Monday, January 25, 2010

On competing proposals

The Libs have now offered up their response to the NDP's call to limit the Prime Minister's power to request prorogation. And the proposal offers at least some interesting material for the opposition parties to work with - though it also falls short of the NDP's in one key way.

Let's start with that major weakness in the Libs' plan, which would:
• Prevent a request for prorogation within the first year after a Speech from the Throne, unless the House consents;
• Prevent a prorogation longer than one calendar month without the consent of the House;
• Prevent a request for prorogation if a matter of confidence has been scheduled in the House unless the House consents;
In effect, the Libs have chosen to build in loopholes for little apparent reason. Where the NDP's plan would require the consent of the House of Comments for any prorogation request, the Libs want to reserve some power for the PM to order prorogation even in the face of majority opposition. And the criteria chosen aren't that far off from the incident which has called attention to Harper's abuses in the first place: if Harper had allowed the House of Commons to sit for just a couple of days in January of this year, he'd then have reached the one-year mark and been entitled to request prorogation without a vote.

So I'd think it's worth asking whether the Libs really see any particular reason to legitimize a prorogation intended to avoid scrutiny simply because it's been over a year since the last throne speech - or whether the better presumption is that prorogation should always require the consent of the House.

That said, the Libs' proposal does include two useful additions to the status quo. First, there's the requirement for advance notice, reasons and debate before any prorogation - which would seem to create a useful deterrent in that the government would be required to justify their belief that they've fulfilled their goals in the immediate session of Parliament.

Perhaps more importantly, though, is the idea that the effect of prorogation should be changed:
• Allow Parliamentary Committees to continue to function during the period when Parliament is prorogued until the start of the new session.
Now, I'd think the suggestion would best be seen as a piece of a more comprehensive set of reforms to Parliament. After all, it's rather useless to create a theoretical opportunity for committees to meet when the Cons can shut them down simply by refusing to show up.

But by making a change in the meaning of prorogation to allow committees to continue their work (and presumably allowing for other functions to also continue to the extent amendments might be made to the rules), the Libs' proposal would drain prorogation of a substantial part of its harmful effect. And that, combined with the requirement for a closing debate for the prorogued session, would significantly change the cost-benefit analysis for future PMs of all stripes.

In sum, I'd hope the NDP and Libs are open enough to each other's proposals to incorporate the best parts of each into a common front. But it has to be for the best that both are at least working toward ways of reining in Harper and future PMs alike.

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