Thursday, February 11, 2010

Toolkit For National Petition Against Prorogation And For Its Reform

Through the Facebook group Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament a national effort is underway to petition against this use of prorogation and to reform its future application.

With petitioners across Canada taking up the cause over 1,100 signatures have been accounted for and the list continues to grow. This is not some electronic petition where its numbers are created through little consultation and a few taps of the keys, no this petition is being built through the purest of democratic means, one-on-one personal interaction.

Though the more imminent force of the petition will derive from its presentation in the House of Commons when it returns on March 3rd, its more impressive and substantial power will come from the people directly consulted in garnering its signatures.

If you are interested in gathering signatures please email me (scottaross(at)

Below: the petitions text, an example of what one can say in soliciting signatures, possible replies to the most common responses, and a selection of news resources that provide relevant information.

Text of the Petition (approved by a clerk at the House of Commons):


We, the undersigned, citizens of Canada, draw the attention of the House to the following:

THAT proroguing of Parliament to avoid democratic accountability is not in the best interests of Canadians;

THAT proroguing of Parliament to avoid democratic accountability within the last two years has become more and more frequent;

THAT democratic accountability is essential to our form of parliamentary government to provide some balance to those powers of the Prime Minister;

THAT amending the Standing Orders of the House of Commons would provide better protection of democratic accountability;

THEREFORE, your petitioners call upon the House of Commons in Parliament Assembled to take all appropriate steps to either amend the Standing Orders of the House of Commons, adopt constitutional changes or adopt specific legislation to: (a) prevent a request for prorogation if a matter of confidence has been scheduled in the House unless the House consents; and (b) to allow Parliamentary Committees to continue to function during the period when Parliament is prorogued until the start of the new session.

Example Interaction
Hello, would you be interested in signing a petition to reform the power of prorogation?

(If they pause or ask what prorogation is)

Prorogation is the ending of a Parliamentary session. Our MPs, our elected representatives, work in Ottawa, in the House of Commons. Prorogation ends the session, sending them home to their ridings across Canada. Usually this is okay, as MPs can go back and talk to their constituents, like you and me, so when they go back to Ottawa they can represent us; however prorogation can be abused as it was in this most recent case.

At the time of prorogation there was a parliamentary committee, made up of Members of Parliament investigating the government over the Afghan detainee abuse scandal, with prorogation however this committee is not only stopped from holding this government accountable, but this committee is dissolved, it no longer exists. Now when our MPs go back to Parliament on March 3 there won’t be this committee to investigate this issue. No democratic accountability.

This petition is to make sure no Prime Minister, whether he or she be Liberal, Conservative, NDP or whatever, in the future can abuse the power of prorogation to avoid an outcome they didn’t like, as is the case now.

This petition would call for the Standing Orders of the House of Commons to be amended so no PM, no one man, can unilaterally end Parliament without first consulting the House.

Would you be interested in signing?

(An additional note can be mentioned) This is a really important issue, because if this becomes a precedent any PM can just prorogue parliament if it’s doing something he doesn’t like. Please tell your friends and family, this is really important. Thank you.

Possible Replies to Certain Responses While Petitioning:

Response: Is the petition partisan?

Reply: This petition is non-partisan and that it is to reform the power of prorogation so it will apply to all future PMs. It’s not saying that Conservatives, Liberals, or NDP are bad, it’s saying that any PM, no matter his party affiliation should be able to unilaterally end Parliament because he doesn’t like what it’s doing.

Response: Isn’t prorogation is normal and/or haven’t the Liberals done it plenty?

Reply: Yes prorogation has happened a lot, over 105 times since Confederation, but it has only been used to avoid democratic accountability by two Prime Ministers, in 1893 with John A. MacDonald to avoid the Pacific Scandal and Stephen Harper in 2008 and now in 2009/2010.

Response: Wasn’t this prorogation necessary to appoint Senators to get the government agenda through the Senate because Liberal Senators were blocking bills?

Reply: Prorogation can last just a few days, if the PM just wanted to control the Senate he could have prorogued Parliament and still have it return by Jan. 25 the scheduled return date. In fact in early December though many within the government believed Parliament would be prorogued, they all thought it would resume sitting by Jan. 25. Furthermore if legislative expediency was the motive behind prorogation, the scrapping of 36 government bills certainly would not help the cause.

Response: Was the prorogation actually used to avoid the Afghan detainee abuse issue?

Reply: Hundreds of Political Science professors, parliamentarian and constitutional experts agree that the government prorogued to avoid the Afghan detainee abuse issue. This is furthered by the government's own actions prior to prorogation. The government in refusing to hand over key documents to the committee and with Conservative MPs boycotting the meetings of the Committee effectively prevented the parliamentary committee from doing its investigation into the Afghan detainee abuse affair. This prorogation can readily be seen as the progression of the government attempting to avoid democratic accountability.

Relevant News Articles:

National Post – “Only in Canada: Harper’s Prorogation is a Canadian thing,” Jan. 18

It turns out, no other English-speaking nation with a system of government like ours -- not Britain, Australia or New Zealand -- has ever had its parliament prorogued in modern times, so that its ruling party could avoid an investigation, or a vote of confidence, by other elected legislators.

Only three times has this happened, all in Canada -- first in 1873, when Sir John A. Macdonald asked the governor general to prorogue Parliament, in order to halt a House of Commons probe into the Pacific Scandal. Lord Dufferin gave in to the demand, but when Parliament reconvened Macdonald was forced to resign.

No prime minister dared use prorogation to such effect again, until Stephen Harper convinced Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean to suspend Parliament in 2008, so the Conservatives could evade a confidence vote.

Less than 12 months later, he did it again. Mr. Harper claims he shut down Parliament to "recalibrate" his government, but his critics say he did so to escape the rising pressure of the Afghan-detainee affair and its investigation by a House of Commons committee.”

Open Letter From Over 175 Political Science Professors and Others against the Prorogation

“The use of the ability to prorogue by the present Prime Minister clearly displays no such self-restraint. It was nakedly partisan when it was invoked to save his government from defeat in a confidence motion in December 2008, and it is nakedly partisan now, when it is being used to short-circuit the work of the Parliamentary Committee looking into the Afghan detainees question and evade Parliament’s request that the government turn over documents pertaining to that question.”

National Post – “Tories Ponder Proroguing Parliament,” Dec. 15 2009

(This was written 15 days before announcement of prorogation) “But while much remains to be decided, those [Conservative] sources are nearly unanimous on one point: If he does choose to prorogue, Mr. Harper will not delay Parliament's return on Jan. 25 because he will want to avoid charges that he is attempting to thwart or avoid Parliament or protect Defence Minister Peter MacKay, who is under fire from the opposition on the issue of Afghan detainees.”

…“By parliamentary tradition, prime ministers generally do not name senators or make other significant appointments while Parliament is prorogued (although Harper did just that last winter in the midst of the coalition crisis.)”

Toronto Star – “Censure Tories over probe of detainee abuse, MPs urged,” Feb. 4

“University of Ottawa law professor Errol Mendes and retired colonel Michel Drapeau, now a lawyer, urged MPs not to abandon their probe even though the Tories have tried to stifle their work by denying a parliamentary committee access to crucial documents, attacking the credibility of witnesses and even suspending Parliament for two months.

…Mendes, one of the country's top constitutional scholars, said Parliament's power supersedes that of the various national security laws that have been used to censor government memos and diplomatic cables describing who was warned about possible war crimes violations going back to early 2006, when Canadian soldiers moved to Kandahar province.

That leaves MPs with two paths – they can ask the Supreme Court of Canada to rule on their right to access the information, a process that could take years, or they can invoke a rarely used power to censure, expel and even imprison any member of the House of Commons for contempt.

Mendes said the government's approach to the detainee inquiry amounts to "open defiance of Parliament."”

The Hill Times – “Grits, NDP working together to try to change prorogation rules,” Feb. 1

“Currently, if the Prime Minister wants to prorogue Parliament all he has to do is ask the Governor General, who by convention is obliged to heed his advice. The opposition parties' proposal would require a Prime Minister to give advance notice of his intent to suspend Parliament and would seek a full debate on the issue, which would then be voted on in the House of Commons. It would also prevent a Prime Minister from proroguing to avoid a confidence vote.

They acknowledge that in order for their initiative to be legally binding it would require changing the constitution, an arduous process that would need the consent of the provinces. But they say that although any law would not withstand a court challenge, if it were adhered to for long enough the combination of convention and political pressure would effectively accomplish the same thing. The other option is to put forward a motion to change the Standing Orders, the rules that govern the House of Commons.”

Globe And Mail – “Harper and Ignatieff take gold in Olympic flip-flop,” Feb. 9

“Stephen Harper told his caucus last spring that the House of Commons would sit through the Olympic Winter Games and that no caucus member was to take a free ticket or free hotel room… Well, he stuck with part of his message. But he ended up shutting down Parliament, offering up a number of excuses and taking a hit in the polls as a result.”

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