“Prorogue”: a word that appeared in the New York Times and other media outlets yesterday that I am fairly sure I never saw before outside of colonial history books, and I mean old-school colonial history books like that comps-list standard of yesteryear, Royal Government in America by Leonard W. Labaree (1930). It turns out that “royal government in America” still exists outside of Dick Cheney’s fondest imaginings:
OTTAWA — Canada’s parliamentary opposition reacted with outrage on Thursday after Prime Minister Stephen Harper shut down the legislature until Jan. 26, seeking to forestall a no-confidence vote that he was sure to lose and, possibly, provoking a constitutional crisis.
Mr. Harper acted after getting the approval of Governor General Michaëlle Jean, who represents Queen Elizabeth II as the nation’s head of state. If his request had been rejected, he would have had to choose between stepping down or facing the no-confidence vote on Monday.
The opposition fiercely criticized the decision to suspend Parliament, accusing Mr. Harper of undermining the nation’s democracy. “We have to say to Canadians, ‘Is this the kind of government you want?’ ” said Bob Rae, a member of the opposition Liberal Party. “Do we want a party in place that is so undemocratic that it will not meet the House of Commons?” . . .
Technically, what Mr. Harper did was to “prorogue” Parliament, a move that stops all actions on bills and the body’s other business, and thus goes well beyond an adjournment (which was not available to Mr. Harper in any event, as it requires parliamentary approval). It is not unprecedented — prorogation is used occasionally to introduce a new legislative agenda — but this is the first time any Parliament members or constitutional scholars here could recall the maneuver being used in the midst of a political crisis and over the objections of Parliament.
Mr. Harper declared the parliamentary suspension after a two-and-a-half hour meeting in Ottawa with Ms. Jean. While no governor general has ever previously rejected a prime minister’s request to prorogue Parliament, several constitutional scholars said Mr. Harper was the first one to have asked permission when he did not have the support of the legislature.
In colonial times, prorogation was one of the many sources of conflict between the elected colonial legislatures and the royal governors appointed from London. Proroguing (and dissolving) parliaments were among the traditional monarchical powers that English kings mostly lost after the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89, along with the ability to veto legislation, create courts, and remove judges. Colonial American leaders came to resent the fact that their often unprepossessing or untrustworthy governors, many of whom were stand-ins for absentee officials or owed their position to some influential relative or political favor performed back in the mother country, wielded greater powers than the King himself.
Another comps classic, Bernard Bailyn’s Origins of American Politics made the argument the royal governors’ use of their “swollen” powers led to chronic political instability and unrest in many colonies because the governors usually had neither the patronage resources (money and offices to hand out) nor the firm support (either in the local population or the home government) to fully back them up. To borrow the metaphor of another great interpreter of American life, Steve Earle, the royal governors’ power to mess with the elected legislatures were like “a cap and ball Colt,” a dangerously weak sort of weapon that was easy to use but tended not to actually stop your enemies. “It’ll get you into trouble but it can’t get you out.”
Eventually the Americans who formed the United States rejected the imperial connection that made such contradictory institutions as the royal governorships possible, and after some experiments with extremely weak or even plural executives, settled generally on a system that restored a few of the kingly powers, in a limited form, but only to elected officials like a state governor or the president.
Canada chose a different path, obviously, but for most of the past century their retention of British imperial institutions like the Governor-General has just seemed quaint. This week, not so much. Let’s hope that Prime Minister Harper, who had to resort to this archaic device after some earlier ill-advised power moves against his opposite, does not get out of the trouble he has now gotten Canadian democracy into. Or perhaps Canada just needs to end its quasi-colonial status once and for all, eh?