Playing fast and loose with parliamentary conventions has weakened responsible government
by Gary Levy
Canada has been governed under responsible government for 160 years. It came to Nova Scotia in 1848 and – thanks in part to leaders like Robert Baldwin, Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine and Governor General Lord Elgin – to the old United Province of Canada a year later. However, if the parliamentary crisis of December 2008 is any indication, we have still not mastered all the subtleties of this very sophisticated form of government.
The prorogation (suspension) of the 40th Parliament on December 4, after it had sat for only 13 days and with a motion of nonconfidence pending, raised a number of important questions about our institutions:
- Did the government breach any fundamental, albeit unwritten, principle of constitutional behaviour?
- Was the Governor General correct to accede to the Prime Minister’s request to prorogue in such circumstances?
- Was the opposition irresponsible in seeking to replace the government just two months after an election?
Many answers to these questions have been offered. But the fact that Canada found itself in this position in the first place raises a more profound question: Do we have a political class capable of sustaining Westminster-style responsible government for another 160 years? Considering what has gone on in Parliament for the last five years, one can only wonder.
The events of December 2008 are part of a longer story about failure to adapt our institutions to the recent spate of minority parliaments which began with the election of 2004. Successive leaders have played fast and loose with some basic conventions of parliamentary government, and it was only a matter of time until there was a political explosion.1
Origins of the crisis in the Martin minority government
The story begins in April 2005 when Prime Minister Paul Martin, facing the possible defeat of his minority government, addressed the country and, in an extremely unusual step, promised to call an election within 30 days of the final report of the Gomery Commission. Tying the calling of an election to an external event was unprecedented. It outraged the opposition, which reacted by trying to use one of its upcoming opposition supply days to introduce a nonconfidence motion.
The Martin government responded by postponing every opposition day until late May, and even cancelling one such day that had already been designated. It used the extra time to continue negotiating a deal with the NDP and a few independent MPs for their support in return for changes to the budget. The opposition Conservatives kept up the pressure by trying to attach a nonconfidence motion to a committee report.
This series of events led to “The Curious Case of May 10, 2005,” as Professor Andrew Heard of Simon Fraser University called it. After much procedural wrangling and speaker’s rulings, a vote was held on a nonconfidence motion attached to a committee report. It passed, with 153 in favour and 150 opposed. The government ignored this, claiming it was a procedural motion. Professor Heard, among others, concluded that by any meaningful definition this had been a valid nonconfidence vote: