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A week after the Stephen Harper Conservative government was on the verge of collapse in November 2008, a parliamentary crisis ensued. The crisis was fueled by the introduction of a budget statement that didn’t address the effects of the global recession on Canada, and its weakening economy. The New Democratic Party and Liberal Party of Canada signed an agreement to defeat the government as soon as possible. If successful, they would have replaced the Tory government with a coalition government. During this time, Harper asked the Governor General to suspend the parliament for six weeks so that the parties could come to an understanding. After Harper made this decision, he addressed Canada on television and the other parties were also allowed to make their case. The result was that the Conservative government was allowed to continue to govern Canada, and the party was re-elected in 2011. Harper’s actions to ask the Governor General to suspend parliament were not in accordance to a responsible government, though the powers that the Governor General exercised were within her capabilities. However, this political manoeuvring is an abomination of a democratic country, and this should not have been allowed as there was not substantial justification for suspending parliament.
The first way in which the powers were abused was through the confusion the decision caused among the Canadian public about the powers of the House of Commons in making a decision on the make-up of the government. It also divided Canadians on linguistic and regional lines. This act of government goes against the ideology of a democratic society because it takes away one of the most fundamental abilities of a minority government, and that is to overturn a government that the opposition feels is not representing the people well enough. The implications of shutting down parliament just when it may have been needed the most, means the clear cutting of democracy in this nation, and the politicians who are supposed to be able to speak for the people are not allowed to act on the powers that they are supposed to have, (Christian, 2011).
While the decision by the Governor General Michaelle Jean at the time was legal, it failed to meet moral and ideological obligations. The action also puts into question political legitimacy. The question of whether the move was politically legitimate is difficult to say, due to the power that was given to the Tory government, which eventually requested to postpone parliament for six weeks. But the majority of Canadians did not vote for the minority Conservative government. Therefore, it was undemocratic for the Governor General to postpone parliament. “Three elements comprise this understanding of democracy: a) voting is based on the notion of political equality, which determines political authority through elections; b) numbers count and the will of the plurality of voters should determine who governs and decides public policy; and c) respect of majority rule on the part of the minority who still perceive the system as legitimate since they are offered the chance to become the majority in the next election,” (Christian, 2011). Because the will of the people is reflected in the Constitution, the Governor General was within her authority to cancel parliament session according to these provisions.
It was not clear whether the Canadian public wanted to cancel parliament, so it is difficult to determine whether the move was democratic. This raises the question of whether it is the government or the coalition of parties that should be allowed to govern. But in my view it should be the coalition that decides, because they have garnered the majority of votes compared to what the Conservative government had in the election. The United Kingdom has an interesting illustration that applies this principle in their Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government. The Conservatives obtained the majority of votes in 2010, but they didn’t have an outright parliamentary majority. Eventually, this resulted in a coalition government that is still treated as a legitimate way of managing the nation. This says that in Canada’s situation the same type of government could be constructed, and the excuse that a coalition government is not an option is not a legitimate argument for cancelling the parliament’s session.
People throughout Canada agreed that the decision was an abuse of power used as a tactic to shut the door on activities that were embarrassing to the government. The decision shut down the committees that were asking pointed questions of the government, and who felt it was wise to ensure that the sitting government wasn’t allowed to continue as Canada’s chosen party. While the report that failed to address concerns about the recession in Canada is one of the reasons the government was put into question, another was about the fate of the Afghans who were taken as prisoners by the Canadian military. This prorogation occurred in 2009, and is the second time the government abused its powers to eliminate the possibility of being kicked out as the nation’s leading party. After this second prorogation took place, the opposition parties decided to limit the ability of the government to use its powers of prorogation in order to stop the abuse of these powers. The prorogation could still happen, but it would present limits on the frequency and the type of circumstances of when it could be used. “People were not convinced by the reasons given for the latest prorogation, such as the opening of the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games in the latter half of February,” (Tremblay, 2010). This excuse given by the Conservative government is not acceptable because there is no good reason why politicians wouldn’t be able to sit in parliament in Ottawa, while in about two months’ time there is a sports tournament on the other side of the country in Vancouver. While the decision was widely criticized, it wasn’t enough to vote for another party during the next election. The government’s rankings suffered after the prorogation, but wasn’t sustained to the 2011 election, (Tremblay, 2010).
Setting limitations on the government’s ability to prorogue wouldn’t have much power. The means by which the opposition parties would attempt to limit the power of the government to prorogue would be to pass a resolution at the House of Commons that were detail the situation when prorogation would be acceptable and then when such an act wouldn’t be allowed. “This approach might encourage the government to act with caution in the future, but it would not serve as a constraint since a resolution by a House of parliament has no legal authority, it is simply the expression of a desire or an opinion,” (Tremblay, 2010). A standing order is also not more than an order in the House of Commons that expresses an interest. And the House of Commons isn’t able to replace the Prime Minister as Canada’s advisor to the representative of the Queen. These points puts into question just how democratic a country really is when even the majority vote-getters aren’t able to overthrow a party that has acted in ways that make it comparable to a dictatorship. The rationale behind such a lack of provision is due to an outdated political structure that gives authority to those who represent the Queen. “The House is authorized to govern its own internal operations, but it cannot then use that power to subjugate the external (royal) authority that gives it the right to sit,” (Tremblay, 2010). A standing order also can’t oppose what is a law, in which the power to prorogue has authority. Prorogation is also legal on a constitutional and legislative basis.
It should also be noted that resting the fate of a nation in the hands of the Governor General, who is not elected, is also against what should be accepted in a democratic nation. Essentially, the Governor General will do whatever the Prime Minister at the time says they should do. This means that whatever the Prime Minister decides to do will be carried out. The meeting on Dec. 4, 2008, between Harper and Jean was merely a meeting to follow protocol. The outcome of that meeting was known far before the two ever met eyes. And the urgency of the meeting was expressed when the Governor General cancelled meetings with delegates at three central European countries. “The meeting was held in private and, in accord with long-standing practice, without any official minutes of the meeting,” (McWhinney, 2009). The permission by the Governor General to prorogue parliament was given immediately, without any discussion with her peers. This is the type of style used by a dictatorship and is an abuse of responsible government. This act put into question the role of the Governor General, and people became suspicious of her role in Canadian politics.
Interestingly enough, the original British North America Act of 1867, which became the Constitution Act in 1982, did include much content about the role of the Governor General. It is, however, included in the institutional practice of Great Britain, which dates back as far as several centuries. The location where this information is provided is called the Conventions of the Constitution. Because the basis of the recent prorogation of the Canadian parliament is based on a document that dates back several centuries, it is included in the government of several other nations that retain the Westminster paradigm model. But these nations have adapted the old constitutional forms, something that Canada clearly hasn’t done. “It would have been possible, and no doubt sensible, to have attempted over all the years since 1867 and especially after the adoption of the Statute of Westminster in 1931, to codify the Office of Governor General and to try to establish the possibilities and also prudent limits of the discretionary powers of the governor General, particularly in relation to the granting, or withholding, or later withdrawal of the mandate to form a government – the making and unmaking of governments,” (McWhinney, 2009). Many of the countries that used that Westminster document as their model, have made alterations to the role of Governor General.
But Canada has failed to act. For a country that considers itself to be among the most elite, it is far behind the practices of arguably more old-fashioned nations in Europe. This is likely because of a political inaction and it is relatively common in countries that don’t have major social, economic or political crises. It is through these types of hard times when the public demands changes to the way in which the government operates. One way to bring Canada into 21st Century democracy is to call on the public to elect a Governor General. Currently, the Prime Minister appoints the Governor General, so it is almost certain that his appointee will be on his side when it comes to matters like these. This makes it completely obvious that a responsible government would instead call on the public to make the decision about who they should intrust to block a coalition government. Without such an election, it makes having the ability to create a coalition government pointless. There will never be a coalition government if the Prime Minister can call upon their friend, the Governor General, to prorogue parliament.
Issues such as the prorogation of parliament is a result of minority governments and this has caused some strain on the government. And this strain calls for alterations to the provisions of the Governor General, or in the way the Governor General is put into their position (appointed or elected). These issues need to be addressed because the rest of the world is laughing at the state in which Canada finds itself given its weak structure around managing minority governments. The United Kingdom even used Canada as an example of how not to run a government, in that nation’s report, entitled “Making Minority Government Work.” “Its message to British parliamentarians is that if you want to learn how not to operate a minority parliament take a good look at Canada,”(Russel, 2010). Most of the criticism lies within the workings of the Parliament during the last several years, since the Conservatives took office. Anyone who would observe the workings of the government would know that Canada’s illusion of having a democracy is in shambles. The state of the political system is so bad that there is an election approximately every two years. This makes Canada the only parliamentary democracy in the world that operates on a two-year term. This has negative repercussions on several scales, including the fact that the governments are spending a considerable amount of time preparing for elections. Also, elections cost a lot of money that is being wasted because of the vote every two years. Because of this, the Canadian parliament hasn’t been doing its job of leading the public debate. Without a parliament to address the issues that need to be approached, it is not fulfilling its duty to the people of this nation. This includes discussions about issues such as the role that Canada plays as a peace keeper. In 2009, during the second Harper prorogation, the situation was dealing with the Canadian military efforts in Afghanistan. But there are other issues that need to be addressed in parliament, such as climate change, old age security and the economic situation. There hasn’t been the ability to deal with many of these important matters that require public debate among the nation’s elected representatives. This is not consistent with the way in which a responsible government should conduct itself.
Canada is able to make changes to the Constitution and doesn’t need the permission of Great Britain. This nation is able to use its own judgment to decide which provisions should be given to the Governor General. An argument to support reserving the powers of the Governor General is so that the Parliament is protected. But there are situations when the government goes too far when it exercises its power – such as what was done during the prorogations in 2008 and in 2009. “As democrats, I believe we have much more to fear today from an authoritarian prime minister than from an audacious representative of the Crown,” (Russel, 2011).
The continued abuse of powers that this government has used is an abomination of what is acceptable in a democratic society. What is even more laughable is that the Canadian public was silly enough to re-elect this government in 2011. If an abuse of powers and the elimination of the democratic rights to have a government that follows the rules doesn’t result in them not being re-elected, then I don’t know what it would take to get this Harper government out of the ruling seat in Canada. While there are rules managing the ways a government can act, the rule book can be tossed out any time a government feels it isn’t in the party’s best interest – regardless of it is in the nation’s best interest. The Canadian public should demand the elimination of proroguing powers unless completely necessary. It should only be deemed necessarily if the majority of Members of Parliament vote in favour of such a prorogation. Only then can Canada claim that it is a democratic nation and begin to regain its reputation in order to eliminate its position as the laughing stock of other nations.
Burke Christian, “Mediated Legitimacy: Canada’s 2008 Parliamentary Crisis,” Acadamia (2011):
Edward McWhinney, “The Constitutional and Political Aspects of the Office of the Governor
General.” Canadian Parliamentary Review. (2009): 2-8.
Guy Tremblay, “Limiting the Government’s Power to Prorogue Parliament.” Canadian
Parliamentary Review. (2010): 1-2
Peter Russel, “Discretion and the Reserve Powers of the Crown.” Canadian Parliamentary
Review. (2011): 19-25.
Peter Russel, “Minority Government and Constitutional Convention.” Canadian Parliamentary
Review. (2010): 13-15.