Summoning Parliament

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Following the May 2010 UK general election, I remember being somewhat puzzled when so many political commentators grew concerned that no government might emerge in time for the opening of Parliament. What puzzled me wasn’t so much that a date for the opening of Parliament was already scheduled, but 1) that the date set was so soon after the election and 2) that there didn’t seem to be any option for changing it in the event that no government had emerged by that date.

In the UK, the proclamation to summon a new Parliament specifies the date on which the new Parliament will meet. The appointed day is chosen on the advice of the Prime Minister when he (or she) goes to see the Queen to ask that Parliament be dissolved. Recent custom had been for Parliament to meet on the Wednesday following the election. In the 2010 election, the Prime Minister indicated that Parliament would first meet on 18 May, 12 days after the election. This followed a recommendation of the Commons Modernisation Committee that the interval between polling day and the first meeting of Parliament should be 12 days to allow more time for the induction of new MPs. Still Gordon Brown was criticised for following this recommendation because he was seen by some Conservatives as allowing himself more time in which to negotiate to continue in government.

In retrospect, the decision to have a longer 12 day period between polling day and the first meeting of Parliament was sensible, and proved successful. It allowed for the possibility of a protracted period of government formation, which was entirely appropriate given concerns about a hung parliament. It also gave the incoming MPs and ministers more time for induction and adaptation to working in Parliament and in government.

However, Parliament meeting 12 days after an election is in sharp contrast with what happens in Canada and its provinces. In Canada, Section 38 of the Constitution Act, 1867 provides for the summoning of Parliament: “The Governor General shall from Time to Time, in the Queen’s Name, by Instrument under the Great Seal of Canada, summon and call together the House of Commons”.

The “Instrument” consists of a series of proclamations issued by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister and published in the Canada Gazette. As in the UK, on the day that Parliament is dissolved or prorogued, a proclamation is issued summoning Parliament to meet on a given day. It is issued at the end of the preceding session, in keeping with the principle of the continuity of Parliament, whereby a session ends with provision made for its next meeting. A second proclamation confirms or changes the date and may set the time for Parliament to meet for the “Dispatch of Business” (the date can later be advanced or put back). A third proclamation is issued if the time for Parliament to meet was not announced in the second proclamation. (From House of Commons Procedure and Practice, 2nd edition)

The big difference in Canada is that the new Parliament usually won’t meet for several weeks (or longer) following an election.

For example, at the dissolution of the 38th Parliament in November 2005, along with the proclamation dissolving Parliament and the issuance of the Writs for a January 23, 2006 election date, a proclamation was initially issued on December 1, 2005, summoning Parliament to meet on February 20, 2006. A second proclamation was later issued on February 9, 2006, changing the Feb. 20 date and summoning Parliament to meet on April 3, 2006, and finally a third was issued on March 17, 2006, summoning Parliament for the “Dispatch of Business” on April 3, 2006 at 11:00 a.m. In other words, the original summons would have seen the new Parliament meet 28 days after the election, but it was modified and the new Parliament met 70 days after election day. The January 23 election did result in a change of government, from a Liberal minority government to a Conservative minority government, which probably explains why the new government wanted more time before summoning Parliament.

The most recent general election in Canada was held on October 14 2008. On September 8, 2008, the three proclamations were issued: one dissolving Parliament, one issuing Election Writs and the other Summoning Parliament to meet on November 12, 2008 (29 days after the election). On November 10, 2008, however, a second proclamation was issued summoning Parliament to meet on November 18, 2008, 35 days after the election. There was no change of government this time – the Conservatives were re-elected with another minority. So while an initial date for Parliament to meet is set when Parliament is dissolved, as is is in the UK, this date can, and usually is, changed after the election to better suit incoming government.

Consequently, it isn’t that unusual for several weeks, or even a few months to pass, between the date of the election and the date the new Parliament meets. Custom in some provinces is for a fall election, but with the legislature sitting only the following spring. This is especially true if there is a change of government. The new party taking over government often likes to give its new ministers ample time to familiarise themselves with their portfolios and departments, as well as to hire its own advisors and communications staff. At the provincial level, there have been a few instances of a new government wanting to order an independent audit of the province’s finances before it starts to plan for its own first budget – especially if it suspected that the former government might have been less than forthcoming regarding the province’s books, and so it delays the start of the new Parliament until the audit is complete.

The UK, however, has a long history of virtually immediate transitions between administrations, with one PM leaving 10 Downing Street to offer his or her resignation to the Queen and hours later, the new PM moving in. This simply does not happen in Canada. Even when the same party is re-elected, there can be a significant gap between election day and the opening of the new Parliament.

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