Tuesday, November 18, 2003

CANADIAN CONSTITUTION 101

Stephen Harper wants Paul Martin to set fixed election dates, of every four years, for Parliament. Apparently, while sitting in the House of Commons as the nation's opposition leader Mr. Harper has not learned anything about British parliamentary tradition.

Let me explain for the benefit of Mr. Harper. Since the early 1840s in Britain and the late 1840s in Canada our lower chambers of parliament have operated on a system of 'responsible government.' This means the ministry in power holds that power so long as they have the confidence of a majority in the chamber. A dissolution of the chamber must occur for one of two reasons. 1) The ministry no longer holds the confidence of a majority as evidenced by the loss of a vote or series of votes on resolutions deemed critical to the ministy's program of governance. 2) The chamber has been in session for a period of five years from the point of return of the writs for the previous election of its members (Section 4, Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms)

If the ministry continues to hold the confidence of the house it has the right and, in fact by tradition, the responsibility to continue governing. It is the prerogative of the prime minister through the governor general to dissolve the house.

The problem that has emerged with this system of 'cabinet government' over the last 150 years it the rigidity of party politics not the vagaries of dissolutions. It is unwavering party lines that allow a ministry to continue with unfettered power for four years or more. Setting fixed election dates would not change this. It would undermine our parliamentary tradition, most significantly in those situations, usually in minority governments, when the ministry actually does lose the confidence of the house.

Mr. Harper argues that it is unfair to the opposition and to the country for the governing ministry to have the power to dissolve the house at its pleasure. Perhaps. However, would not the electorate be in the best position to make this decision? If the people are upset with the ministry for dissolving the house they have the immediate opportunity to take their revenge by voting against it. It seems fair to me.

With all the important issues out there right now, its good to see that the leader of the opposition has his eye on the ball.

Posted by Matthew @ 1:34 AM