Thank you to the committee for inviting me. I appreciate doing this by Zoom so I didn't have to fly to Ottawa, as much as I enjoy Ottawa.
I will read my opening statement and then I can flesh it out during the question period.
Prorogation is an important parliamentary tool. It allows for a government reset in between elections. However, it's a tool that can be and has been abused by governments, particularly when they're in a minority situation. Before getting to the matter of August 2020, I will give a short list of recent and controversial prorogations by both Liberal and Conservative governments.
In 2002, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien prorogued Parliament. This allowed Chrétien to avoid tabling a report to the House of Commons public accounts committee regarding the sponsorship scandal. Unusually, this was done by a majority government, not by a minority government.
Then we have the episode in December 2008 with Prime Minister Stephen Harper. This was probably the most controversial case in Canadian history. Harper had won a minority government weeks before, but was facing a non-confidence vote which he would surely lose. The other party leaders, Stéphane Dion, Jack Layton and Monsieur Duceppe, signed agreements signalling their intent to defeat the government. Because it was so close to the previous election, there would likely be no fresh election, and instead Stéphane Dion would be permitted to form a new government. To delay the vote, Harper prorogued Parliament. I will return to this case again.
The third case was January 2010 to March 2010, also by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The stated reason was to keep Parliament in recess for the duration of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. However, it was strongly suspected that Harper wanted to avoid ongoing investigations in the Afghan detainees affair. This case was quite similar to the August 2020 prorogation: the minority government facing damaging committee investigations.
This brings us to the August 2020 to September 2020 prorogation.
The reason for the throne speech was prorogation. The official reason for the decision to prorogue Parliament was to allow a government reset to address the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout. Without a doubt, this is a very valid reason and would absolutely have justified proroguing Parliament. Responding to COVID-19 probably did play a role in the decision-making that led to the decision to prorogue.
However, I would argue that a much more important rationale was the WE scandal. The Canadian government had given a sole-source contract to the WE Charity to administer a student volunteer program. However, WE had very close ties to the families of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and then finance minister Bill Morneau. The scandal led to Morneau's resignation and increased scrutiny from parliamentary committees into the role of Trudeau, the Prime Minister's Office, other ministers and senior members of the public service. Proroguing suspended those investigations and allowed the Trudeau government six weeks to try to change the channel with Canadians.
There are two key pieces of evidence that I have compiled to justify my argument.
First was the timing of the prorogation. As I said, COVID-19 became an important issue in March 2020. The government responded with a series of health responses and unprecedented economic responses throughout the spring of 2020. If at any time in the spring of 2020, the government had decided to prorogue Parliament in order to give it more time to effectively respond to COVID-19, that would have made perfect sense. Waiting until August, and only after the WE scandal had been percolating for weeks with future bad news for the government, showed what I believe was the real political calculation.
A comparison to Stephen Harper in 2008 is in order.
In the fall of 2008, as the global financial crisis was hitting, that was a legitimate justification to prorogue Parliament, even though we had just had a federal election weeks before. In fact, the new throne speech did respond to the global financial crisis. However, as I argued above, the real reason was to delay an imminent non-confidence vote in the hopes that the Liberal-NDP-BQ coalition would collapse, which is exactly what happened.
Second, was the throne speech itself. Speeches from the throne are usually a one-day story. There is some buildup, but they are usually vague visions of the future direction of the government. However, the one that the Justin Trudeau government delivered in September 2020 was supposed to be significantly different.
There was speculation for weeks about its contents. It would be delivered in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and record levels of government spending. The speech followed Parliament's prorogation with a looming threat of a non-confidence vote that would plunge Canada into an election. If these stakes were not high enough, Trudeau and the opposition leaders would give separate television addresses to Canadians, timed for the supper-hour news in Ontario and Quebec, but sadly for those in the western provinces like myself, it was in the afternoon, and most people missed it.
Unfortunately, despite the hype, there was not much substance to the Speech from the Throne. If the reason for prorogation was in fact COVID-19, the Speech from the Throne would have been laser-focused on how the government would respond, both through health measures and economic responses. It would have indicated new programs and policies. Instead, the content was a rehash of previous federal programs, such as the Canadian emergency wage subsidy, and promises that had been repeatedly made, such as strengthening child care programs and creating a national pharmacare program.
These could have been refocused as a policy response to COVID-19, but were not really. Instead, it resembled a campaign speech for the next election, which could have arrived soon after.
The television address was even worse. I'll skip over some of this stuff. The television address was really an opportunity for Trudeau to summarize the throne speech in his own words, and not the Governor General's, that had only been delivered a couple of hours previously. This was a campaign speech.
Ultimately, the Speech from the Throne was not primarily about a reset due to COVID-19. Rather, it was an elaborate effort from the Trudeau government to distract Canadians from a political scandal.
With that, I will conclude my opening statement, and wait for questions.