[Democracy Watch Logo] [Op-ed]

Prorogation of Parliament and snap elections avoid government accountability in many unreported ways and must be prohibited unless specific conditions are met -- other changes needed to ensure ongoing accountability

JOIN Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament Facebook group,
and attend rallies across Canada this Saturday, January 23rd
(NOTE: Duff Conacher, Coordinator of Democracy Watch, will be speaking at the rally in Toronto)

Set out below is an op-ed by Democracy Watch Coordinator Duff Conacher which was published in shorter, edited form in the January 13, 2010 issues of the Waterloo Region Record, the Guelph Mercury and the Sudbury Star, and in the January 18, 2010 issues of the Toronto Star and the Hill Times 

Beyond the investigation into how Canadian forces oversaw the transfer and treatment of detainees in the Afghanistan war, there are three other important government accountability situations not mentioned in any media coverage so far that the federal Conservatives are avoiding through the arbitrary proroguing of Parliament by Prime Minister Harper, all of which would likely have been reported on in February.

First, the Ethics Commissioner is investigating and will rule on whether the handing out of Conservative Party-labelled government spending cheques by several Cabinet ministers and MPs was legal under federal ethics rules.

Second, the Ethics Commissioner, Commissioner of Lobbying, and Elections Canada are investigating and will rule on fundraising events by a Conservative Cabinet minister and parliamentary secretary that involved lobbyists and that raise serious questions about violations of the ethics rules.

And third the Auditor General would likely release a report or two on government spending practices by various departments and agencies.

So while the Parliamentary Budget Officer has pledged to continue to release his reports (a power he would lose if he was made into a full Officer of Parliament), the officers of parliament listed above cannot issue their rulings and reports to Parliament in February because Prime Minister Harper shut down Parliament.

If Prime Minister Harper's Speech from the Throne when Parliament opens is actually an election platform, and the Conservatives' proposed budget their spending plan, and he then immediately calls a snap election, none of these key government accountability reports and rulings will see the light of day until after the election.

This would be a fundamental denial of the right of voters to know the full record of the current government before being forced to vote again.

While Democracy Watch is appealing last September's Federal Court ruling that legalized Prime Minister Harper's snap election call in September 2008 despite the fixed-election-date measures that the Conservatives introduced and Parliament added to the Canada Elections Act, it will be difficult for the Federal Court of Appeal to fully review and rule on the case before March.

As a result, another snap election call by Prime Minister Harper may also allow him to escape effective accountability for violating the fixed-election-date measures again.

To ensure proroguing is not used in the future to avoid accountability in these ways, the opposition parties must make it a priority to make several changes when Parliament opens again in March.

First, all good government watchdog agencies must be given the power under the Parliament of Canada Act to release their reports and rulings whenever they are completed, whether or not Parliament is open.

Second, the Inquiries Act must be changed to empower a majority of leaders of parties in the House of Commons to initiate a public inquiry, to overcome the resistance of Cabinet ministers to initiate independent investigations of alleged wrongdoing by them and/or staff, officials, departments or agencies for which they are responsible (To see op-ed on this issue, click here).

Under such a system, sometimes opposition parties would unjustifiably initiate a public inquiry, but they would pay a political price for wasting the public's money by doing so, and frivolous inquiries would like shut down quickly after finding no evidence of actual wrongdoing.

Better to have alleged wrongdoing investigated than not, and better to have independent inquiry commissioners do the investigating than the partisan kangaroo courts that parliamentary committee investigations usually become.

Third, while some commentators have proposed that prorogation should not be allowed unless a majority of MPs vote for it, such a voting system would not be effective as very likely prorogation would always be opposed by opposition parties whether or not it is in the public interest, and they would only be able to stop prorogation during a minority government because during a majority government the majority of ruling party MPs would likely approve it any time their Prime Minister wanted (as happened during Jean Chrétien's reign as prime minister).

Instead, the rules should be changed to allow the Prime Minister to request prorogation of Parliament by the Governor General only for a very short time period (at most two weeks), and only if the Prime Minister can show that the government has completed all of their pledged actions and decisions from the last speech from the throne (or attempted to complete them, as the opposition parties may stop or delay completion of some actions), or that the national situation has changed in such significant ways that a new government plan is needed immediately, or when an election is called.

Finally, if the Federal Court of Appeal and Supreme Court of Canada rule that the current fixed-election-date measures don't actually fix federal election dates, further changes must be made to ensure the Prime Minister is prohibited from calling snap elections.

Similar changes are needed in every province and territory across Canada.

Until these changes are made, Canada's Prime Minister and premiers will continue to have the right to delay or escape accountability in dangerously undemocratic ways.

For more details, go to Democracy Watch's Voter Rights Campaign