Prime Minister Justin Trudeau prorogued Parliament Tuesday, saying he needs a Throne Speech to launch a new recovery plan and insisting the move is consistent with his party’s pledge not to misuse the procedural move.
Mr. Trudeau made the announcement the same day that he named Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland as the new Finance Minister, a position vacated Monday by the resignation of Bill Morneau. She is the country’s first woman in that role.
In proroguing Parliament until Sept. 23, Mr. Trudeau shuts down committee investigations into the Liberal government’s WE Charity controversy. The Prime Minister promised a Throne Speech when Parliament returns and a confidence vote, which could trigger a federal election if the minority government Liberals fail to win the support of at least one of the three main opposition parties.
The Prime Minister said prorogation and a Throne Speech are necessary because the world has changed since the government approved its initial Throne Speech in December, which was based on the Liberal Party’s 2019 campaign pledges.
“We do not want an election. But it is obvious that the Throne Speech we gave eight months ago is no longer relevant for the reality that Canadians are living and that our government is facing,” Mr. Trudeau told reporters at a news conference on Parliament Hill. “There are many things we committed to Canadians in that Throne Speech that we will be continuing to work on, but many others that aren’t the priority that they once were. … I think it is important that Canadians have a clear idea of the plan that we have for building a stronger economy that is more inclusive, that is greener, that is fairer for all Canadians.”
The Liberal Party’s 2015 election campaign platform included a specific pledge not to abuse the use of prorogation, after criticizing the former Conservative prime minister’s use of the procedural tool.
“We will not resort to legislative tricks to avoid scrutiny,” the platform said. “Stephen Harper has used prorogation to prevent Parliament from properly reviewing and debating his proposals.” The platform said House of Commons rules would be changed “to bring an end to this undemocratic process.”
Mr. Harper faced criticism for proroguing Parliament in December, 2008, during the onset of the global financial crisis, at a time when opposition parties were planning to defeat his minority Conservative government. The prorogation bought the government time and allowed it to survive confidence votes when Parliament resumed the next month. Mr. Harper’s third of four prorogations in power was also controversial. The December, 2009, prorogation had the effect of shutting down a politically sensitive parliamentary investigation into the government’s handling of Afghan detainees.
During the Trudeau government’s first four-year term, Parliament was never prorogued.
When asked about that campaign pledge, Mr. Trudeau insisted the current situation is different.
“Stephen Harper and the Conservatives prorogued Parliament in order to shut it down and avoid a confidence vote. We are proroguing Parliament to bring it back on exactly the same week it was supposed to come back anyway and force a confidence vote,” he said.
The House of Commons was scheduled to sit for one day next week as part of an agreement with the NDP earlier in the year to continue the suspension of regular sitting days while allowing some committee work to continue. There have only been 45 regular sitting days since the October, 2019, election because of suspensions related to the novel coronavirus.
Regular sitting days were scheduled to resume on Monday, Sept. 21. Mr. Trudeau could have decided to allow committee work to continue and to prorogue just before the Throne Speech, rather than immediately.
The effect of prorogation is that regular committee work is shut down as all bills and committee studies die.
The existing bills and committee studies are not necessarily ended for good, however. Procedural options exist for MPs to approve motions that would reinstate bills and studies back to the stages they were at at the time of prorogation.
Mr. Trudeau said that documents related to the now-cancelled contract with the WE Charity designed to help students during the pandemic would still be released.
“I can say that we have released all those documents to the members of the committee so that they can spend their time going through those mountains of documents over the coming weeks so that they can continue to ask any questions they like on this issue,” he said.
Opposition MPs on the House of Commons finance committee have received an estimated 5,000 pages of documents.
At the time of the Speech from the Throne, a new Conservative leader will be in place. A leader is to be named on Sunday and will have to hit the ground running in preparation for a possible election.
The decision to prorogue Parliament was met with disdain from opposition parties on Tuesday.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said the prorogation is aimed at blocking the WE Charity investigation.
“Earlier this year, Justin Trudeau shamefully shut down Parliament to try and avoid accountability. Now he has locked out opposition MPs who were working hard to fix his government’s pandemic programs [and] help Canadians and get to the bottom of his corruption scandal,” he said in a statement. “Justin Trudeau is walking out on Canadians in the middle of a major health and economic crisis, in a disgusting attempt to make Canadians forget about his corruption.”
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said shutting down Parliament in the middle of a pandemic and an economic crisis is wrong.
“Canadians shouldn’t be forced to pay the price for Mr. Trudeau’s scandals,” he said on Twitter.
Earlier in the day, Mr. Singh told reporters in Vancouver that this week’s events are “deeply troubling” and a sign that the Liberals are more focused on themselves rather than dealing with the pandemic.
“It seems like the Liberal government is more interested in throwing the finance minister under the bus than the Prime Minister taking responsibility for his own breaches of conflict-of-interest laws and his own breaches when it comes to scandals,” Mr. Singh said.
Prior to Mr. Trudeau’s prorogation announcement, he was at Rideau Hall for a ceremony to swear in Ms. Freeland to the critical finance portfolio.
On Monday, Bill Morneau, who had served in the role since 2015, announced he was leaving the Trudeau cabinet. Mr. Morneau is also resigning as an MP. The resignation followed several media reports of disagreements between the two men, but both praised each other in their public comments this week.
Both are the subject of investigations by the Ethics Commissioner related to a now-cancelled contract with WE Charity to administer a program for students during the pandemic.
The Ethics Commissioner will proceed with his report on Mr. Morneau even if he is no longer an office holder, his office confirmed on Tuesday.
At a committee hearing into the issue last month, Mr. Morneau revealed that he had reimbursed $41,366 to WE Charity for travel expenses that the group covered for personal trips his family took to Kenya and Ecuador in 2017.
He is the only finance minister that Mr. Trudeau has had since his government came to power in 2015.
Mr. Trudeau thanked Mr. Morneau for his service, adding that he counted on the minister’s leadership, advice and close friendship over the years.
The swearing-in of the new cabinet was the first of its kind during the pandemic. Those attending the ceremony wore masks, and chairs at the ceremony were spaced out to enable physical distancing.
Ms. Freeland, who was first elected in 2013, will be the first female finance minister in Canadian history, and she is regarded in Liberal circles as a good listener, strong communicator and as being able to take on significant undertakings for the government.
From 2015 to 2017, Ms. Freeland served as the international trade minister and oversaw the renegotiation of Canada’s free trade agreement with the European Union.
From January, 2017, to November, 2019, she held the Foreign Affairs portfolio and concluded the renegotiation of the North American free-trade agreement between Canada, Mexico and the United States.
Ms. Freeland is also a former journalist and author.
She expressed hope that her appointment will inspire other women and signalled that her focus is on crafting an economic recovery plan that includes a strong environmental focus and addresses the fact that the economic impact of the pandemic “is hitting women particularly hard.”
“I am conscious of the fact that I am Canada’s first woman Finance Minister,” she said. “It’s about time that we broke that glass ceiling. I’d like to say to all the Canadian women across our amazing country who are out there breaking glass ceilings: Keep going.”
Representing Canada during trade talks with the United States involved regular discussions with provincial and territorial premiers, who must approve aspects of any trade deals that fall under their jurisdiction.
As Deputy Prime Minister, the Alberta-born Ms. Freeland was assigned to keep working closely with the provinces on a range of issues including sensitive such as energy policy. That role increased substantially at the onset of the pandemic, as she was placed in charge of a special COVID-19 cabinet committee and was Ottawa’s main contact with the premiers to co-ordinate Canada’s pandemic response plan.
Ms. Freeland negotiated with the provinces on a federal pandemic support package, which increased from an initial offer of $14-billion to $19-billion when it was finalized in July.
“It’s very likely that all the premiers would share the perspective that Minister Freeland, in her previous roles, whether it was COVID or prior to that with trade discussions, was very willing to reach out to the premiers, me included,” Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister told The Globe and Mail Tuesday.
“I appreciated that dialogue and I think that’s going to be essential moving forward.”
Mr. Pallister said “of course I’m concerned” about the instability in Ottawa as the finance minister is replaced in the middle of a pandemic, but praised the fact that Mr. Morneau’s replacement was announced quickly.
Another Progressive Conservative Premier also had high praise for Ms. Freeland and her appointment as Finance Minister.
“There’s no secret, I think the world of Chrystia,” Ontario Premier Doug Ford told reporters at an event in Scarborough that included a call for more federal funding for public transit.
“I sent her a message this morning. She was strong as Deputy Prime Minister, and if there is one person I have confidence in, it’s Chrystia Freeland, that we can work together, we can sit down, pick up the phone. And one of the first phone calls – I’ll let her get settled in – but we need money for the transit system,” he said. “There’s no better person I’d want to work with than Chrystia Freeland. She’s going to do an incredible job. She’s a good friend and I can’t wait to start working with her to move our projects forward.”
Jerry Dias, the president of Unifor, said Tuesday that he worked hand-in-hand with Ms. Freeland during the renegotiation of the new U.S. free-trade agreement. Mr. Dias said she will bring a broad understanding of people to her new role as Finance Minister.
“She is deeply principled … I watched her dealing with the United States, I watched her dealing with [U.S. President Donald] Trump on the softwood lumber dispute. I watched her deal with the aluminum tariffs during the [free-trade] debate,” he said. “I know her. I respect her.”
BILL CURRY AND KRISTY KIRKUP
The Globe and Mail, August 18, 2020