By four votes, the House of Commons has instructed Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his successors to get parliamentary approval whenever they want to end one session of Parliament and wait more than seven days to start a new one.

All the members of the three opposition parties voted in favour of the motion proposed by NDP Leader Jack Layton. Only the Conservatives voted against.

Layton's motion wasn't a confidence test, so its passage doesn't mean the government will fall now.

Nor are the results directly binding on the government, which has allowed Harper and the Conservatives to say they will ignore it. It is not the first time the PM has gone that route.

The motion was triggered, of course, by the prime minister's surprise move to shut down Parliament for two months at the end of December, a much longer break than had been expected.


Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean confer during the throne speech on March 3, 2010. Who will replace her in the fall? (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

At the time, Harper said the decision to prorogue was necessary so the government could "recalibrate" and start fresh with a new throne speech and budget.

The opposition said it was done to avoid facing a House of Commons committee investigating Afghan detainees and, in particular, to avoid a Commons motion demanding the government turn over all documentation on the prisoner transfers.

The Harper government said it would disregard that motion as well.

Fall from favour

At the time, some of us predicted the prorogation manoeuvre was designed to set the stage for an election as soon as possible.

But that idea quickly faded as a public backlash against the long parliamentary holiday saw the Conservatives fall back from being almost 15 points ahead in some polls to a virtual tie with the Liberals.

Now, however, the political mood is starting to shift again.

Parliament returned at the beginning of March with a long, bland throne speech and a budget that offered little that wasn't already well known.

Any painful spending cuts would be deferred to future budgets well down the road, presumably after the next election. So much, it would seem, for recalibration.

As for the issue of the Afghan detainees, the government sidestepped that by appointing retired Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci to review all of the documentation and decide what could be made public without jeopardizing national security.

Iacobucci is a man of impeccable integrity and intelligence and while on the bench he favoured openness and transparency.

But as the government knew when appointing him, it will take at least a year or perhaps even two to review all of the internal material on prisoner transfers. That's a process the Conservatives hope will put any report on the detainee issue beyond the date of the next election as well.

Which of course leads back to the question: When is the next election?


Parliament has only been back a few weeks. But even with a bland throne speech and a boring budget — or maybe because of them — the Conservatives are beginning to creep ahead of the Liberals again in the polls.

If that trend continues, the dreams of the elusive majority will again begin dancing in the heads of the Harper Conservatives, and the desire for an election will become uncontainable.

The problem for them, of course, is that the fixed-date election law, which they brought into law, means the next election should be on the third Monday in October 2012. But as he does with opposition motions he doesn't like, the prime minister has also ignored the election law his party sponsored, if it gets in his way.

He did that in September 2008 when he asked Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean to dissolve Parliament and allow for an election a year earlier than the fixed-date law would have had it.

Plus, he managed that even though his government had not been defeated in the House of Commons.

But unless the minority Conservative government is defeated on a confidence vote, how can Harper now get an election that suits his timing?

And, if the timing is right for the Conservatives, why would the opposition defeat them?

Rideau Hall

Could the prime minister again claim there was a logjam in Parliament and that an election was needed to clear the air, even though the government had not been defeated? He could try.

But that will be a harder claim to make stick if he keeps winning confidence votes and his party is shown to have effective control of the Senate, which is now the case.

It would be a tough sell to make as well to Jean, in the last months of her term and already the recipient of a good deal of criticism for allowing two prorogations for political purposes.

Of course, Jean's tenure ends this fall and a new resident of Rideau Hall will be appointed for a five-year term. Someone, this time, appointed by Harper.

It would take a rare person, recently appointed to the vice-regal post, to reject an election request from the man who just handed him the job.

Of course, if the calling of an election looked blatantly opportunistic, that might stop the prime minister from asking.

There are, after all, lessons to be learned from the prorogation backlash. But come the fall, the election clock likely starts ticking, regardless of what the fixed-date law says.