Canadian Constitutional Crisis

An online acquaintance from Canada has alerted me to the fact that, while we US Americans are all wringing our hands about our economic collapse and atwitter about the upcoming change in government, countries in the rest of the world are going on about their own political affairs and troubles, too. (Isn’t that cute!) For instance, the U.S. economy’s collapse has, unsurprisingly, contributed to a collapse in Canada’s economy, too. As a result, Stephen Harper and the Tories (aka the Conservative Party), who hung on to power with a coalition government, are facing a no-confidence vote less than six weeks after winning a plurality in Parliament. Why? The Bloc Québécois bolted from the coalition government withdrew its support of the Tories after they failed to offer stimulus package in response to economic conditions, although the real reason may have to do with also withdrawing Federal subsidies for political activity and attempting to take away public employees’ right to strike in labor disputes.

Although they’re delaying the inevitable as long as they can, the Tories are likely to lose. This will mean that the Queen — or, rather, the Queen’s representative in Canada, Her Excellency the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean, Governor General of Canada, acting in Her Majesty’s name as representative of the Crown and technically the Viceroy of Her Majesty the Queen of Canada — will actually get to do something of real political significance. When the Prime Minister fails to achieve a majority vote of confidence, the government of Canada dissolves. That is to say, the civil service type work continues, but the continued viability of Parliament and the political branches of the government falls into doubt.

It seems that come Monday afternoon, Her Excellency will have three choices. First, she can call for a new election. This seems silly, given that the last election ended only seven weeks ago.

Second, she can indicate the Crown’s desire to continue with the results of the last election and invite the next-largest party to form a government. In this case, that would be the Liberal Party. That brings up a new problem — the Liberal Party of Canada party lacks a leader. Current LP head Stéphane Dion is in the process of being ousted. So this would mean that Canada’s head of government would be — well, no one knows. Someone picked from out of the blue. And that person would have to lead a coalition government, something that apparently has never been done in Canada before.

Third, the Governor-General can use her Royal authority to prorogue Parliament, since it is only obligated to meet once a year. This would leave Prime Minister Harper governing with only his Cabinet, until Her Excellency calls Parliament into session again, which need not happen for up to an entire year. At some point, though, Harper would run out of money since Parliament would not be there to draft a new budget. If Canada uses the same fiscal years as the U.S., Harper would have until June 30 before running into serious trouble. This option also has the distinct disadvantage of being apparently contrary to the wishes of the democratically-elected Parliament. In a nation whose government is based on principles of democracy, it also would call into question the legitimacy of Harper’s rule. Once Parliament votes “no confidence,” however, this option is off the table, so if Her Excellency is to prorogue Parliament, she must do so this week.

Wow. Talk about a “no good options” situation.

Governor-General Jean is currently returning from a state visit to Europe. Typically, the Governor-General’s intervention in political matters is ceremonial and she follows cues given to her by the Prime Minister, regardless of which party controls Parliament. But there is nothing written down anywhere that would stop the Governor-General from making her own decision about what is in Canada’s best interests. Her second option — inviting the Liberals to form a coalition government — seems most likely to me, but who knows?

In college, I heard lots of talk about how a parliamentary system of government was better than the separately-elected President called for in the U.S. Constitution. I don’t know about that. The President, having a separate electoral base, can claim a greater degree of legitimacy when making decisions or doing things while Congress is not in session than a Prime Minister of a parliamentary country can. And our system of government provides for relatively rigid timing of elections, and independent governance of the separate branches of government, which means that in the short run, Congress doesn’t have to care about the President to get its job done, and vice versa. Those are actually pretty strong institutional advantages to the U.S. system of government, when you think about it.

A parliamentary system works fine as long as one party can keep a convincing majority of public support — but when times are tough, consensus is difficult, and opinions are widely divided, that’s exactly when you need to have the ability for a leader to step up, and that’s exactly when a parliamentary government becomes paralyzed.

Good luck to our friends and trading partners in Canada.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.

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