A quick lesson in the parliamentary tradition

Today’s post is sparked by the conservative suggestion that Canadian Political scientists are likely to balk at the idea of a coalition government because it was not won in a general election.  The Heritage Minister ventured thus:

“I think a lot of political science students are going into their university classes today asking their professors: To become prime minister of this country don’t you have to win an election?” Heritage Minister James Moore said in an interview Tuesday with CBC News.

In parliamentary systems the principle of responsible government (since it was introduced) trumps all other constitutional concerns as it relates to the formal functioning of government.  Indeed in every Canadian political science text-book written from either a right, center or left-wing slant the story of the Canadian Constitution of 1867 is always told as the evolution of the principle of responsible and representative government.

And it works as follows: The Cabinet exercises executive powers which symbolically are vested in the crown (we have a constitutional monarchy so it has to be formally as such) but the cabinet itself is drawn from the two houses (the house of commons and the senate) and they, the Cabinet and the PM, enjoy the exercise of executive power only so long as they enjoy the support of the elected assembly (the house of commons).

Hence, strictly speaking, on election day Canadians elect a parliament and then the parliament elects the executive.

Notice that it is this particularity (the flow of legitimacy via the support of the HOC) that makes a minority government possible at all.  That is, the very same principles which enable and give legitimacy to the formation of a minority government are the very same principles which enable and give legitimacy to the formation of a coalition government.

None of this is bizarre. Had the conservatives won a majority of seats on the HOC then they would enjoy the undisputed exercise of the power of the executive (subject to constitutional limits).  But they did not and therefore a Conservative minority gov is no more or less legitimate than any other: In all cases–majority, minority, minority coalition–the ultimate authority and legitimacy rests on support in the house. That is how the principles of responsible and representative government are concretely realized.

What is good for the goose is good for the gander.

That will be the basic story political science students get when they ask the Heritage minister’s question in their political science courses.



I perhaps should have added that all the talk about precedent misses the point to some degree.  The precedents must be derived from first principles.  To the extent that previous precedents cannot be said to rest on the application of first principles–in this case responsible and representative government–they are of little use.  It may be that in the present situation is unique but the first principles are not, and these must be applied when making judicial and quasi judicial decisions.

That is, our GG is going to have to think like a SC judge.

See after thought to this post:


5 thoughts on “A quick lesson in the parliamentary tradition

  1. From James Laxer’s blog:

    In a bid to save their government from defeat and prevent its replacement by a Liberal-NDP coalition with the support of the Bloc, Stephen Harper and his operatives are trying to sell the public a false view of how our system of government works.

    It begins with the bogus proposition that Stephen Harper and the Conservatives “won” the recent election and have a mandate to govern.

    In fact, in the recent election, the Conservatives won a minority of seats in the House of Commons, 143 out of 308.

    Our system of government, known as “responsible government”, holds that for a ministry to hold office it must enjoy the confidence of the House of Commons, i.e. the support of the majority of the members of the House.

    In Canada, we do not directly elect our prime minister. The prime minister is an elected member of the House of Commons (in theory, he or she could be a Senator, but this has happened only twice, the last time under Mackenzie Bowell from 1894 to 1896.) The Governor General asks the leader of the political party that commands the support of the majority in the House to form a government. In the case of a minority parliament, the critical issue is which party or combination of parties can command the support of the majority in the House.

    Yesterday, when the leaders of the Liberals, NDP and the Bloc, whose parties hold the majority of seats in the House announced their intention to defeat the Harper government and replace it with a Liberal-NDP coalition government with the support of the Bloc, they were playing out their roles within the system of responsible government. And since this move comes early in the new parliament and holds out the promise of stable government for at least the next eighteen months, it is almost certain that the Governor General will call on the coalition to form a government once the Conservatives have been defeated. (The Governor General does have some discretion here, under the rubric of royal prerogative, but considering how recent the election was, it is highly unlikely that she would accede to a request by Stephen Harper to dissolve parliament to call another election.)

    The Conservatives are appearing on news shows, talk shows and are organizing rallies putting out the word that what is happening in Ottawa is an attempted “coup”. At the centre of this inane claim is the proposition that Canadians just re-elected Stephen Harper as prime minister and that he has a mandate to govern.

    It is true that the Americans directly elect their president and therein lies much of the confusion that is being stirred up by furious Conservatives over their punch bowls. The American Constitution (in my view grounded on a poor understanding of Montesquieu and the British Constitution following the Glorious Revolution of 1688) rests on the notion of “separation of powers”. The Executive Branch, the Legislative Branch (Congress) and the Judicial Branch each occupy their own hermetically sealed space and are protected from undue interference with each other much the way Vestal Virgins were protected in Ancient Rome. To their credit, the Americans have managed to make this ungainly system work with only one Civil War marring its record to date.

    The Canadian prime minister is not a quasi-king in the manner of the American president. He or she rises or falls depending on the votes of the majority in the House of Commons. That is what is going on here. What is coming to an end is the rule of a prime minister who thought he was a king. What is coming is a government that actually represents the views of the majority of the members of the House, and for that matter the majority of voters in the recent election.

  2. I would add to your excellent post Travis that while many conservatives are claiming the coalition to be immoral and anti-democratic because of the power vested in the Bloc Quebecois, they miss the point that it is absolutely democratic and for all the reasons you have detailed here.

    All MPs are supposed to be an expression of the will of the electorate and Bloc MPs were elected by Canadians to the Canadian parliament. When the Conservatives say that they have no right to influence government, they immediately discount the will and opinions of those Canadians who voted for Bloc candidates.

    Very good post travis.

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