A matter of confidence - the legality of politics
It’s not very often that I am able to write about a political issue in terms of its legality and implications to our constitution. Most of the political articles I have written in the past dealt with matters of policy or opinion. However, the recent events that have consumed Canada’s Parliament have afforded me the rare opportunity to mix my two passions – politics and the law.
A matter of confidence
Thursday, December 4th, 2008 will forever be etched in my mind as the day our Parliamentary system shut its doors for purely partisan reasons. On this day, Stephen Harper sought and obtained from the Governor General the right to prorogue Parliament. In other words, he went to the Governor General and asked her to shut Parliament down and she agreed. In the midst of a worldwide financial crisis and at a time when other governments all around the world are acting quickly to try and stop the crisis, the Canadian government instead decided to shut Parliament down for two months.
Over the past several weeks, I have been horrified by the number of false statements and outright lies that has been thrown about in the media, by political operatives from all sides and from every day Canadians. The bottom line for me in this whole mess is that Canadians do not understand the fundamental rules that govern our democracy.
As I have said in previous articles, Canada is a constitutional monarchy. We are not a republic like the United States or the Philippines. We do not directly elect the Prime Minister of Canada in the same manner that the US or the Philippines elects their Presidents. In Canada, we have a system called “responsible government.” In our system, we elect a “parliament” and not a “prime minister”. In other words, the Canadian people, at every election (such as the one we just had on October 14, 2008) elect 308 individual members of parliament. Under Canadian law and parliamentary tradition, the party or coalition that holds the most number of seats is invited by the Governor General to form the Government of Canada. This party or coalition is allowed, under our laws, to continue to govern our nation, only so long as it continues to hold the confidence of the House of Commons. Thus, if a government holds a majority of seats, they will continue to hold the confidence of the House until such time as the next election is called.
If, however, the government is in a minority situation, such as the current Harper government, it must seek the support of the other parties in the House in order to pass its agenda. Once a minority government fails to have the support of the House, this government is said to have “lost the confidence of the House”. In accordance with parliamentary law and tradition, the Prime Minister must then go to the Governor General and ask for an election. The Governor General has two basic options when a Prime Minister advises her that he has lost the confidence of the House. She can either call an election or she can turn to the leader of the Official Opposition as ask him to try and form a government.
It is perfectly legal and legitimate in our parliamentary system for one government to fall and be replaced by another government without an election being called. That is the nature of “responsible government”.
In listening to the media and to comments from across Canada I am amazed at the amount of people who believe that it is illegal for another party to become the Canadian government without an election. Constitutional experts all across this nation have stated that it is perfectly legal and legitimate for this to happen. In fact, in Canadian history, there have been two occasions where the federal government had fallen because of a non-confidence vote and the Governor General then turned to the opposition to form a new government. And each time this took place, it was a coalition government that took over. Both Manitoba and Ontario have also had coalition governments govern their provinces.
Preservation of Our Democratic System
For me, the issue is not whether you’re in favour of the Harper government or a possible coalition government. For me, the fundamental issue is the preservation of our democratic system. Throughout our entire history, the rules and traditions of Parliament have been followed and honoured. Other countries have cited our strong parliamentary history as a model to which they want to strive for. However, this past month, we have been witnesses to nothing but the most partisan of attacks and manoeuvres from all parties that have resulted in the deterioration of our time honoured traditions. The virtues of “peace, order and good government” as set out in our constitution have been disregarded.
Instead, Canadians witnessed the Prime Minister, in a desperate attempt to keep his job, shut down Parliament instead of facing the House and trying to get a compromise. Never before in our history has a Parliament been prorogued just months after an election and only weeks after the Throne Speech. Prorogation of Parliament is normally granted only after a parliament has successfully completed its work and not before the House even begins.
In the same vein, the opposition parties jumbled together a coalition with Stéphane Dion as its leader and presented that to Canadians as an alternate government. This angered Canadians because many still do not understand the nature of our parliamentary system but most of all they could not fathom why a man whose party is trying to replace him should all of a sudden be the next prime minister. It has also been revealed that the NDP has been strategizing about a possible coalition since before the economic update was presented. This leads me to the obvious conclusion that Jack Layton realizes that his only means of reaching the Cabinet table is to join forces with the Liberals. The end result is that Canadians are angry, confused and just plain fed up.
All sides have played a hand in creating this crisis. Perhaps it’s now time that all sides come together to try and fix this problem. In light of Parliament’s forced shutdown, perhaps our 308 elected officials will now have the opportunity to reflect upon the events of the past month. Perhaps a little of the Christmas spirit will penetrate their hearts and allow them to think of the Canadian people instead of their own partisan agendas. At a time when people all over the world are losing their jobs, their homes and their belief in their government, a line from one of my favourite movies comes to mind. In The American President, Michael Douglas makes a statement towards the end of the movie that I think is very fitting in our current situation. He said, “I was so busy trying to keep my job that I forgot to do my job.”
This is not the time for partisan games
So, M.P.s of all political stripes take heed - now is not the time for partisan games. Now is the time for true parliamentarians to step up to the plate. When Parliament resumes on January 26th, 2009 Canadians expect, and frankly deserve, to know that you will work just as hard in your job as we do in ours. Hopefully 2009 will give Canadians a Parliament that works “for the people” and not just for themselves.
On behalf of my family, I would like to take this opportunity to wish all the readers of Pilipino Express a very Merry Christmas and a Happy, Prosperous and Safe New Year. Maligayang Pasko at Manigong Bagong Taon!
Alona C. Mercado is a lawyer practicing in Winnipeg with the law firm of MONK GOODWIN LLP. She was called to the Manitoba Bar in 1999 and the Ontario Bar in 2003. Her preferred areas of practice include wills and estates, committees, real estate, business and commercial transactions, and immigration law. Alona can be reached at (204) 956-1060 ext. 233 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The content of this article are not intended as legal advice and is for information purposes only. Should you require legal advice on a specific issue relating to the contents of this article, please seek the services of a legal professional.