- Parliamentary Democracy in Crisis
Actually, it turns out that it isn't. Indeed, many of the contributors to this collection of essays concede that the events of December 2008, while dramatic, did not constitute a 'crisis.' The sudden announcement that the opposition Liberals, NDP, and Bloc Québécois would co-operate to unseat Stephen Harper's Conservative minority government led to a swift countermove as Harper secured the governor general's agreement to prorogue Parliament a couple of weeks into the session. For Harper, the gamble paid off in the short term: through prorogation, he was able to stave off defeat, and in the interim the hastily cobbled together coalition came unravelled. As many Canadians seemed dismayed about the prospect of a coalition ministry headed by the unpopular Liberal leader Stéphane Dion as they did about Harper's cynical use of the Crown to prolong the life of his government. That said, a far less controversial prorogation request in January 2010 after an eleven-month session raised a well-organized storm of protest and may have convinced Conservative strategists not to overplay their hands in future. Procedural devices that may be technically permissible are still politically risky. Voters often seek to punish an administration that they believe has displayed excessive entitlement.
One of the more interesting aspects of the prorogation controversy is the attention it has focused on the role of the Crown in Canada, and in this respect the book's contribution is important. Some political observers have proposed that the governor general ought to have used her prerogative of refusal of advice to prevent Harper from proroguing [End Page 353] Parliament in December 2008. Andrew Heard, who considers the episode 'quite worthy of being called a real crisis' (47) adopts the minority position that the governor general's 'normal duty simply to act on the prime minister's advice was suspended by the impropriety of that advice and by the signed commitment of a majority of mps to vote non-confidence in the government.' He further maintains that the governor general's acquiescence in the prorogation 'stymied our elected representatives' ability to resolve the crisis' (60). Although he raises questions about the legitimacy of an appointed viceregal functionary, Heard, an expert on constitutional conventions, is correct in insisting that the governor general's prerogative of refusal of advice, so rarely invoked, is still intact. Heard recognizes that 'the reserve powers are all the more needed in Canada,' but maintains that this is so because of the 'incomplete and archaic' nature of our written constitution, an unfortunate phrase that implies a pressing need for change.
Many of the contributing authors refer to the 1926 King-Byng affair, although it offers little that is analogous. Less attention has been paid to the closer parallel of John A. Macdonald's 1873 prorogation request. Lord Dufferin conceded it, although it was evident that Macdonald's goal was to evade questions and avoid parliamentary defeat over the Pacific Scandal. Liberals and former Macdonald supporters submitted a memorandum to Dufferin pledging their support for an alternative ministry. Then, as now, the governor general might have refused ministerial advice, but recognized that his duty was not to compel his ministers to renounce procedural advantages, nor to attempt to purify Canadian politics. While Harper may have been on the verge of losing a confidence vote, he had not yet done so, and the opposition was not prevented from voting down the Conservatives, but only delayed. The reasons to refuse his advice would have had to have been very compelling.
In considering various aspects of the controversy, some of the authors have offered useful perspectives, although others have muddied the waters. C.E.S. (Ned) Franks is ultimately correct in his verdict that the governor general acted correctly, but he introduces some surprising speculations. Acknowledging that he has no way of knowing what transpired at the meeting at Rideau Hall, he nonetheless suggests that Michaëlle Jean 'might have warned Harper that the path...