Sunday, December 7, 2008

What Michaelle Knew

In my post on Parliamentary Democracy below, I argued that the post of Prime Minister is not well defined in Westminster style democracies. (For example, neither the Constitution of India nor the Canada Act define the office.) There is no clear rule about the length of a Prime Minister's term, or about the conditions under which s/he may hold office. It is also not clear what powers attach to this office. In constitutional fiction, s/he is the first minister of the Queen or the Head of State; by convention, the Queen or Head of State acts on the advice of the Prime Minister. When can the Queen or her viceroy dismiss a Prime Minister? This is far from clear, and constitutional epistemology plays a role.

If the PM enjoys the confidence of the House of Commons, then the Governor-General must do his or her bidding.
On Thursday December 4th, Prime Minister Stephen Harper asked the GG to prorogue Parliament so that he would not have to face the House on a vote of confidence. Should she have acceded to his request? If he had the confidence of the House, she was obliged to do so. If he did not, she was obliged not to do so.

Here's a problem in what I call constitutional epistemology. Does the GG know that Harper did not have the confidence of the House? Well, in the ordinary sense, yes. Nobody could doubt that a majority of members of the House had no confidence in him. They said so. They signed pieces of paper to that effect.

Nevertheless, they had voted to receive the Speech from the Throne. So when the Commons had voted
last in a confidence measure, they demonstrated confidence in Harper's government. Thus, the GG does not know, in a constitutional sense, that he does not have the confidence of the House.

Tortured reasoning? Perhaps, and I'll return to that in a moment. Think of the reasoning that some citizens express on the airwaves and the internet. We know that the electorate rejected Stephane Dion, they say. How can the GG call on him to form a government? This reasoning is irrelevant in two ways. The first and most direct reason for irrelevance is this: as pointed out by many learned people (and by myself in my post on Parliamentary Democracy), we don't get to vote for the Executive. But secondly, just think of constitutional epistemology. If the GG does not know that Stephen Harper has lost the confidence of the House, she surely does not know that the electorate does not want Stephane Dion as PM. We all know it, if we know anything at all. But she does not. Not constitutionally.

OK. On this thread of reasoning, Michaelle Jean was right to prorogue Parliament on the advice of her first minister. Parliament is to open once again on January 26th. On this day, Jean will deliver a speech from the throne. The next day, the Government will present a budget. If the opposition coalition holds, the Government will be defeated on one or both. It will then demonstrably have lost the confidence of the House.

Harper will then advise the GG to dissolve the House and call a fresh election. But as somebody who has lost the confidence of the House, he will not have the right to expect that she will take his advice. He will argue that he has the confidence of the people. But by constitutional epistemology, she will not know this. Perhaps some Canadians will think they know this, and who am I to say they are wrong. The problem is that what they know, or don't know, is irrelevant. The GG cannot know such things.

So here's what I think Michaelle Jean must have said last Thursday: Mr Harper, I will take your advice and prorogue Parliament. But if you lose a confidence vote in the House early next year, don't expect me to dissolve the House. You can't have an election until it is clear that a Government cannot be formed.

If she said all of that, she has my respect. If she only said the first thing, she does not.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Parliamentary Democracy

Those of us who grew up in the British Commonwealth learned about parliamentary democracy in high school. We are used to the idea that we elect a House of Commons, and that the Government -- the Executive -- is responsible to the Commons. We tend to fall into a certain line of thinking about the nature of voting in this country, and in other former British colonies. When people say: I voted for Stephen Harper, or I didn't vote for Stephane Dion, meaning that they voted Conservative, or didn't vote Liberal, we tend to think that they are just confusing our system with the US system. Here we vote for an MP, right? Unless you live in Calgary Southwest, you couldn't vote for Harper.

Right. But let's ponder for a moment the nature and history of the executive branch of our Government. The Commons itself originally had, in England, no function other than to authorize taxation. An important function, no doubt, but not an executive function. Moreover, ministers didn't sit in the Commons; they were appointed by the sovereign, and held office at the pleasure of the sovereign. In the constitutional fiction under which we live, this is still so.

Some people think that the Commons got its present powers after the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688. And its legislative powers were certainly enhanced then: for all laws had to go through the Commons. Nevertheless, the Prime Minister (who was not even called that) did not answer to the Commons until much later. Wikipedia correctly says: "throughout the 18th century parliamentarians and legal scholars continued to deny that any such position was known to the Constitution. The title was first referred to on Government documents during the administration of Benjamin Disraeli but did not appear in the formal British Order of Precedence until 1905. George II and George III made strenuous efforts to reclaim the personal power of the Monarch, but the increasing complexity and expense of government meant that a minister who could command the loyalty of the Commons was increasingly necessary."

This means that though there is a substantial body of precedents that define the office of Prime Minister, no law defines the office. Every new decision makes that law. In this country, substantial centralization of powers occurred under recent Prime Ministers. It may well be that in India or Australia, there are subtle differences about how much authority a Prime Minister can claim. And these differences would trace not to legislation, but simply to what former Prime Ministers have done or have been allowed to do.

Moreover, it means that though the electorate votes for Parliament, and thus indirectly for the Government, they still vote under a system according to which Parliament was not the home of Government. In the British system, the Executive is separate from the Legislature -- and that's the assumption that defines voting in Westminster style democracies. We don't really vote for the Executive. In theory, the Prime Minister is still an officer appointed by the Crown, though now more than ever s/he must command the loyalty of the Commons, who votes up the money by which the Crown governs.

Contrast this with France or the United States. There, the electorate votes for both the Executive and the Legislature. We vote for those who authorize or reject legislation, but we do not vote for those who propose and execute legislation. Some think of this as "our system" -- different but just as good.

Last week's events have shown us in Canada that however good our system might be, it is less democratic.