Sunday, 7 December 2008

Oh Canada! Lessons for democrats

If you think that Westminster-style democracy basically works, or that it just needs a few good changes, like proportional voting for MPs, then maybe you should have a look at what’s happening in Canada.

Here’s a very quick recap. The conservative prime minister, Stephen Harper, was recently returned to office, but as the leader of a minority government. At the end of last month, his team brought in an “economic fiscal update”. This package tried to nobble Harper’s political foes by cutting public election funding for political parties. There were also some hard line measures, such as temporarily suspending the rights of public servants to strike and making it harder to women civil servants to take legal action if they are not paid the same as their male colleagues. But the fiscal update contained no stimulus measures for Canada’s economy.

The outraged opposition parties, the Liberals (the main opposition), the (leftish) NDP and the separatist Bloc Quebecois, wrote to the governor-general, Michaelle Jean, offering to form a Liberal-NDP coalition government. Between them, they have 163 of the 308 seats in the House of Commons.

The rules of the Westminster game are well-documented. The prime minister has to enjoy the confidence of the representative house of parliament in order to remain in power. If the prime minister loses that confidence, s/he is obliged to either resign, or advise the Queen (or her representative) to dissolve parliament and call a general election. 

The Queen (or her representative) essentially has two options: dissolving Parliament and sending the people to the polls, or finding a new government that does have the confidence of the house. The last time a UK prime minister lost a vote of confidence in the Commons was in 1979, when James Callaghan’s Labour government finally hit the wall. It was clear that no alternative government was available and so a general election followed. 

Under Canada’s constitution, it is the governor-general’s prerogative to invite a party leader to form a government, with or without a general election. And given that the country has recently had an election, finding an alternative  government, even an unlikely coalition, would seem preferable.

Still, Harper did not have to resign because he had not been defeated in the Commons on a vote of confidence. A vote on the fiscal update (i.e., a vote of confidence) was due to be held on Monday, 8 December. So Harper asked the governor general, to prorogue parliament until late January, in order to stave off the vote and buy himself some time – perhaps in the hope that the putative coalition partners will fall out, or that the Liberals’ leadership problems will get out of hand.

That’s right: Harper asked the referee to stop play because the other side looked certain of winning. 

That’s not all. The Conservatives launched radio attack ads against their opponents and called upon supporters to flood Ms Jean’s office with letters and e-mails. There was even talk of a mass pro-government rally outside her official residence. Harper asked for some breathing space and time for tempers to cool. But the PM did more than anyone to make sure that things turned ugly, most notably with the way he manipulated arguments about Quebec separatism.

On Friday, the governor-general granted Harper’s request, after a meeting that lasted more than two hours. 

Let’s be clear about what this means. A precedent has been set. Any prime minister faced with a confidence vote can defy the will of parliament, at least for a while, by running off to the governor general (or the Queen). And a PM can have parliament prorogued just weeks into a new session, rather than at the end.

It looks as if the only safeguard is the character, experience and qualifications of the Queen / governor-general. According to the Globe and Mail, Ms Jean made Harper work for the prorogue when they met. 

"Ms. Jean made clear to the Prime Minister that she was not a rubber stamp for his request to shut down Parliament until late January; that it was within her constitutional discretionary power to turn him down."

What has happened in Canada shows, once again, a tough reality of politics. We saw it in Australia in 1975, when the conservative parties used their majority in the upper house, the Senate, to block the Whitlam Labor government’s budget. The governor-general took it upon himself to resolve the crisis by dismissing the prime minister. 

We saw it again in the US in 2000, when the Republican-dominated supreme court halted efforts to learn who won the presidential election. OK, maybe they were one moral step above the Republican goons who stormed a schoolhouse in Florida and physically stopped one recount. 

When the brown stuff hits the fan, conservatives make up their own rules.


Pelalusa said...

Speaking of brown stuff, you really should look into the mirror and you'll see it oozing out of your mouth.

What a disingenuous, twisted account of Canada and its history that you try to present as "facts". Sigh.

jane said...


What facts are being twisted?

The Conservatives got less than 50% of the vote in the recent election.
The Conservatives have less than 50% of the seats in the Canadian Parliament.
A group with more than 50% of the seats have said they will form a coalition to form a new Government.
The coalition has said they will vote out the Conservative, minority, government.
The minority Conservative government got the Governor General to prorogue Parliament, thereby preventing the majority coalition to form a Government.
Seems pretty factual from Mr Stockley.
Still I supposed we should expect nothing less than toilet mouthed abuse from someone who uses a fictional word as the title for their blogging.

James Schneider said...

The Governor General is going to come in for a lot of criticism. However, is she not within her rights to prorogue Parliament for a short period of time for the crisis to be sorted out. Dion becoming PM for 4 months after performing badly in the recent elections seems undemocratic to many. Once more we are presented with the problem of the Westminster system - electing the executive from the legislative. Perhaps this adds to evidence supporting the desirability of an elected PM.

Neil Stockley said...

James Schneider:

Possibly, but my real criticism was of the Canadian PM, who found himself in a minority in the House. An alternative government, representing a majority of the House (and voters) was available and Ms Jean would have been able to appoint an alternative government.

Harper's meeting with the GG seems to have been no walkover, which is a good thing, because she would have been within her rights to refuse the prorogue. In that case, Harper would almost certainly have had to resign -- or else a full blown constutional crisis would have ensued.

The best ways for governors general to protect themselves and their independence is usually to let the politicians sort things out before intervening, a course that Sir John Kerr unwisely failed to take in Australia in 1975.