Prorogation: A reason to celebrate?

Now you see it…now you don’t.

Before Parliament rose for the summer, my colleagues and I in the Ottawa Office were playing peekaboo with a piece of legislation.

In the final (crazy) weeks of spring sitting—chock-full of extended sitting hours,cluster munitions late night debates, and countless time allocation motions—Bill S-10, An Act to Implement the Convention on Cluster Munitions, was notoriously hard to pin down. Some days, we would see it listed on the day’s Order Paper, only to have it be a “no-show.” Other days, while not on the official agenda, the bill would catch us off-guard by making an appearance in a late night debate.

It was all a bit dizzying.

When the House finally rose for summer recess on June 19th, we gave our bill-monitoring duties a rest, assuming we’d get back in the proverbial saddle again once fall session kicked off on September 16th.

This date, of course, has come and gone, and business on Parliament Hill is still on hold.

Just days before the session was set to resume, the Prime Minister got his request fulfilled by the Governor General to officially prorogue Parliament. Also known around town as “hitting the re-set button,” “political reboot,” “making a fresh start,” “pulling the plug,” or “changing the channel” (depending on your perspective), this move means that all unfinished business from the last sitting has been wiped from the agenda.

For those of us preoccupied with all-things Parliament Hill, what this also means is that we have no Question Period drama to watch, no Committee reports to read, and no legislative agenda to keep an eye on—not until MPs and Senators return after thanksgiving on October 16th.

But what does this mean for the bills we’ve so keenly had our eye on?

While prorogation does not impact the status of Private Members’ Business (due to a specific Standing Order, such bills and motions are automatically reinstated at the last stage they reached in the House), it does enable the government to wipe its own legislative slate clean and open the new session with a Speech from the Throne. Delivered by the Governor General in the Senate with the traditional display of pomp and ceremony, this speech will chart out the Government of Canada’s policy agenda as it enters the second half of its four-year mandate.

Once Parliament is underway again, any government bills that have technically “died on the Order Paper” could also individually be reinstated via unanimous consent of the House.

Sounds like a relatively straightforward process, procedurally-speaking. But how likely is the government to decide to reinstate past legislation given their efforts to wipe the slate clean and chart a new direction? And how likely are the opposition parties to unanimously agree to simply reinstate bills that they had serious concerns with?

Adding to the list of unknowns is Bill S-10’s status. As far as the application of “typical” resurrection rituals go, it seems to be a bit of an odd-ball.

Here’s why…

While Bill S-10 is indeed a government bill, it was originally introduced in the Senate first rather than iSenaten the House. Since being tabled on April 25, 2012 by the Government Leader in the Senate (Marjory LeBreton), it had journeyed through all three stages in the Upper Chamber (click here for a riveting overview of the legislative process) and had, just before summer recess, received second reading in the Lower Chamber and been referred to Committee for study.

The procedural option for resurrecting government bills, however, does not apply to Senate business. Given that Bill S-10 had already passed through the necessary stages in the Red Chamber before prorogation, does this mean it could simply be reinstated where it left off (ie. since it was in the House before summer recess, it’s now considered “House business”)? Or does this mean that all previous Senate work on the legislation would be declared null and void?

Complicating things further is the do-we-reform-or-do-we-abolish debate unfolding around the future of the Senate. Given that the Government Leader in the Senate stepped down in the summer, and the Prime Minister did not replace this position within his Cabinet, it is unclear how regular business in the Upper Chamber will even be conducted going forward.

If you’re as interested as we are in the minutiae of parliamentary procedure, you’ve likely already scoured the online compendium to find the answer (just to save you the trouble, it’s not there). Even our best sleuthing skills haven’t come up with a definitive answer for Bill S-10’s fate. Our most educated guess is that it will very likely have to start over from scratch.

In truth, this wouldn’t be a bad fate.

As both Canadian and international voices have been urging over the last year, as a country that has never produced or used cluster munitions, Canada should have the best legislation in the world. Unfortunately, this bill has serious flaws and substantial omissions that make it the weakest legislation to come out of the Convention.

Most glaringly, Bill S-10 (aka Prohibiting Cluster Munitions Act) creates mack-truck-sized loopholes and exemptions on the use of cluster bombs that undermine the Treaty as a comprehensive ban on an inhumane weapon (and, might I add, make the bill’s title a bit of a misnomer).

Who would have thought prorogation could be something to celebrate?

By Jenn Wiebe, MCC Ottawa Office Policy Analyst

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