Thank you, Madam Chair.
Thank you for inviting me to testify today and for accommodating my schedule.
Let me get directly to the issues that I think will be of most help to this committee.
On the issue of prorogation, I think the authority to request a prorogation is clear. For centuries, Parliament has met at the call of the sovereign, and since the development of the principles of responsible government in the 1800s, the decision to prorogue has been made solely by the Prime Minister. The Governor General prorogues but does so solely on the advice of the Prime Minister. Therefore, questions regarding prorogation are rightly answered by the prime minister as the decision-maker.
The purpose of prorogation, until 2008, was considered a routine matter. Prime ministers typically prorogued Parliament every year or two. Prorogation obviously clears Parliament's legislative agenda and gives the government an opportunity to present a throne speech.
However, there is no constitutional need for prorogation—of course, during the 42nd Parliament, Mr. Trudeau's government refreshed its agenda several times without proroguing over the four years—nor is prorogation required for the House to be able to demonstrate its confidence in the government of the day. The House holds regular votes on matters of confidence. As members of this committee certainly know, the business of supply and the business of ways and means ensure confidence votes are scheduled every few weeks when the House of Commons is sitting.
Prorogation, instead, is a strictly political act that's done strictly for political reasons.
On the essential elements of prorogation, while the Prime Minister may prorogue Parliament and then recall it days or even months later, leaving a gap between prorogation and the recall of Parliament is not advisable. Once Parliament is prorogued, if there's a sudden need for urgent legislation, then the formalities around a new session of Parliament delay the consideration of that urgent legislation.
It's better, if possible, to prorogue the day before the recall of Parliament, and prime ministers often do this by giving advance notice of their intention to prorogue.
I believe the committee has heard about the prorogation of December 4, 2008. As mentioned, prorogation was a routine matter until that prorogation. The prorogation of December 2008 was turned into a matter of partisan division, and that division gave rise to the reform of Standing Order 32(7) in the 42nd Parliament.
I think the report that has been laid before this committee perpetuates an effort to politicize that prorogation when it falsely claims that the government of the day prorogued to avoid a confidence vote that could potentially have caused its fall. Twelve years have passed since the events of 2008, enough time to allow for a more sober, non-partisan evaluation of those events. I've offered such an account in my book, At the Centre of Government, and I'm going to draw on my remarks in that book for my remarks today.
Committee members will recall that the federal election of 2008 delivered a disappointing result for all three opposition parties: The Liberals under Mr. Dion lost 18 of their seats in the House, the NDP failed to reach the 20% of the popular vote that they had long sought and the Bloc in that election was unable to eliminate the beachhead that the Conservatives had established in Quebec in the previous general election. Mr. Dion announced he would resign as Liberal leader, and the other two opposition leaders faced tough internal questions about their futures.
The November 30, 2008, pact announced by Mr. Dion and the other two leaders was depicted as a reaction to the government's economic update and its proposal to phase out the per-vote subsidy for political parties, but it was later reported in the media that the pact had been under discussion weeks before that economic update was delivered.
In retrospect, I think it's now clear that the November 30 pact was a way for weakened party leaders, particularly Mr. Dion, to protect and extend their own leadership positions against internal party challenges. This view was validated by subsequent events. After the prorogation, the Liberal caucus forced Mr. Dion's immediate resignation. When the House returned a few weeks later, the Liberals, then led by Mr. Ignatieff, voted to keep Mr. Harper's government in office when it presented its budget.
The crisis of 2008, then, was the breakdown of good governance inside the Liberal caucus. The controversy about the 2008 prorogation was an effort to distract attention from that crisis.
Let me compare this to the prorogation that's under study by your committee, the prorogation of August 2020. Your study of last August's prorogation is extremely helpful. You are setting a precedent for how reports on future prorogations will be handled, and you're doing so with help from experts. I hope the Prime Minister will set a useful precedent and appear before you to answer questions about his decision, as it was his decision.
Let me suggest some questions that committee members could helpfully pose to the Prime Minister.
First of all, the August 2020 prorogation came after five months of special orders that had already greatly curtailed all parliamentary proceedings. Parliament had really not had a suitable amount of time for scrutiny, debate or legislation between March of 2020 and the prorogation. Was the Prime Minister worried that in proroguing he would further curtail the legitimate work of the House of Commons and the representatives elected here?
Second, he prorogued Parliament immediately and then recalled it weeks later. If the government had required urgent legislation to respond to the ongoing public health crisis—which it has done several times since March—that urgent legislation would have been delayed. In proroguing, what plans did the Prime Minister have for mitigating the risk of the need for urgent legislation?
Third, the government was already behind schedule in responding to the Truchon decision. Prorogation inevitably put pressure on the House of Commons and the Senate to cut short their debates on the weighty issues in Bill C-7. In short, I would say prorogation showed, in effect if not in intent, a disregard for the legitimate parliamentary debate of a medical assistance in dying bill, and that verges on contempt for Parliament. What would the Prime Minister say about the idea that he showed disregard for a legitimate debate on Bill C-7 by proroguing Parliament?
Fourth, of course thePrime Minister's decision to prorogue ended ongoing committee investigations of what appears to have been a major conflict of interest on the part of the Prime Minister himself and possibly the then finance minister. What steps is the Prime Minister prepared to take to dispel the cloud over this aspect of his decision?
In conclusion, members, the so-called “prorogation crisis” of December 2008 was in fact triggered by a crisis within the Liberal Party caucus. Proroguing the House back then gave the Liberal Party time to resolve its internal governance problems, this is evidenced by the fact that the Liberal Party, after resolving its internal problems, sustained the Harper government in office at the beginning of 2009. I would say the August 2020 prorogation took place in a similar situation, a breakdown of governance within the Liberal Party that was triggered by Mr. Trudeau and the then finance minister when they put themselves in what appears to have been a direct conflict of interest.
Madam Chair, I am happy to take questions if members have them.