Ontario premier resigns

Big news from Ontario: Premier Dalton McGuinty, head of a minority government since the last general election, has resigned and prorogued the provincial parliament.

16 thoughts on “Ontario premier resigns

  1. And Canada’s national newspaper, the Globe and Mail, denounced the prorogation in a front-page opinion piece, their first since Prime Minister Stephen Harper prorogued Parliament in the face of a contempt motion.

    “This is an unnecessary abuse of the Premier’s prerogative to advise the Lieutenant-Governor to prorogue . . . members of the (McGuinty) government were facing allegations of being in contempt of parliament for failure to disclose information related to the closure of two power plants and not disclosing all related documents after they claimed to have complied with the legislature’s demands.”

    On Dec. 30, 2009, the Globe said “For the second consecutive December, Stephen Harper is putting Parliament on ice. In the act, the Prime Minister is turning prorogation, a sometimes sensible parliamentary procedure, into an underhanded manoeuvre to avoid being accountable to Parliament. In the interests of political expediency, the government will diminish the democratic rights of Canadians. . . . Government members have already acted as truants when Afghanistan committee hearings are called. The government failed to provide documents to committee members, and implied it will disregard a parliamentary order to produce those documents. Prorogation is the logical extension of such thinking: shut down parliamentary debate entirely.”

  2. Mark Jarvis @ Maclean’s likewise unimpressed:

    … Prorogation has a legitimate – and valuable – function within the parliamentary system.

    Parliament is prorogued so that the government can efficiently organize sessions, allowing it to conclude one session when its legislative program has come to an end and it wishes to introduce a new legislative program. Each session begins with the Speech from the Throne, when the governor general, or lieutenant governor in Ontario’s case, reads the government’s new legislative program. Prorogation is a mechanism for ensuring effective governing and government.

    But prorogation can also be abused.

    Prorogation is not a mechanism designed to afford the current government a political advantage in the exercise of power.

    Yet, in recent years we have seen first ministers misuse the power of prorogation to avoid confidence votes, delay reporting by officers of parliament, escape questioning and scrutiny, and side-step accountability for matters of public policy and administration…

    http://tinyurl.com/9ajflgr

  3. I suspect that in Australia and New Zealand governors would not grant prorogations in the way that happens in Canada, and there is no obvious reason, apart from tradition, why the prorogation device is necessary to start a new legislative programme. There is, for example, no reason that the prorogation could not happen a week or so before the opening of the new session.

    I think there’s a reasonably good argument that when advice is tendered for a prorogation and there is some question about the government’s control of the house, the governor should simply refuse the advice until the government demonstrates its control.

  4. I assume the GGs were giving their PMs the benefit of the doubt on the request for prorogation, plus there should be a bias against making it too easy to change governments. Keep in mind that countries like Germany and France that have gone through periods of governmental instability and damaging weak albeit democratic governments have written into their constitution provisions that grant sitting governments similarly involved powers of maneuver to avoid confidence votes.

    However, historically Canada has never been through anything like the Weimer republic or the French Fourth Republic. And democracies can also deteriorate through too much legal but slippery system gaming becoming the norm (see the U.S.). Fortunately, in this instance it would probably take only one well publicized example of a GG putting his or her foot down and denying a request to put a stop to the abuse.

  5. I would prefer governors to give priority to the principle of parliamentary government. Stability does not justify enabling a government to continue in office without parliamentary confidence, which is the effect of the Canadian practice.

  6. Instead of having GGs do it, just require parliament to vote for prorogation. Seems quite democratic. Would have stopped Harper and McGuinty.

    That’s all. Seems almost democratic.

    The whole idea of constitutional conventions re: GG power leads to too much subjectivity.

  7. I agree with Nick. Too much of the traditional Westminster model is based on the Crown having discretion to interpret the will of the Parliament or the Lower House, when the House is quite capable of resolving that for itself.

    For example, at a minimum each House should have power to call itself into session if the Crown and/or PM leave it adjourned for too long. A letter/ petition of 50% of members if that House last sat less than [say] 90 days ago, of 25% of members if it last sat 91 to 364 days ago, and automatic re-convening if it goes 365 days without meeting.

    (Australia’s Constitution, like others, already requires that each House must meet at least once a year. But given that prerogative writs like mandamus [that’s “mandate” to you, MSS] don’t lie against the Governor-General – who is the only person who can legally summon Parliament – the requirement is effectively non-judiciable).

  8. A little more to the point, and even though the particular decision was not directed to the circumstances in which a governor should grant or refuse a prorogation, the last paragraph of the Governor of Tasmania’s letter of 09 April 2010 is relevant:

    This obligation arose regardless of whether Mr Bartlett had the support of the Greens party or not, for it was the only way to move the issue into the Parliament to enable the members of the House of Assembly to make the ultimate decision of who should govern.

    The problem with these Canadian decisions is that they do the precise opposite, removing the ultimate decision of who should govern from the parliament and into the hands of the governor.

    While either formally abolishing prorogation or vesting the power directly in the parliament would obviously be better, I remain convinced that an Australian governor would almost certainly require the premier to demonstrate their control of the proceedings of the house before granting a ‘contested’ prorogation.

  9. Harry Evans, a former Clerk of the Senate, contends that prorogation should simply be abolished, noting among other things, that the Australian parliament functioned quite successfully from 1928 to 1984 without a single prorogation. In 1984 the governor-general resumed the pre-1984 practice of proroguing the parliament at the same time as dissolving it for a general election.

    Abolition of the prorogation power would remove the opportunity for abuse without losing anything. The disputes about the meaning and effect of prorogation strengthen the case for abolition. There is no reason why the houses of the parliaments could not meet, and begin their business anew, in accordance with a constitutional and statutory timetable after a general election, and then meet and adjourn solely by their own resolution until that timetable again takes effect. Such a change would require constitutional amendment in each jurisdiction.

    Prorogation has been abused in Australia, most recently when the NSW parliament was prorogued in an attempt by the executive to kill an inquiry by a Legislative Council committee. Both the Senate and the NSW Legislative Council insist that their committees can function during a prorogation and the Senate itself has in fact during a prorogation a number of times. The executive in both governments has at times refused to provide ministers or civil servants to appear before parliamentary inquiries claiming that a prorogation suspends any committee proceedings.

    I have not found, and do not expect to find, a clear recent case of a contested prorogation here, but that may be incomplete research or just the relative of minority governments here.

    I guess we will find out if the Gillard Government ever finds itself in serious parliamentary difficulties.

  10. The House of Lords in Westminster apparently reconstituted itself simply by the peers who survived the civil war simply assembling at the palace of Westminster in 1660 and carrying on business as if nothing had happened.

    I think -and the lordships were proved correct to do this- that this is ample precedent that prerogation does not apply to upper houses, even in Australia. Their membership anyway does not turn over each election.

    I’m an American, and though the American system is in many ways a striking fossil of the eighteenth century and the relationship at the times between Parliament/ Congress and the Crown/ Presidency, there are a few benefits to this, one of which is that the House of Representative and the Senate, and their state counterparts, can quite clearly assemble whenever they wish.

  11. Apparently the standing orders of the Commons were much less “government-ocentric” in the late 18th and early 19th century. Then the Whigs and Tories [colluded/ agreed * strike one] to amend the standing orders to make it much easier for a majority to cut off debate, block amendments, and generally minimise [scrutiny/ obstructionism * strike one]. The catalyst was the [ab*] use by the Irish Nationalists of the older procedures to try to render the Commons incapable of transacting business. The resulting rule changes tipped the balance [too *] far in the other direction – exacerbated by much tighter party discipline after the 1920s and a more strictly bipolar system from 1945 to 1970.

    Interesting analogy with the French Fifth Republic where de Gaulle got around the problem of deadlock by making it easier for the prime minister to put decisions through the Chamber on an up-or-down vote and requiring an absolute majority to pass a censure motion if they want to block the “project” concerned.

  12. I should add. I think prorogation is quite stupid. I’d prefer that legislation only fall off the table only when the house is dissolved. Prorogation is simply a legal trick in my view (oversimplifying a little, but give me license). However, it could be retained if it could only be initiated by a majority of members.

    I’d further add that my belief is that the house should not even be dissolved without a vote by the commons itself. In a minority government situation, it should be up to the house and not what’s in the interest of the governing party to determine whether it’s time for another election.

    The problem in Canada is the GG really has no moral authority to do anything. Therefore, it effectively gives the PM carte blance to interpret the constitution, irrespective of what British apologists believe.

    You see this when Harper painted the Lib-NDP-BQ coalition as having no authority to govern in 2008. This was despite the fact that he did not have a majority let alone 40% of the vote.

    And what was worse, the media didn’t call him out as a liar.

  13. By the way, does this site have no interest in discussing the presidential debates or at minimum a thread on the presidential debate. Would seem on point, no?

  14. I can think of a couple of circumstances where an assembly should be dissolved without its consent, but they are limited to failure to elect a speaker, failure to form a new government when needed, or expiry. Broadly I agree most of the complications of the Westminster system can be solved simply by transferring functions (electing the prime minister, dismissing the prime minister, convening the parliament, proroguing or dissolving the parliament) from the Crown to the parliament. After all that process has been running for about 5 centuries now.

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