Gallery

Tom Flanagan: Responsible government is merely a convention

When Stephen Harper tried to take advantage of Canadians ignorance on coalition governments in parliamentary systems it was not a healthy thing for he is the Prime Minister and as such his highest duty should have been to the constitution.

I disagree with much of Tom Flanagan’s values as I am sure he would abhor mine but being a political scientist I just assumed, given we all have the same basic training, that when it came to the subject of minority parliaments he and I and every other political scientist and constitutional expert would be on the same page.

My father did his graduate work at UBC, I did mine at York some 25 years later and we both learned the same thing: governments are formed in virtue of their capacity to receive the confidence of the house. Who gets the most votes in an election or most seats (short of a majority of seats) is entirely beside the point. This is not a hypothetical, it is not a theory, it is the rule. Anyone can pick up an introductory Canadian politics text book and regardless of the author or their political affiliations they will say just that. Sadly Tom Flanagan in the Globe and Mail had this to say:

There’s no point in discussing constitutional hypotheticals right now. We have to remember that constitutional conventions are formed by what office-holders such as the prime minister and governor-general do in concrete situations. That’s why conventions can evolve over time.

This is completely disingenuous and Tom must know it. It is very dangerous territory to suggest that the well established key-stone of democratic responsibility in parliamentary systems–that the government is formed by the party who can get and then retain the confidence of the peoples’ house–is merely a constitutional convention which can be changed at a whim for reasons of crass political expediency.

I would give Mr. Flanagan a lecture from Ed. Burke but I won’t bother. Save to say Canadian conservatives have gone bonkers. Let us hope Tom does not write an introductory text book for Canadian political science.

Advertisements

11 thoughts on “Tom Flanagan: Responsible government is merely a convention

  1. I didn’t like Mr. Flanagan when I knew him at the UofC and his politics are even more offensive than he is. But at some level he is correct here, if only in a technical sense. Precedent and tradition are the real decision-makers in these matters since there is no clear legal rules in such matters either here or in England.

    But that raises two big questions. One is – shouldn’t these things be set in law in order to protect all of us from potential abuses? And two is – if Flanagan and Harper are really conservatives of the party of Burke, shouldn’t they be defending tradition? After all, this constituted the entire basis of Burke’s attack on the Revolution in France. He was the great defender of the stability that comes through tradition, and since many people consider Burke the father of modern Toryism, shouldn’t Conservatives be holding on to such traditions for dear life?

    And since they are not, are we to conclude that Harper, with his outrageous attacks on the House and democratic institutions, is making a decisive break from traditional Toryism and moving into new, neo-fascist, territory?

    • “are we to conclude that Harper . . . . is making a decisive break from traditional Toryism and moving into new, neo-fascist, territory?”

      I suspect the last traditional Canadian Tory was buried a little after WWII.

      Nowadays, you just have liberals who are more or less (xenophobically) nationalist, more or less bourgeois, and more or less (masculinist) authoritarian.

      • That is about right. Nativists petite bourgeois and the intelligentsia of global capital. But the two dominant parties have both in their tents. There is a talk left govern right version and a talk extreme right govern right version. What is interesting is that Quebec seems to be ready to say no to both official versions. If we were take an honest measure where would we put the NDP?

      • Well, I can’t imagine them peeping into bedrooms; on the other hand, I can’t see them trying something as sweeping as the NEP.

        Neo-modern Trudeau liberals?

  2. “Precedent and tradition are the real decision-makers in these matters since there is no clear legal rules in such matters either here or in England.”

    You forgot principles. And the principle of responsible government is clear and continuous. Any party that can get the support of house may form the government. None of this is exotic or abstract.

    Oh and conventions are as legally binding as written laws. Meaning they can be deliberated on.

    “And since they are not, are we to conclude that Harper, with his outrageous attacks on the House and democratic institutions, is making a decisive break from traditional Toryism and moving into new, neo-fascist, territory?”

    I was just having a conversation about that.

    • I didn’t think I was forgetting principles. Nor was I suggesting that such traditions could not have a binding element. Rather, I was saying that it is because these things are generally based upon precedent rather than specific legislation that there can be any public ambiguity on the matter. And thus the real sin of Harper and Flanagan, is that they would take advantage of the ambiguities that are, I think, inherent in such a system. And the irony is, of course, that they come from the party that built its entire modern identity on the defence of the politics of precedent and tradition.

      • “Rather, I was saying that it is because these things are generally based upon precedent rather than specific legislation that there can be any public ambiguity on the matter.”

        Ok got it.

  3. How can it be legal for a prime minister in such a position of trust, to deliberately misinform the public (Coalitions are bad) — leading to a benefit for himself and harm to the nation?

    • There is nothing illegal about saying something is bad. What is dangerous is suggesting that somehow a coalition is “illegitimate”. What you do not want is a situation where 30% of the population somehow thinks the opposition parties have behaved counter-constitutional.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s