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Reviewed by:
  • Parliamentary Democracy in Crisis
  • Bob Rae
Peter H. Russell and Lorne Sossin, editors. Parliamentary Democracy in Crisis. University of Toronto Press. 2009. 224. $55.00, $24.95

This small volume contains much wisdom. There might have been a time when Canada's constitutional discussions would make eyes glaze over. That is hardly the case today.

The essays in this book focus on the extraordinary events from early December 2008 to late January 2009. Finance Minister Flaherty's economic statement followed a Throne Speech from the newly elected Harper minority government. Stéphane Dion had already announced his departure, and a leadership campaign by Liberals was just beginning.

The economic statement was a model of complacency, incompetence, and chicanery, in which Mr Flaherty proudly announced that Canada's federal budget was in balance, that the economic crisis south of the border could be contained, but that fiscal prudence required that the government end all direct public support for political parties. The reaction from the three opposition parties was swift, and politics was turned on its head.

Ste´phane Dion and Jack Layton began immediate discussions on a coalition that could replace the Harper government. In short order the Bloc Que´bécois was asked for its support for such a venture, outside the coalition, allowing for a period of stability.

The announcement of the coalition, and the picture of the three leaders shaking hands, aroused Mr Harper from his torpor. His request to the governor general for a prorogation of Parliament to avoid a vote of no confidence was duly granted. Meanwhile, the Liberal Party executive refused a request for an accelerated leadership contest, thus giving the interim leadership of the party to Michael Ignatieff.

When the House returned in late January, Mr Flaherty produced a completely different picture of the economy, which Mr Ignatieff then decided to support, because while the idea of a coalition might be 'constitutionally correct,' it lacked 'political legitimacy.'

This was my second brush with the issue of how to 'un-form' a minority government and form a new one without forcing an election.

The Ontario provincial election in early May 1985 had elected a minority Parliament: the Conservatives with more seats than the Liberals, and the NDP in third place.

A majority view emerged within the NDP that a public agreement between the NDP and the Liberals, based on clear objectives and timelines, would be a better option than the Russian roulette of a minority government living by its wits day by day.

The accord that was negotiated was not a coalition, but a working partnership, regularly monitored by a management committee of both [End Page 302] parties. The lieutenant governor was kept fully informed about the discussions. The Conservative defeat in the House followed soon after, and a new government was sworn in without a constitutional crisis. The Accord government worked effectively and efficiently and passed the laws it said it would.

In a parliamentary system, elections produce a Parliament, and Parliament makes a government. That was the lesson learned in 1985. Prattle about 'winning a mandate' with less than a majority in Parliament is just that - partisan spin, all sound and fury, signifying nothing. This lesson is repeated in many essays in this timely volume. But the book asks other important questions: how to increase the transparency of the process, and how to ensure that the public is kept far better informed on the certainties of the Canadian constitution.

We do not know, for example, from whom the governor general sought advice before her famous two-hour meeting with the prime minister. Nor do we know the tenor of that advice, or the reasons for her decision to grant a prorogation expressly to avoid a vote of confidence in the House. We're still not allowed to pierce this ornamental veil, which would seem to this writer to undercut David Cameron's benign conclusion that 'the system works.' Nor does anyone know what reasoning the governor general would use to refuse Mr Harper's request for an election, which almost certainly would have happened had Mr Ignatieff decided to defeat the Conservatives after the return of the House in January 2009...


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