By Sacha Forstner
On March 15th, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne unexpectedly prorogued the legislature for four days. For those unfamiliar with parliamentary jargon, “prorogation” refers to the ending of a legislative session by the Crown (always on the advice of the Premier). Practically speaking, prorogation means that the Legislative Assembly is temporarily shut down and all bills that have not become law cease to exist (though they can be brought back later). When the legislature returns, the Lieutenant Governor delivers a Speech from the Throne, written by the Government, to open the new session and identify the Government’s key policy priorities moving forward.
Wynne’s decision to hold a Throne Speech less than three months before the expected general election of June 7th was met with widespread criticism from the public, the press, and both opposition parties. With the current legislature seemingly so near to the end of its term, the Premier’s choice was largely ridiculed as an attempt to take advantage of public resources to market the governing party’s election platform. For her part, Wynne argued that holding a Throne Speech was the only way for the Government to lay out its priorities heading into the election.
Unfortunately, the Premier missed the point. There is a difference, in our Westminster political system, between the governing party and the Government itself. Parties are formal associations of political interests; winning elections, organizing campaigns, and building platforms is the reason they exist. The Government – though it is run by members of the “ruling” political party – is not itself a partisan entity. Though the party in power may change, the Government is continuous – its agencies, laws, enforcement mechanisms, and policies persist throughout elections, and are not tied to a party’s “brand.” This fact is partly why the Throne Speech – which sets out the Government’s policy priorities – is read by the Lieutenant Governor (a non-partisan state official representing the Queen), and not the Premier.
Monday’s Throne Speech was not about Government action. Assuming the parliamentary calendar does not change, MPPs will have barely six and a half weeks to carry out the marching orders they received from the Crown before the legislature is dissolved in early May. Far from being a list of policies the Government hoped to enact, this Speech from the Throne was purely about defining the Liberal Party’s platform for the upcoming election. Such an intertwining of party and Government is no small thing – it is a cynical co-opting of the non-partisan trappings of state officialdom for, essentially, a glorified campaign launch. Policies that should have been unveiled at a Liberal Party rally, hosted on the Party’s dime, have been presented – by the Queen’s representative, no less – as a government decision, rather than a campaign commitment. Though it did not breach any laws or campaign rules, the Premier’s choice to use the Throne Speech this way is a disrespectful misappropriation of public resources and symbols, purely for the benefit of her party.
At this point, it is only prudent to point out that Kathleen Wynne is hardly the first political executive in Canadian history to use prorogation in a politically cynical way. At the federal level, there are some significant precedents. In 2008, Stephen Harper infamously had Parliament prorogued after just 13 days in order to avoid a confidence vote. Sir John A. Macdonald once asked for prorogation in order to halt a committee’s investigation into a bribery scandal. Even the historical origins of prorogation can be framed around its use as a political tool for the executive to manipulate and gain an advantage over Parliament – Queen Elizabeth I’s fourth Parliament was prorogued 26 times in 11 years. So while it is unusual to invoke prorogation the way Ms. Wynne has – as a means to turn the Throne Speech into a campaign event – its use as a vehicle for political cynicism is hardly novel.
While history may prove this event unexceptional, perhaps that same past can offer up some potential solutions. Historically, the “dignified” purpose of the Throne Speech was clear: Parliament was only legally allowed to convene for the purpose of considering the wishes of the Sovereign – levying new taxes, supplying the Treasury with funds, and carrying out the Crown’s legislative agenda. When the business for which Parliament had been summoned was concluded, the session would end, and – unless an election was due – the Sovereign would declare it prorogued. It is this understanding of prorogation as a vehicle for marking the end of the legislative cycle that is the key to its reform.
Ontario’s legislature – and perhaps others across Canada – should fix an annual date for prorogation in its own Standing Orders (if annually is too much, every 16 months would suffice). Assuming no loss of confidence in the government, the parliamentary calendar could be shaped around a fixed annual date for the Throne Speech, and the fixed election date. A working version of this model already exists in Britain, where the State Opening of Parliament is held every May (or shortly after an election). A similar change here would convert the Throne Speech into an outline of the Government’s top policy priorities and legislative plans for that year, rather than a dressed-up platform launch for the ruling party. Of course, constitutionally the Premier would always have the right to ask the Lieutenant Governor to prorogue outside the fixed date – but much like our fixed date elections, it would become politically toxic to do so.
The Speech from the Throne is meant to signify the legitimate authority of the state, the dignity of the Crown, and the functionalism of responsible government. It is time our politicians stopped distorting it in order to play politics.
Sacha Forstner holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science from the University of Waterloo, where he specialized in Canadian politics and served his student government in a policy advocacy role. His interests include post-secondary education and skills development policy, transportation policy, federalism, the Canadian Crown, and the politics of public administration in the Westminster system. An avid traveler, he recently returned from an extended stay in Japan, and strongly believes in the power of a comparative approach to policymaking as way to generate meaningful solutions to societal problems.