put teeth back into the Governor General's historic perogatives. But an endless hung parliament would be no more democratic than one that is never in session.

Steve V said...

Bob Rae just on CBC. Seemed receptive to NDP proposal, for what that's worth.

RuralSandi said...

Would it be as simple as a motion and a vote in the House?

Has Layton checked the Constitution, etc.?

Or is he just playing politics.

What if the sitting government has concluded it's agenda for that period?

Harper has not concluded his agenda - he just recycles it over and over again.

Jeff said...

Isn't there a constitutional question here too? Prorogation is a power vested in the Governor General who, by convention, accepts the advice of her Prime Minister on the matter, largely w/o question.

I'm no constitutional or legal scholar, but it seems there's two angles you could address it from: stop the PM from asking her for prorogation, or stop her from taking his advice on it.

I don't see how you can legally bar the PM from stopping by Rideau Hall or, horror of horrors, phoning over and asking for whatever.

As for restricting the GG's latitude for accepting his advice, can that be done by simple law alone, or is that a change to her powers as described in the constitution?

If it's the latter, then a bill such as that proposed by the NDP would seem largely symbolic and unenforcable. A GG could feel morally obligated to heed the advice, but the current GG didn't feel morally bound to listen to the petition from the opposition parties when she prorogued last year, and that petition and this bill could be equally binding.

I trust though that the NDP has considered all the legal and constitutional questions, and crafted legislation that is intended to be legally binding and effective, and not mere symbolism.

I look forward to hearing what the legal eagles have to say.

Chrystal Ocean said...

Steve, to be fair, the NDP have hardly "seized" the agenda. Both they and the Libs have had an inordinate amount of time to come with something. After all, Harper prorogued Parliament 22 days ago. That it took ANYONE this long is, well, disheartening. (That's as polite as I can be about it.)

Steve V said...

Actually, they have "seized" the agenda, for the time being at least. The definition applies, because we are already seeing questions put to Libs "what do you think of the NDP proposal?".

Again, I don't see this as anything massive, or maybe not even doable in the end. What I'm commenting on, is that the NDP is pretty agile when it comes to strategy. In this instance, they throw this little item in the window, while we do some outreach to the FB group, armed with nothing. Imagine if Ignatieff could do that Q and A tomorrow with something to offer? It's just optics, the NDP proposal is a baby step, but politically, it was a shrewd stroke.

Steve V said...

Just to add, for the optically challenged. Take a look at some of the headlines, not just for the big publications. NDP wants to reform prorogation powers. Given that 70 odd % of us disagree with Harper's decision, I'd say that is a "pretty good day" as Wells title suggests. All I'm saying, that could have been our day. Maybe tomorrow ;)

JG said...

Isn't there a constitutional question here too? Prorogation is a power vested in the Governor General who, by convention, accepts the advice of her Prime Minister on the matter, largely w/o question.

Prorogation is an excellent example of one of the GG's customary powers. There is, in short, no constitutional question from the standpoint of statutes that would require amending because no such laws exist specifically governing the powers of the GG. Moreover, since the PM exercises executive power on a purely de facto customary basis, any Act of Parliament defining certain powers as being beyond his purview (or solely within the discretion of Parliament) would supersede the PMO.

In short, there is no constitutional question here since, like the UK, ours is both written and unwritten. Parliament is absolutely empowered to "fill in the gaps" as concerns its own functioning. For something even more definitive, Section 44 of the Constitution Act, 1982 provides that:

44. Subject to sections 41 and 42, Parliament may exclusively make laws amending the Constitution of Canada in relation to executive government of Canada or the Senate and House of Commons. (emphasis mine)

In conclusion, an Act of Parliament which might be seen to be "constitutional" in nature constitutes an amendment by virtue of being passed by Parliament. It is only fitting that powers such as prorogation be stripped from the GG. I'd say the same about elections too, as there is no reason why an unelected vice-regal who is little more than a toady for the PM should be able to defy or usurp the will of Parliament.

Joanne (True Blue) said...

We need some kind of ground rules to be established regarding prorogation that don't infringe upon the constitution.

Otherwise it's just an arbitrary interpretation as to what is right or wrong.

Gayle said...


He prorogued parliament in order to avoid being accountable to our elected representatives. I think it is pretty darn clear by now that is simply wrong.

If nothing else, I am pretty darn sure we can get all the opposition parties, and probably quite a few government MP's, to agree with that.

Gene Rayburn said...

arbitrary is conspeak for straws to be grasped

RuralSandi said...

Bob Rae being receptive to the proposal, well, what's he going to say - no we don't want reform? That would be a huge gaffe. Rae's too smart for that.

Rae open to proposal probably not necessarily exactly as NDP have put it.

Unknown said...

You're wrong and as much as it pains me to say it, Norman Spector is right. Take a read:

JimBobby said...

Any proposal would be subject to HOC debate and tweaks. I blogged a few days ago that the Grits should float a proposal to outlaw prorogation altogether. Like the NDP idea, such a proposal would be debated and a compromise would likely be reached.

If you want votes, you've got to at least try to give the voters what they want. An end to prorogation is what they want and Steve's 100% correct that the NDP is eating the LPC's lunch.

Chrystal's quite right, too, that there has been ample time for all parties to come up with an anti-prorogue proposal.

Patrick's argument makes zero sense. It's like saying a reformed drunk cannot try to reform other drunks. Ever met a reformed drunk?


Steve V said...

I must say, I find the Spector citation anusing. Really?

Malcolm+ said...

There is no constitutional issue with the proposed reform. What the NDP have proposed does not restrict the Governor General / the Crown, merely what advice the Prime Minister may offer.

In other words, the Prime Minister is not empowered to advice the Governor General to prorogue Parliament unless Parliament has agreed.

That still leaves open the possibility of prorogation under two circumstances.

1. Parliament has legitimately conccluded the business set out for it in the throne speech and is ready for a new legislative package.

2. The Governor General in extremis chooses to exercise the reserved powers of the Crown without the advice of the Prime Minister. (Though it strikes me that in any extreme circumstance that would justify exercising the reserved powers, dissolution is likely to be a better tool than prorogation.)

albertan said...

Why does the NDP want to limit prorogues? I think they are delicious, especially with onions and bacon.

Steve V said...

Thanks for reinforcing the notion that conservativism and comedic timing are diametrically opposed.

Patrick Ross said...

"Why is Ignatieff saddled with the Liberal legacy?"

Not to be rude, BUT:

Do the words "Liberal leader" mean anything to you?

"If we were smart, we would position him as a break from the past, embrace his time abroad and his lack of 'career politican' status."

You can't position Ignatieff as a break from the past while yesterday's man's guy runs the OLO.

"Why does Ignatieff have to assume the lineage like he owns it?"

Let's face it: the Liberal Party of Canada has been surviving off the salad days of Pierre Trudeau for a good long time now.

You can't take an institution that is as beholden to the past, and beholden to political mythology, as the Liberal Party and walk away from that without walking away from the party's entire brand identity.

Omar said...

Yes. Oui. Can.

Steve V said...

Yes, because Canadians care and/or know who runs the OLO.

Pretty superficial, and mostly meaningless rebuttal. Thanks for the insights ;)

Anonymous said...

I think Jeff's right in his own post. This is a "fix" that likely wouldn't even work if the PM had a minority, and it's utterly useless if the Prime Minister has even a one seat majority.

In other words, it's crafted entirely for this session of parliament. It's flair over substance, and I'm glad it didn't come from the Liberal party.

The Liberal party has problems, but emulating the NDP isn't going to solve them. For years, the Liberals coasted because they faced a divided right wing and managed to convince a significant number of people that the evil Reform/Conservatives had a "hidden agenda". The right wing isn't divided anymore and fewer people think that there's some evil Reform conspiracy afoot.

But this doesn't mean the Liberal party is finished. There are plenty of centrist voters who could vote Conservative or Liberal and the Liberals should play the long game and craft policies to appeal to those centrist voters.

Emulating the NDP just cedes the centre to one party. Bad idea.

They also need to stop this absolute obsession with "stopping Harper". It's NOT about Steven Harper. The goal should be to develop a platform that Canadians will vote for, not to come up with the "quick fix" to get rid of Harper.

Stick with Ignatieff, do the difficult work and run on policies!