Global Research, November 30, 2008
Towards a Progressive Coalition Government in Canada
by Helen Forsey
After our costly and frustrating October 2008 trip to
the polls, Canadians are once again being held hostage
to the notion that a government can never be defeated in
the House of Commons without triggering an election. If
Eugene Forsey were still alive, we would know that the
weapon being held to our heads is only a toy gun.
The late Senator Forsey was widely recognized and
respected as an expert on Canada's constitution.
Whenever political dilemmas loomed or processes needed
clarifying, politicians, media and citizens alike sought
his lively and learned counsel. Today, with our country
again facing the uncertainties of a minority government,
a multi-party opposition and difficult times ahead, his
input is urgently needed.
The first thing he would point out in our current
situation is that our Parliamentary system provides
safeguards against a series of unnecessary elections.
One of those safeguards is the customary co-operation
and negotiation among parties in the House of Commons
which enables minority governments to work, often very
well. The other is the constitutional right of the
Governor-General, in certain circumstances, to refuse a
governments advice to dissolve Parliament and instead to
call on another party in the existing House of Commons
to try governing.
If the Canadian public, the politicians and the media
had understood these vital aspects of responsible
cabinet government and invoked it early in the last
Parliament, events would have unfolded very differently
from what they did. The government, instead of declaring
every bill a matter of confidence on which it would
stand or fall, could have chosen to work with one or
more opposition parties, as minority governments usually
do, to amend or even withdraw legislation that a
majority of MPs did not support. Failing that,
opposition parties could have voted together against the
government and defeated it.
This would not have had to mean an election. The
Governor-General, rather than automatically granting a
dissolution of Parliament, could have called on the
Leader of the Opposition to form a cabinet and try to
get the support of the House to govern. If the new
government had then developed its legislative and
budgetary measures in ways that would gain majority
approval by our elected representatives, the 39th
Parliament could have got on with its work, and quite
possibly worked very well.
But nobody, from the Governor-General to the
opposition politicians to the media to the general
public, seemed to realize that this was an option! Now,
after all the hassle and expense of the recent election,
were back in essentially the same place. And the minute
the PM decides that this new Parliament also isnt
working as he wants it to, it could happen again -
unless we start understanding and implementing the
options our Constitution provides.
If [a government] loses its majority support in the
House of Commons, it must either make way for a
government of the opposite party or call a fresh
election, states Eugene Forsey in How Canadians Govern
Themselves, his now-classic popular reference book
published by the Library of Parliament. In Canada, the
government and the House of Commons cannot be at odds
for more than a few weeks at a time. If they differ on
any matter of importance, then, promptly, there is
either a new government of a new House of Commons.
Contrast this clear either-or alternative with the
false assumption that if the Commons doesn't agree to
the governments program, there has to be a fresh
election. The Canadian Constitution very sensibly allows
governments to appeal from Parliament to the people when
the public interest so requires, the late Senator and
constitutional expert explained. But it does not follow
that it provides no means of protecting fundamental
democratic rights against abuse of these powers. It
does; and the means is the reserve power of the Crown as
guardian of the Constitution.
Forsey defended those reserve powers as a pillar of
our democracy. His PhD thesis on the royal power of
dissolution of Parliament documented the constitutional
precedents and the logic behind them, and demolished the
popular but mistaken theory that the Crown is just a
rubber stamp for Cabinet, or that if it isn't, it ought
to be. In particular cases, he argued, the power of the
Crown to refuse a dissolution may be all that stands in
the way of a government spanking the electorate into
submission by repeatedly forcing them back to the polls.
Unquestionably, the [reserve] power exists, he wrote,
citing the instances of its use and the wide range of
constitutional authorities and politicians who upheld
its propriety. Unquestionably also, it is a power to be
exercised only in very special circumstances: ordinarily
the Crown must follow the advice of the cabinet. But
many people feel that there must be no exceptions
whatsoever. Is this in fact a safe doctrine?
One of the scenarios he used to make his case against
the rubber stamp theory starts with a familiar
situation. Suppose the government gets a dissolution,
and no one gets a clear majority, he wrote. The
government retains office and meets the new Parliament -
as it has a perfect right to do - hoping to pick up
enough votes to keep it in power. But the new Parliament
defeats it. It declines to resign; governments don't
automatically resign on defeat. Instead, it asks for a
second dissolution, and upon a further defeat in the
ensuing Parliament, a third, and so on, until the
electors give in or revolt. Is the Governor-General
bound to acquiesce in this game of constitutional
ping-pong from electorate to Parliament, from Parliament
to electorate again, back and forth interminably?
In 1926, Mackenzie King accused Parliament of having
ceased to be in a position to make a satisfactory
decision about who should govern. In 2008, Stephen
Harper blamed a dysfunctional Parliament that wasn't
working. Both meant the same thing: a Parliament which
failed to do what they wanted it to do. And for both
men, the prescription was also the same: get a willing
Governor-General to dissolve the unsatisfactory
Parliament and bring on another election.
Forsey called this a heads I win, tails you lose
theory of the Constitution. It bears not the faintest
resemblance to parliamentary government, he said. Yet on
the rubber stamp theory of the Crowns powers there is no
escape from it, no protection against the Cabinet
dictatorship it would rivet upon the country.
It is the rubber stamp theory which is undemocratic,
he concluded. It makes existing governments irremovable
except by their own consent. Such a doctrine is a
travesty of democracy. It delivers every Opposition
gagged and bound into the hands of any jack-in-office.
The jack-in-office may loosen the gag and the ropes -
[perhaps] so much that we don't realize they're there.
But he can tighten them again whenever he pleases, and
as tight as he pleases. This is not democracy. It is
despotism; more or less benevolent, perhaps, for the
moment, but despotism none the less.
The antidote is an understanding of the reserve power
of the Crown to refuse a dissolution, and the political
will to demand that it be used when necessary.
All this is not to say that it would be simple for
the Crown to refuse her cabinets advice. As Eugene
Forsey noted, a Governor-General would rightly be
reluctant to do so without excellent reasons, and
without a new cabinet willing to accept the
responsibility. The reserve power on dissolution comes
into play only in exceptional circumstances when the
latest election is still relatively recent, no great new
issue of public policy has arisen in the interim, and
the makeup of the new Parliament provides the practical
possibility of an alternative government.
But the fact that the reserve power exists is key to
counteracting the paralyzing sense of helplessness that
has turned so many Canadians off politics. It means we
can choose to move from frustration and wishful thinking
to the practical possibility of another government being
formed from the opposition a majority in this new
Parliament as in the last. The various parties would
have to set partisan selfishness aside, but there would
be no need for a formal coalition, just enough
cooperation for each bill to pass. That, after all, is
how responsible minority government works.
Democratic alternatives become real options when we
understand and insist on the constitutional principles
surrounding dissolution. Whether or not we like a
particular government, having those options is essential
to maintaining our democracy. We need not be hamstrung
by the constant fear of another election. We must shake
off our ignorance of the constitution and use the tools
it offers to make our parliamentary system work for us.
Writer Helen Forsey is a daughter of the late Senator
Eugene Forsey. She is currently working on a book about
his legacy to Canadians.