Prime Minister Stephen Harper asked the Governor General on Wednesday to prorogue Parliament until March 3, ending weeks of speculation that the legislature would not sit until after the Olympic Games have concluded in Vancouver.

Harper spoke with Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean Wednesday morning by telephone, according to his press secretary, Dimitri Soudas. The prime minister now plans to begin a new session of Parliament by delivering a Speech from the Throne on March 3, Soudas said. The government will present a budget the next day.

Parliament is currently on Christmas break and MPs were scheduled to return to the House on January 25. But rumours had been rampant swirling in recent weeks that Harper would ask to shut down Parliament until after the Winter Olympics in Vancouver are complete.

The announcement marks the second time Harper's Conservative government has prorogued Parliament since the 2008 election.

In an interview with CTV News Channel, Soudas called the decision "quite routine."

"There's nothing out of the ordinary about doing this," he said.

But Nelson Wiseman, an expert in Canadian politics at the University of Toronto, described the announcement as "unusual."

"I don't know when we've had two prorogations in this short amount of time," he said.

The move means that any legislation Parliament was considering is now dead, Wiseman added.

"It's as if you just had an election, you just start completely from scratch," he said. "And it also shows that the government didn't really care that much about its legislative agenda."

Parliamentary committees will be suspended as well, including one that is investigating Afghan detainee abuse, an issue that has been plaguing the Conservatives for months.

In a statement, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff criticized the decision.

"Mr. Harper is showing his disregard for the democratic institutions of our country," Ignatieff said in a statement. "The decision to prorogue is about one thing and one thing only - avoiding the scrutiny of Parliament at a time when this government is facing tough questions about their conduct in covering up the detainee scandal."

"It's clear Mr. Harper will stop at nothing to prevent the truth about his government's actions from coming to light - even at the expense of Canada's critical economic recovery," Ignatieff said.

CTV's chief political correspondent Craig Oliver said prorogation will also give Harper time in which to appoint another group of new Senators. By filling five vacant Senate seats with Conservative supporters, the party would hold a majority in the Red Chamber and, by extension, on Senate committees, Oliver said.

The Conservatives have been frustrated that the Liberal-dominated Senate has held up legislation already approved by the House, he said.

"In terms of prime ministerial government power, they will come back to a very different Parliament, one in which the Conservative government will have domination in what has been for years a Liberal-dominated Senate," Oliver said. "That will be a huge advantage for them."

Paul Dewar, the New Democrats' foreign affairs critic, said dissolving the current session of Parliament will keep key pieces of legislation from being passed.

"We have pension reform, we have EI reform. What about those who are unemployed right now? All of those things fall off the table because the government doesn't want to come back to work," Dewar told CTV News Channel.

"So it's not just the Afghan detainee issue," he said. "We will actually pick up from where we left off, and so all they're doing is delaying accountability on that."

But pollster Nik Nanos said the move represents a blow to the opposition parties because it makes it more difficult for them to criticize the Conservatives until Parliament resumes.

"It's a very deft political move from a communications point of view," he said. "From a public-policy perspective, we'll leave that to other experts."

However, L. Ian MacDonald, editor-in-chief Policy Options magazine, said the prorogation represents a risky political maneuver.

"This is the sort of thing that could backfire if the opposition parties are angry enough to get together to bring down the government on either the speech from the throne -- something which has never happened since Confederation -- or the budget, which would be tabled the following day."

Still, according to poll results released Wednesday by Nanos' research firm, the Conservatives enjoy a 9.3 per cent lead over the Liberal party.

As long as the Conservatives remain ahead in the polls, opposition parties are unlikely to bring down the government, MacDonald said.

With files from The Canadian Press