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.