Sunday, May 17, 2009

Responsible government

James Travers in the Star complains that Harper is acting on the basis of a referendum or presidential style of government, whereas Canada's constitution provides for a system of responsibility to Parliament, and beyond Parliament to the people. Partly Travers talks about Cabinet making a lot of spending decisions with no discussion in Parliament--a long-time trend. He also discusses the issue of what happens when a government loses a confidence vote in the House of Commons--or a Prime Minister concludes he is certain to lose one. The strict Westminster answer: Parliament re-gains its full right to identify a government that can form a majority, and/or win a confidence vote. The new government may or may not have campaigned as a party or coalition in the most recent election. The person who serves as the facilitator of the process of changing governments is the unelected Governor General or, at the provincial level, Lieutenant Governor. The somewhat newer, probably distinctively Canadian answer is: anyone who has served as Prime Minister for more than a very short time can have an election when he/she wishes.

This is probably a follow-up to a news conference announcing a new book of academic articles. Harper gained seats in the last federal election, but still fell short of a majority. The Liberals lost seats, and the NDP held their own. Harper recalled Parliament very quickly, probably thinking he would intimidate the other parties even more than before, and so he had no fear of losing confidence votes. He won a kind of vague confidence vote on the Speech from the Throne, then had his Finance Minister give a kind of update, and said he would call for a confidence vote on that. To virtually everyone's surprise, the Liberals, NDP and Bloc Quebecois (yes, a separatist party with seats in Ottawa) announced their willingness to form a coalition that could win confidence votes and govern. If they stuck to their resolve, Harper would be unable to win a confidence vote.

Harper made it clear that if he lost a confidence vote, the only acceptable alternative would be another election--no letting the Governor General, and then Parliament, choose a new group to support. Harper assumed rightly that most Canadians regarded it as outrageous to have another election so soon. Also the widespread perception was that Harper had won, and it was unfair to let the losers take office. What Canadians miss in these debates is the old Westminster doctrine: a group that can hold the confidence of Parliament is the winner in the only sense that counts. Harper persuaded the Governor General to prorogue Parliament for a few months, the Liberals quickly changed leaders, the new leader said he did not support the coalition, and Harper has now survived a few confidence votes. The Governor General did not explain her reasons for granting the prorogation, which was at least as unprecedented as it would have been to let the coalition try to win a confidence vote.

The famous precedent is King-Byng in 1926. In the 1925 election, the Conservatives won both more of the popular vote and more seats than the Liberals, but still failed to win a majority of seats. Liberal leader Mackenzie King, reduced from a majority to a minority, decided not to resign, but to try to win a confidence vote. The minority Parliament lasted eight months (partly because King was able to get just enough votes for an adjournment at one point), and then King asked for a dissolution and another election. Governor General Lord Byng refused, and gave Conservative leader Meighen a chance to win a confidence vote. Meighen's government was defeated almost immediately, and in the ensuing election King succeeded in making the "interference" of a non-elected official, appointed by the British Crown, a major issue. King won, in more ways than one; his understanding that a Prime Minister can ask for and get an election at any time seems to have become the accepted Canadian view.

There was also an important precedent in 1957-8. Louis St. Laurent was Liberal Prime Minister, with majorities, from 1947 to 1957, easily defeating a series of Tory leaders. Diefenbaker became Tory leader in 1956, and won a a narrow victory in the 1957 election (June 10), with a minority government. The Tories went from 51 seats to 111, the Liberals from 169 to 104, the CCF (precursor to the NDP) won 25, Social Credit 19.

Though the Liberals had a slight lead in the popular vote, Louis St. Laurent resigned rather than attempt to form a coalition with the other opposition parties to continue governing. Lester Pearson became Liberal leader on January 16, 1958. Four days later Pearson gave his first-ever speech in Parliament (he previously had a long career as a diplomat in External Affairs), and suggested that since the economy was showing signs of strain, and the country was not ready for another election, Diefenbaker should resign and let the Liberals take over. Diefenbaker responded in a two-hour speech that provided the basis for his standard stump speech in the upcoming election, on March 31. Diefenbaker won one of the biggest majorities in Canadian history. It is not clear he ever actually won a confidence vote in his time in a minority.

Pearson obviously meant that the Liberals might have governed with a minority, provided they got support from one or more other parties. It might even be true that the Liberals had a better chance of winning confidence votes, over the course of several years, than the Tories did. Pearson in a way was taking the “Byng” position—Parliament should have a chance to support a government that might last. (Of course it was silly—even contemptible—to ask a Prime Minister to just give up). Diefenbaker, despite his long opposition to Mackenzie King’s policies, and his adherence to British traditions, took the “King” position—that it was the prerogative of a Prime Minister to get a dissolution of Parliament whenever he wanted it. Ever since the King-Byng controversy, Canadians have tended to say the King position is correct in Canada—unlike any other country with a British-style government. When Diefenbaker adopted the King position, and then won a huge majority, this seemed to confirm it.
If the King position is correct, Harper can have his election whenever he wants it.

A weird historical note: Bob Rae drafted the wording of the motion that defeated Joe Clark’s minority government in 1979 (there was really no question of the Governor-General turning to anyone else—Clark waited for months to recall Parliament, quickly provoked a confidence vote on a Budget, lost, asked for an election, and got one); Rae was one of the two partners in Ontario’s accord in 1985 (two parties in second and third place persuaded the first place party to step aside after losing a confidence vote--there was no need for the Lieutenant Governor to take action)—and it was probably Rae’s idea; and last fall Rae was one of the leaders of the proposed Coalition in Ottawa.

Governors General have almost never explained their reasoning in moments of crisis. Adrienne Clarkson, the former Governor General, now says she would not have let Paul Martin have an election if his Liberals had lost a confidence vote anytime within the first six months after the 2004 election. Martin was actually defeated more than two years later, and at that time there was no question there would be an election. Partly this seems to be because more time had elapsed since the last election. One would think that the actual results of the most recent election would also be a factor: is the trend in favour of one party? The answer would be yes for Harper both in 2005 and in 2008.

The prorogation probably wasn't a bad idea, but it could be a very bad precedent; it might seem that prime ministers can not only get elections when they want them, but postpone confidence votes as well. Some explanation from the present Governor General, Michaƫlle Jean, would have been helpful.

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