Michael Chong’s proposed private member’s bill – his Reform Act – has received considerable attention since it was first announced, attracting high profile praise from the likes of columnist Andrew Coyne and equal measures of dismissal from, of all places, the federal New Democrats. As Coyne rightly describes it, should even some of its apparently rudimentary measures come into force, the bill could be nothing short of the first shot in a growing salvo. It could be the tipping point in a much larger spate of democratic reform. Importantly as well it refocuses public attention away from the distraction that is the Senate, instead focussing on the genuine democratic deficit in the House of Commons. Yes, the Senate is unelected, but its abolition would contribute little if anything to enhancing our democracy. Something more necessary is required.
Saturday, 30 November 2013
Sunday, 17 November 2013
Democracy Watch and its feckless founder continue to display a profound and stunning inability to grasp the
This is an organization that proclaims boldly that “shuttingdown the Senate is the easiest, least costly, and best solution”. Any expert on the subject – indeed, anyone with a basic grasp of grade school civics – will tell you that this is simply incorrect, improbable and dangerous. Abolition is neither possible – short of unanimous consent – nor desirable. The Senate cannot simply be shut down with massive constitutional change. Senators must be appointed and the courts would enforce this. To state otherwise is a malicious deceit, but reforming the Constitution is easy when you don’t bother to read it.
Democracy Watch’s latest brain fart is designed to make the office of the Governor General – and with it the provincial vice regal representatives – into a political office with a democratic mandate. Proposed in the name of fairness and democracy, this idea, if it came to fruition, would be disastrous, essentially upending responsible government. The idea – the very notion that it is an idea does a disservice to the concept – is premised on an assortment of claims about how government functions. As usual, Democracy Watch confirms that they know nothing about what they propose to reform. I will address each of the problems and factual errors in turn below.
First, Democracy Watch proposes to “Canadianize the Governor General and provincial lieutenant governors”. This, one assumes, is based on the mistaken belief either that the Governor General is an agent of the Imperial Parliament at Westminster or that the “Queen of England” is our monarch. Democracy Watch has demonstrated consistently that it does not understand how the Crown in Canada operates, either by way of its functions or its existing democratic limits. The fact is that the Crown and the office of Governor General have long since been ‘Canadianized’. Britain no longer has a say in the matter and the office for over sixty years been occupied by a Canadian. Therefore a “a new constitutional convention that will Canadianize the GG” cannot be created because it already exists.
Second, seeking to “empower” the Governor General is foolish and, indeed, quite wrong in interpretation. The Governor General does, in fact, retain a small but important array of powers such as the forming and dissolving Parliament and appointing a Prime Minster. These are not trivial powers and, while they are largely exercised automatically, they remain substantial.
It remains unclear what this ‘empowerment’ would entail, but if coupled with a vice regal granted an enhanced democratic mandate it could pose clear and insurmountable problems. First, would a Governor General be given the power to quash legislation that passed the elected House – and perhaps only the elected House, Democracy Watch having magically disappeared the Senate – and thus refuse to grant Royal Assent (something currently beyond the authority of the GG)? Would an empowered Governor General disregard the advice of a Prime Minister with the confidence of the House of Commons and thus abandon the principle of responsible government? Our history of constitutional crises – King-Bing and Prorogation – should guide us against any rash behaviour.
Third, how an ‘empowered’ Governor General would “help stop the abuses of power by the Prime Minister” is equally unclear. Prime Minister Harper may be viewed as an autocrat, but he operates within the strictures of responsible government: he must retain the confidence of the House. Cabinet remains the key decision-making body and it is difficult to comprehend how a Governor General could intervene if a Cabinet is being bullied by the Prime Minister.
Forth, bringing the Governor General closer to the electorate and to the mechanisms of partisan politics unnecessarily politicize an office that currently works precisely because it is above the political fray. The office – as with the office of the Queen – works because it is not brought down to the level of everyday politics and because its discretionary powers are exercised largely democratically.
Fifth, the campaign is at its most basic level fundamentally ignorant of how responsible government works and, as such, is unqualified to make suggestions about how to make our institutions more democratic. The default position of the organization is to treat the Prime Minister and his office as unnatural and tyrannical ignoring the fact that his government is bolstered with the democratic mandate of Parliament as a whole. Parliament’s confidence is a representation of the democratic will. Here the legislature fulfills its important legitimacy function, sanctioning the power of the Prime Minister and Cabinet thus legitimizing the government.
Sixth, contrary to its claims, the Governor General and lieutenant governors are not – I stress not -- “supposed to play a key role in checking abuses of power by the Prime Minister and premiers”. Chief among the GG’s roles is ensuring that a democratically elected government remains in place at all times, not casting value judgement on a government’s leadership or policy preferences. It was never intended, nor is it the case in practice, that a vice regal act as a check on the government. This is the job of the legislature or, if an action is unconstitutional, it enters into the purview of the courts.
Nor are these offices “appointed lapdogs with no clear rules to enforce”. During the prorogation crisis there developed an argument that Michaëlle Jean kowtowed to pressure and acceded to the demands of Prime Minister Harper. The reality was that Jean consulted constitutional experts and deliberated heavily on the matter, weighing the facts and consequences thoroughly before coming to a decision. No doubt she, unlike others, kept in mind the instructive lessons of the King-Byng Affair when rendering her decision. David Johnston was also criticized for allowing a prorogation in much the same language. The reality was that the motives of the Harper government do not factor into the equation. Harper had a majority and the confidence of the House; it was therefore his right to tender advice and have it accepted.
Seventh, we come to Democracy Watch’s big lie: “no amendments [are] needed to the written Constitution”. Duff Conacher and company would do well to actually read the text of the Constitution Act before making such an absurd statement. The role, functions and place of the Governor General are mandated in the written text since 1867 and in the Letters Patent, 1947 (the latter of which are the Queen’s to alter, although to do so without advice is unthinkable). The point is that the office – and those in the provinces – are clearly matters for the written constitution.
Consider that under section 41 – the unanimous consent provision for amending the constitution – the consent of two federal chambers and ten provinces is required amend “the office of the Queen, the Governor General and Lieutenant Governor of a province”. How Democracy Watch managed to overlook this is simply astounding. Perhaps the organization confuses the concept of a resolution. Indeed, all the changes “can be made by simple resolutions in each legislatures”, but these resolutions are written and alter the text of the document. A simple declarative resolution is not enough to alter the text of a constitution. Again, an astounding claim.
Eighth, and related to the above, the federal government and the provinces cannot simply pass legislation concerning the operation of the Governor General with respect to the specific powers of the office (or those of the Queen, who exercises a discrete pool of powers that are separate from the GG). Some of the legislation they cite – for instance fixed election dates -- has been implemented in Canada but has made clear, as the federal legislation does, that the legislation in no way altered the powers of the vice regal because – surprise, surprise – that would require an amendment.
Furthermore, Democracy Watch’s use of the United Kingdom and New Zealand as examples to follow and, in particular, examples to follow because they do not require constitutional amendment, again demonstrate a lack of awareness. The UK and New Zealand are spurious comparisons because they do not have a written constitution – thus Acts of Parliament are the supreme law of the land – and both are unitary states. The written constitution and federalism make these examples manipulative and dishonest.
Ninth, the other changes proposed do not require change precisely because existing practice functions quite well. With only rare exception, governments form within 30 days. To force a legislature to be open for 120 days each year would, again, require an amendment because the existing text mandates Parliament must meet once a year (s.5 of the Charter). Practice also demonstrates that the party with a plurality is given the first chance to form a government. Politicians do actually respect the intentions of voters in this regard. Other changes also correct to remedy problems that do not exist but that, if they were to be established, would require altering the constitutional powers of the office.
Tenth, contrary to Democracy Watch’s continued obliviousness, a mechanism is currently in place that ensures that the candidates for Governor General – and provincial vice regal offices – are non-partisan and qualified. This Advisory Committee on Vice-Regal Appointments is itself non-partisan and professional and is explicitly designed to remove the political aspects of the appointment process and to ensure the position is not one of patronage. The process has by any measure proven a success despite being non-binding advice. Even the Harper Conservatives know and respect that some offices are not to be placed in the partisan fray and be kept above politics.
Eleventh, and finally, as noted above the Letters Patent, 1947 play an important role as a constitutional document. Contrary to Democracy Watch’s assertion that “the written Constitution does not require that the Prime Minister request the Queen’s approval of the Governor General (GG)” and that the “Prime Minister should simply not request the Queen’s approval for the next person to chosen to be GG”, the approval of the Queen is required. Of course, since Duff and Democracy Watch cannot begin to fathom the basic principles of responsible government, they fail to see that the advice would be accepted as per convention.
Each and every assertion, each proposal for change and reform presented by this group in relation to the Governor General is factually and constitutionally incorrect. The group’s ignorance is absolute as is its arrogance in deigning to assume they can offer solutions to institutional problems they cannot begin to fathom. That they cannot wrap their head around basic concepts simply belies the fact that they have not actually done so much as read the constitution.
The reason debunking these idiotic ideas is necessary is simple: this is a group with a wide cachet as an ‘expert’ organization. Its founder and mascot, Duff Conacher, is regularly given a public soapbox in the Globe & Mail without being fact checked. There is an inherent danger in allow these ideas to propagate simply for the fact that they reduce the degree of general civic literacy. Citizens ignorant of their own institutions cannot take part effectively in their democracy nor can they hope to fix it if they cannot properly diagnose its problems.
For Democracy Watch there isn’t a political ill that cannot be solved by elections. Populist sentiment trumps the constitution and the rule of law. It also trumps common sense. These are dangerous precedents to set. The office of the Governor General is one of Canada's institutions that actually functions well. It does so because politicians and governments respect that it needs to be non-partisan and above the political fray. Moreover, it is a distinctly Canadian institution, Canadianized decades ago. It works as it was intended. Suggestions to fix what isn’t broken will hopefully fall on deaf ears.
Saturday, 16 November 2013
I’ve always been curious and more than a little perplexed by the phrase “I’m a fiscal conservative”. It’s confusing because it is most often expressed by individuals who vote (Progressive) Conservative and feel that what is a seemingly self-evidently contradictory action – yes, I’m pro-choice, no I’m not anti-gay – needs immediate explanation. “I’m a fiscal conservative” is an almost defensive posture.
It’s also fundamentally at odds with reality. Our big-C Conservative governments are rarely if ever fiscally responsible in the sense of responsible management of public funds. Federally the record is quite clear. The fiscally conservative party is actually the Liberal party. The last two Prime Ministers who managed to balance the budget did so because they both inherited a surplus from the previous government. In both cases they were quick to squander the fiscal breathing room.
Sunday, 10 November 2013
It has become an almost inescapable reality that the history of Western states is bound up with their military heritage. The degree to which this is the case waxes and wanes as popular sentiment shifts and power changes hands. Britain, France and Germany are dotted with monuments to the wars of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries while the history of the United States is, perhaps more so than most other states, bound with war through the revolutionary origins of victory over its imperial masters in Britain. Closer to home, most cities in Canada are likely to have a Cenotaph or some memorial to the ‘Great War’ of 1914-1918, subsequently expanded to include the Second World War, the Korean conflict and, most likely, expanded again to acknowledge peace keeping missions and the recent war in Afghanistan.
Thursday, 4 July 2013
Elizabeth May is perhaps the hardest working Member of Parliament. As a caucus of one, her entire party – its policy objectives, its visibility – depends on her ability to command attention in the House and in the media. However, for all the time she spends in the lower house, she still demonstrates an alarming lack of awareness about the institutions she is now apart of. Her frequently public musing offers a glimpse into a political theory that it is often at odds with itself and its intended aims.
News that the current Leader of the Government in the Senate is stepping down is not surprising. A long serving veteran of the upper chamber, Marjory LeBreton is close to the mandatory retirement age and would not be able to serve in a theoretically re-elected Harper ministry in 2015. LeBreton has also been front and centre for the Senate expenses scandal, a role that has been largely unhelpful for the government in diffusing the situation.
Friday, 28 June 2013
Recently the founder of Democracy Watch has once again been given a soap box from which to preach his unique brand of republicanism. An opinion piece in the Toronto Star unduly conveys that notion that he is an expert in his field. The problem is not that he is a republican – the idea of monarchy is morally repugnant and runs contrary to modern conceptions equity and fairness - but that he is consistently wrong when it comes to the subject. His sense of the Canadian Constitution – both as a text and the elements of convention that animate it – and the workings of the Canadian Crown are grossly inaccurate and detract from a serious discussion of the subject.