A blog to give a voice to our concern about the continued erosion of our democratic processes not only within the House of Commons and within our electoral system but also throughout our society. Here you will find articles about the current problems within our parliamentary democracy, about actions both good and bad by our elected representatives, about possible solutions, opinions and debate about the state of democracy in Canada, and about our roles/responsibilities as democratic citizens. We invite your thoughtful and polite comments upon our posts and ask those who wish to post longer articles or share ideas on this subject to submit them for inclusion as a guest post.
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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Principles of Parliamentary Democracy

Peace, Order & Good Government is the title a blog about exactly that, a recent post contained links to some opinion and reports from some individuals well versed in constitutional matters. If you think that this election is going to either make such matters irrelevant or resolve them you are dreaming in technicolor. We will in fact in all probability simply move from one constitutional crisis to the next simply because our politicians either cannot, or will not, work together for the good of all Canadians.
I will let POGGE take it from here, extracts from the articles mentioned follow:-
One approach to fighting fiction with facts by Helen Forsey has been to compile and share a list of myths and misrepresentations. These include the idea that coalitions are evil and illegitimate, that Canadians elect the prime minister and a government, that defeating a government on a confidence motion forces a fresh election. The most dangerous fiction is the idea that if the opposition accepts the Governor General's invitation to replace a government that has lost the confidence of the House, this would amount to an "illegitimate seizure of power."
Recently, Professor Emeritus Peter Russell organized a non-partisan workshop for leading Canadian academics and political thinkers to begin a process to create a how-to manual for the country if the next election produces an unclear result. The full report deserves to be read in its entirety. In the meantime, here are 5 key principles to remember when the going gets tough. My thanks to Peter Russell for sharing these and encouraging their dissemination.
1. Parliament is the core institution of Canadian democracy. The House of Commons, its elected chamber, is the one body elected by all Canadians.
2. When Canadians go to the polls they elect the House of Commons not a government. The right to govern goes to the members of the house who can secure its confidence.
3. The prime minister is the servant of the House of Commons and must be accountable to it all times.
4. When no party has a majority in the House of Commons, it is for the House to decide what kind of government it will support. In these situations, the House basically has three choices: 1) a coalition government of two or more parties who share cabinet posts; 2) a minority government in an alliance with two or more parties who agree to support it on the basis of agreed upon policies but who do not share cabinet posts; 3) a minority government that works out agreements with opposition parties issue by issue.
5. The Governor General's role is to exercise the crown's discretionary reserve powers only when necessary to permit the proper functioning of parliamentary democracy.

Writer and activist Helen Forsey, daughter of the late Senator and constitutional expert Eugene Forsey, has this to say:-
This election really is about our democracy. Canadians have a right to expect fairness, honesty and respect from our system of government. Instead, the Harper regime has given us five years of injustice, corruption and contempt.  
Harper uses a stack of fairy tales about our parliamentary system to trick people into thinking they have to vote Conservative in order to avoid disaster. In reality, his threats about the opposition “seizing power” or forcing a fresh election are shameless scare tactics based on lies.
Lie #1: Coalitions are evil and illegitimate.
•Not true. Coalitions are totally constitutional, and can be the most sensible way to govern co-operatively and respect the will of a majority of voters. 
Lie #2: Canadians elect the prime minister.
•Not true. We elect some 300 Members of Parliament to the House of Commons. 
Lie #3: The party that wins the most seats necessarily forms the government.
•Not true. The governing party must win – and keep – the confidence of our elected MPs through confidence votes in the House. 
Lie #4: Defeating a government on a confidence motion forces a fresh election.
•Not necessarily. If a recently elected House votes to defeat a government, the Governor General calls on the leader of the opposition to form a government and seek the confidence of the House. 
Lie #5: It is an illegitimate “seizure of power” if the opposition accepts the Governor General’s invitation to replace a government that has lost the confidence of the House.
•Not true. In fact, the opposition has what amounts to a constitutional duty to try to form a viable government with the recently elected Parliament, with no need for a repeat election. 

For more information, see How Canadians Govern Themselves at www.parl.gc.ca/publications.

The David Asper Centre for Constitutional Rights, a centre within the University of
Toronto, Faculty of Law hosted a panel discussion of leading constitutional scholars following the
prorogation of Parliament in 2008 and after further discussions recently produced a report entitled “Adjusting to a New Era of Parliamentary Government”
They say:-

“While the constitutional conventions discussed in this report may seem somewhat
removed from the concept of rights, they are essential to the realization of democratic
rights in Canada. Without transparent and accountable systems of government, citizens’
democratic rights to participate in those systems are undermined and may be rendered
meaningless. This report is a solid step along the path to a greater understanding of our
uniquely Canadian version of Westminster democracy.”
After reading this important and long overdue examination of this subject I found this bit to be the most telling:-
“One of the areas where adjustment is needed is the lack of clarity and agreement
around important unwritten conventions of our parliamentary system of government.
Constitutional conventions are at the heart of our system of responsible government. To
be effective they need to be agreed upon by the political leaders of the day. Political
debate about these unwritten principles and practices of our constitution has the potential
to plunge the country into a serious constitutional crisis.”

In their recommendations they say:-
“There would be much less risk of a parliamentary crisis following an election in
which the result is not clear if there were an authoritative set of guidelines such as New
Zealand and the United Kingdom now have in their Cabinet Manuals. “

That says it all, reading of their discussions it is clear that whist the 'conventions' may be fairly clear to most of us there are not (for the most part) 'rules' set down and thus, as we have seen with recent governments, there is much room for abuse. We cannot let successive governments interpret those 'conventions' to suit their political agenda, we must seek consensus on setting some 'rules' (good luck with that!). There is much more in this report and it is, as they say, a good first step. I seriously doubt however that anything meaningfully will come of it no matter who gets the most seats on May 1st. The points raised about what to do with a 'hung parliament', confidence votes, and who is able to govern 'with the support of the House' may well be front and center once again however with another minority government elected as seems highly probable.

The full report deserves to be read in its entirety. (235k PDF)
There's also an excellent article by Lawrence Martin on iPolitics.ca about Harper's methods, and how they've "brought Canadian democracy to new lows." 
Here's a bullet list of Harper's actions Martin discusses in the article courtesy of Catch 22
  • Prorogations of Parliament
  • Contempt of Parliament
  • Scorn for parliamentary committees
  • Challenging constitutional precepts
  • Lapdogs as watchdogs
  • The Patronage Machine
  • Abuse of Process
  • The vetting system
  • Public service brought to heel
  • Access to information
  • Supression of research
  • Document tampering
  • Media curbs
  • Afghan detainees
  • My way or the highway
  • Personal attack ads
  • A democratic party?
  • Legal Threats

A BIG tip o the hat to POGGE for this one, and a honorable mention to Catch22.

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