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Oh, Canada?

Earlier today, I joked that it's a wonder Canada gets anything done at all, what with the all the snow up there. Well, joke's on me. They don't:

If you want to talk about really egregious government shutdowns explained with implausible excuses, just take a look at our neighbors to the north (incidentally, this Gaggler's home country): using the Olympics as a partial justification, the Canadian Parliament is in the middle of a two-month shutdown.

For those of you who have gotten behind on your Canadian politics, here’s a basic rundown. Prime Minister Steven Harper, who leads the Conservative Party, was facing a lot of difficult issues: an inquiry over maltreatment of Afghan detainees, economic woes hosting the Olympics. So he announced in December that he was basically shutting down, or proroguing, Parliament until March 3, 2010, the day after the Olympics ends. And, when they come back to session next month, the agenda is basically reset: Any bill that was on the table is done and gone away with. This has lead to numerous prorogation protests across the country, despite Canadians being generally known for their politeness. A one-week shutdown due to a massive snowstorm isn’t looking so insane, now is it?

This is the second time that Harper has prorogued Parliament. The last time, in December 2008, he did so “to avoid a no-confidence vote and blunt the threat of an opposition coalition,” according to Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail.

So, in Canada, the prime minister can place a hold on the entire Congress?

By Ezra Klein  |  February 10, 2010; 4:55 PM ET
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Actually, the prime minister DOESN'T have the ability to prorogue parliament. The reason this happened is because of the archaic remnants of a constitutional monarchy. The governor-general still technically holds the powers of the queen, and though in practice the governor-general isn't supposed to do anything besides ceremonial duties, she technically has the power to do quite a lot. In this case, that means proroguing parliament (which was unprecedented before the first time the Harper government did it) at the PM's request.

In general, though, Ottawa has an amazing snow removal service.

Posted by: gammon1 | February 10, 2010 5:15 PM | Report abuse

It's a difference in the nature of the system. As a republic, Americans elect a President directly and separately from the legistlative branch. In a parliamentary system, Canadians elect members of a parliament of which the Prime Minister is (almost always) the leader of the party with the most seats in the House. In other words, Mr. Harper is not just Prime Minister but also a sitting member of Parliament. (The Canadian Senate is unelected, but to explain why and how it works is an essay unto itself).

As for the rest, the article you cite pretty much explains the context of what's happened. The "how" is that the Prime Minister can go the Governor General, as the representative in Canada of our head of state (the Queen) and ask for prorogation, which is usually granted as a matter of course if the Prime Minister has the "confidence of the House" (i.e. has obtained a majority of votes on matters, such as the budget, which are considered important enough to fight an election over.) Not the first time this has happened in recent memory, but just the most recent example of how Prime Ministers in Canada wield significant powers.

So consider this a free Canadian civics lesson from a person of Yankee parentage. And for what it's worth, most people here think our government works only slightly better, if at all better, than yours.

Posted by: IJReilly | February 10, 2010 5:20 PM | Report abuse

Serves 'em right for not becoming a proper republic.

Posted by: adamiani | February 10, 2010 5:28 PM | Report abuse

That sounds awesome. We should model our healthcare system after Canada's. They've got it down.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | February 10, 2010 5:33 PM | Report abuse

Of course. It's a parliamentary system, and he's the head of government. Although the circumstances in 2008 were different - then, he had to call the Queen in.

Posted by: roquelaure_79 | February 10, 2010 5:52 PM | Report abuse

To really understand how the whole thing functions, you have to realize that the structure of Canadian government relies heavily on constitutional conventions that, although unwritten, are as authoritative as any document. This gives the system a certain amount of flexibility to deal with unforeseen situations, but it can be a little unclear and confusing for the uninformed, not to mention that there's a presumption that the participants will act in a responsible manner. The Harper Tories, however, have been the most recklessly abusive government, at least as regards to constitutional issues.

So although a Prime Minster has the power, through his or her Governor-General, to prorogue Parliament, it's a so-called reserve power - reserved, that is, for extraordinary circumstances. Harper has now twice abused the privilege for narrow partisan reasons. Fortunately, the polls indicate that the electorate is finally fed up with such actions.

Posted by: radio_wave | February 10, 2010 6:18 PM | Report abuse

In my opinion, the Canadians have a serious constitutional crisis on their hands (and have since the first prorogation).

After all, the Crown is sovereign in Canada. Here the People are sovereign.

That being said, they manage to provide health care to all their citizens, so they can get away with such buffoonery.

Posted by: cbaratta | February 10, 2010 6:32 PM | Report abuse

Well, Canadians didn't take this sitting down (did anyone mention Harper prorogued Parliament on December 30th? not a day you pick when you think people will applaud your action.)

A quarter-million Canadians joined a Facebook group, organized through it and three weeks later held 60 simultaneous demonstrations across the country and a few outside Canada, too. About half the 220,000 attended these marches.

We will probably have an election this spring or summer, and those protesters are currently mobilizing to volunteer for any campaign except that of the ruling party, the Conservatives (aka "Republican Lite.")

The first time Harper prorogued, our other two big parties had prepared a coalition, with the promised support of a third big party, which would have brought down Harper's government and replaced it the day Parliament convened. Harper prorogued parliament before it could even convene, thus dodging that bullet. However, there's nothing to stop the opposition parties from doing the same thing again when they convene, only a little more sneakily this time.

One word about our system: if our parliament votes no-confidence, there's an election right away. There's none of this "four-year term and nothing but impeachment can stop it" business. No, no -- we can dump them on the spot. Wouldn't that have been nice when Bush was... well, when Bush was almost anything. And our federal election campaigns don't last a year or more -- they take at least 36 days, with no upper limit -- but 74 days is the longest ever.


Posted by: NoniMausa | February 10, 2010 6:34 PM | Report abuse

(Now now, our system can be explained without condescension.)

Here, you can easily become Prime Minister with well under 50% of the popular vote.

This means that when you for some reason publicly announce you've decided to take two months off...

...the majority (who didn't vote for you) are happy to see you not implement your agenda

...the minority (who did vote for you) are happy to see you not held accountable

Posted by: T_S_ | February 10, 2010 9:52 PM | Report abuse

Gammon1 writes, "...which was unprecedented before the first time the Harper government did it.." This is incorrect. Chretien prorogued parliament 13 times while PM. Check your facts.

Posted by: KPaige1 | February 11, 2010 2:02 AM | Report abuse

@KPaige1: You're failing to make a distinction between proroguing parliament upon completion of the government's agenda for that parliament and proroguing it mid-session. You're right, though, the parliament had been prorogued before in special circumstances, once, by John A. MacDonald who was forced to resign when parliament reconvened.

Posted by: gammon1 | February 11, 2010 11:44 AM | Report abuse


In a British-style system the PM does not have the power to prorogue Parliament. He has the power to ask the Queen to do so, and she is obliged to agree (except under extreme circumstances) because she is required to defer to the elected leaders of the country. In Canada the only difference is that the Governor-General makes the decision in the Queen's name.

2008 was (arguably) one of those circumstances as all three opposition parties promised to vote Harper out ASAP. They additionally agreed to support a Liberal for PM. In other words Harper was (arguably) not the country's elected leader in late 2008.

It was also (arguably) not one of those circumstances. De jure Harper was PM until a vote of confidence. His potential replacement was vague (the Liberals were in the middle of a leadership race, and their de jure leader, Stephane Dion, was a lame duck), and most observers thought the new coalition would collapse when it took it's first tough vote anyway.

The Queen's representative in Canada was understandably somewhat confused, so she asked an expert on British-style systems for advice.

Queen Elizabeth, with more experience in dealing with these matters then the rest of the world combined, said that she should call a temporary prorogation. If the new government was durable enough to survive a tough vote it would be durable enough to survive a month of not voting in Parliament, and it easily take power then. If it wasn't durable letting it take office was a bad idea because that would be a huge mess, and when the mess was resolved Stephen Harper would be back in office.

This prorogation is less controversial as Stephen Harper is clearly the rightful leader of Canada right now. It's unusual, and he may suffer at the polls for it, but it's perfectly legal. It's also not really a total government shutdown. Parliament is not sitting, but the bureaucrats (lovingly referred to as mandarins) are still on the job. As far as I know in DC everything is shut down except maybe the White House.

Posted by: NickBenjamin | February 11, 2010 1:46 PM | Report abuse

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