In 24 hours, Canadian federal politics have been flipped turned upside down.
Bill Morneau is out as finance minister. Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland is taking over that job, too. And on Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced he asked Gov. Gen. Julie Payette to prorogue Parliament until Sept. 23, when a throne speech will be delivered and, in short order, a confidence vote will be held.
Prorogation is a tricky subject in Canadian politics. It’s been called a natural part of the political process, while also criticized in recent years as something mobilized by PMs to get out of tough situations.
It’s even been highly criticized by the prime minister himself.
“I hope that future prime ministers … will not resort to prorogation to avoid problematic situations,” Trudeau said back in 2015.
The Liberal Party platform in that year’s election also stated: “Stephen Harper has used prorogation to avoid difficult political circumstances. We will not.”
Proroguing the middle of a global COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing WE Charity scandal will certainly raise eyebrows across the country. A parliamentary “reset” — and the new throne speech that comes with it — could also spell danger for the Trudeau government, as a vote of no-confidence on the plan could trigger an election.
However, Trudeau said that since the December throne speech that outlined his government’s agenda obviously made no mention of COVID-19 crisis that would disrupt the world months later, a new plan for a “stronger, more resilient Canada″ was in order.
The prime minister denied he was daring opposition MPs to try to take down his government, but said he welcomes the confidence vote as a necessary step to move forward with long-term responses to the pandemic.
“Opposition members, because this is a minority government, will have a chance to approve the plan we introduce to relaunch our economy, or not approve it,” Trudeau said.
If the vote fails, Canadians are likely headed back to the polls, only a year after the previous election
“It is a minority Parliament and the opposition parties will decide whether there’s going to be an election in the fall or not,” Trudeau said.
So what does proroguing Parliament mean for politics and for everyday Canadians?
What does “prorogue Parliament” mean?
“Prorogue” is another word for suspend, so at its most basic level, prorogation is the end of the parliamentary session in Canada.
For most of Canada’s history it’s been rather uncontroversial. A government leader asks the governor-general or lieutenant-governor to suspend the legislature. The leader — in this case, the prime minister — would usually do this to “hit the reset button” and set up a new throne speech.
Tuesday’s move means that bills that have not yet passed into law — including a government bill to ban conversion therapy — are effectively dead, but most can be revived during the next Parliament. More pressing for opposition members, perhaps, is that prorogation means committees cease to exist. As such, the House of Commons finance committee and ethics committee investigating the WE Charity controversy are shut down.
Though not always a contentious step, two prorogations a decade ago under Stephen Harper’s government brought the process into the spotlight.
When has it caused a stir before?
The most notable prorogation in Canadians’ recent memories is likely the action taken by prime minister Stephen Harper in 2008.
Harper’s government was on the verge of losing a non-confidence vote when he asked governor general Michaëlle Jean to prorogue Parliament. Opposition NDP and Liberal MPs had formed a coalition, backed by the Bloc Québécois, to bring down Harper’s minority government. Parliament was suspended for seven weeks, and by the time it returned, the threat to Harper’s government had largely passed.
Jean told The Canadian Press at the time that she consulted with various constitutional experts and took two hours to make the right decision, using the delay to “send a message — and for people to understand that this warranted reflection.”
Peter Russell, one of the constitutional scholars who advised Jean, said Harper promised the then vice-regal that Parliament would return soon, and that his government would produce a budget that could pass. Russell told the CBC that the entire situation in 2008 set the precedent for future prorogations.
″[Jean] made it clear these reserve powers of the governor general may sometimes be used in ways that are contrary to the advice of an incumbent prime minister,” Russell said.
“Because if the contrary was the case, any PM could, at any time, for any reason, not only dissolve Parliament, but prorogue it for any length of time for any reason. We wouldn’t have parliamentary government. We would have prime ministerial government.”
So, prorogation is not always a done deal just because the prime minister wants it.
We’ve had a few prorogations since 2008. Harper once again asked for a prorogation on Dec. 30, 2009 to keep Parliament suspended during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. However, the prorogation also prompted protests as it had the effect of killing a committee inquiry into the government’s treatment of Afghan detainees. Harper also prorogued Parliament in August 2013 amid the Senate expense scandal.
What’s happening now?
On Tuesday, Trudeau pitched the prorogation as a way to set up Canada for a long-term response to recovering from COVID-19.
“This is our chance to build a more resilient Canada,” he said. “This is our moment to change the future for the better, we can’t afford to miss it because this window of opportunity won’t be open for long.”
This will be Trudeau’s first prorogation as prime minister.
When asked about the 2015 platform that promised Liberals would not “resort to legislative tricks to avoid scrutiny,” Trudeau said there was a key difference between him and his predecessor on the issue.
“Stephen Harper and the Conservatives prorogued Parliament in order to shut it down and avoid a confidence vote,” he said. “We are proroguing Parliament to bring back Parliament on the exact same week it was supposed to and bring forward a confidence vote.”
What will federal officials do during this time?
It’s expected Trudeau and the Liberals will take this time to get Freeland up to speed on her new cabinet role, as well as Dominic LeBlanc, who’s taking over Freeland’s previous role in intergovernmental affairs. There’s a cabinet retreat scheduled for Sept. 14.
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On Tuesday, the prime minister claimed a prorogation was necessary to update the government’s mandate and plan for dealing with the pandemic long-term.
“That plan was designed for a different Canada, a pre-COVID Canada,” Trudeau said. “We are prepared to do our part and receive the support of the Parliament for a more resilient Canada.”
What happens to ongoing pandemic responses?
Many Canadians will likely worry about what happens to essential COVID-19 relief programs with the government on pause.
In a prorogued Parliament, the government will not be able to pass new legislation or amend existing legislation. Committee work will be halted until Parliament resumes on Sept. 23.
Trudeau said Tuesday that programs including the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), employment insurance, and the wage subsidy will not be impacted during the prorogation period.
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What about the WE scandal?
Prorogation shuts down committee work, as no parliamentary committee can sit during prorogation. On Tuesday, Tory finance critic Pierre Poilievre said the finance committee, which has been leading the investigation into the WE Charity scandal, was preparing to receive 5,000 pages of documents this week. Liberals turned over the documents this month, but they had to be vetted for cabinet secrets and personal information.
WATCH: Charlie Angus challenges Trudeau on WE controversy. Story continues below.
Committee members from the Tories, NDP and Bloc co-signed a letter Tuesday calling for the release of the documents before prorogation begins.
But on Tuesday, Trudeau confirmed that the documents would be released to committee members ahead of the prorogation so they can spend the period where Parliament is suspended going over them. He also said the investigation into the WE Charity scandal will continue.
“There’s no doubt that opposition members will continue to ask their questions, journalists will do their work, the ethics commissioner will do his work,” Trudeau said.
The conflict of interest and ethics commissioner will continue his investigation into both Trudeau and Morneau for not recusing themselves from the government’s decision on WE, given family ties to the organization. Morneau faces an expanded probe after his repayment to the WE organization of more than $41,000 in expenses for family trips to Kenya and Ecuador in 2017.
What are other parties saying?
Still in a statement Tuesday, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer accused Trudeau of “hiding out” amid a political controversy. He also called the prime minister “spineless.”
“Justin Trudeau is walking out on Canadians in the middle of a major health and economic crisis, in a disgusting attempt to make Canadians forget about his corruption,” he said.
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Bloc Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet last week said he would bring a non-confidence vote himself if Trudeau, Morneau and Trudeau’s chief of staff Katie Telford do not all resign.
During a speech at a Bloc caucus retreat in Bonaventure, Que., Blanchet said prorogation would make that easier, and his party could vote against the throne speech, though he left the door open to supporting it if it includes the Bloc’s demands.
In a statement Tuesday, the NDP called the prorogation a “Harper-style” tactic.
“Shutting down p Parliament in the middle of a pandemic and an economic crisis, with a planned sitting next week, and committees working hard to get solutions and answers for Canadians, is wrong,” the statement read.
With files from The Canadian Press, Ryan Maloney.