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Responsible government
Jan 29, 2010

Responsible government in a British colony was a Canadian invention, which was first achieved in Nova Scotia in February 1848 and the next month in the province of Canada (Québec and Ontario). Under responsible government, the governor general, is “obliged” to follow the advice of the first minister, or prime minister, who controls the government in an elected assembly.

Today, the concept of responsible government is a basic tenet of Canadian parliamentary democracy. Among the powers arising from responsible government is the prime minister’s ability to prorogue Parliament. Technically, the governor general has the authority to refuse to prorogue parliament, but that is regarded as contrary to the tenet of responsible government. When Governor General Byng failed to take the advice of Prime Minister Mackenzie King to prorogue Parliament for an election, the refusal turned into a constitutional crisis, which became known as the Byng-King Affair.

 After the 1925 federal election, the Meighen Conservatives held 116 seats in the House of Commons, while the Liberals held only 101, but King still controlled the House with the support of 24 Progressive members. Progressive support for the Liberals crumbled with the eruption of a Customs Department scandal. King presented Byng with an order-in-council “directing” the governor general to dissolve Parliament, but Byng refused to sign the document while a motion of censure was still under debate in the House. In effect, Byng was exercising his constitutional “reserve” powers. 

The Liberal government lost a confidence vote in the House and King was forced to resign in 1926. Byng then asked Meighen to form the government. But Meighen also lost a confidence vote after just three days in power — he became known to history as the “Three-day Wonder” — and an election became a necessity. King turned the election into a vote on Canada’s independence, claiming Byng had ignored the will of the elected House controlled by the first minister — himself. The Canadian public joined King in being incensed that the British-appointed Byng invoked what they believed to be an outdated and inappropriate procedure contrary to the concept of responsible government. The result was that the Liberals under King were returned to power with a majority in the House of Commons.

In the wake of the Byng-King Affair, the 1931 Statute of Westminster, an act of the British Parliament, dictated that Commonwealth states were fully self-governing without interference from the British government. With the passage of the statute, the interaction between governors general and the national parliaments of each Commonwealth state was forever changed. 

Since that time, Canada’s governors general have been fearful to test their reserve powers to refuse a prime minister’s request to prorogue Parliament. This fear was evident when the Liberals and NDP formed a coalition with the support of the Bloc Québecois, which could have toppled the Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative minority government. Harper’s request to prorogue parliament in the wake of the coalition's threat was granted by Governor General Michaëlle Jean. When the governor general granted Harper’s request to prorogue parliament, the prime minister avoided a confidence vote and kept power, while the coalition quickly faded away since it lost its raison d’etre.

Twice in one year the governor general has allowed Harper to avoid a confrontation in Parliament by granting his request for prorogation. In the most recent incident, Harper unexpectedly prorogued parliament when it became evident the Opposition and parliamentary committees were going to press the government on the issue of the torture of Afghan detainees. 

Since Harper had earlier received permission to prorogue parliament during a crisis with little public reaction, he undoubtedly felt he could again get away with it weeks before the scheduled session was to end. But that hasn’t been the case — it has turned into a public relations nightmare for the Tories. It’s quite amazing to see how uncomfortable otherwise competent spin doctors appear when they try to justify what is now widely acknowledged as an untenable position.

Under constitutional convention, Harper had every right to ask the governor general to prorogue parliament, but his wishy-washy reasons — the need to “recalibrate” the government’s direction on the economy and to focus on the Olympics doesn’t seem to have swayed Canadian public to maintain its alleged apathy.

To Harper’s surprise, social networking has emerged as a powerful force, inspiring thousands to take to the streets to protest what they see as a blow to parliamentary democracy. People who aren’t normally political have become political. For that matter, most Canadians probably hadn’t a clue what “prorogue” meant until recently — the grass-roots movement learned that the term meant the suspension of Parliament.

An EKOS poll, commissioned by the CBC, found nearly two-thirds of respondents, who were aware of the prorogation, felt, “The elected house of Parliament is the proper place to conduct the business of the nation, and suspending Parliament is anti-democratic.” Other polls show a drop in Tory popularity and gains by the Liberals.

Commentators and political scientists have been questioning the Harper government’s ability to “walk and chew gum at the same time.” 

Cannot parliament also be in session while the government rejigs its economic action plan, they ask.

The problem with proroguing Parliament is that all legislation dies on the order table and committees cease to exist. Only when Parliament reconvenes can new committees be formed and new and old legislation be introduced in the House.

Canadians are finally realizing Parliament is their forum, which is why they have protested against the prorogation. The prime minister’s right to have the governor general prorogue Parliament at his request has evolved from the first  days of responsible government, but there is also an obligation on the part of any prime minister to act responsibly toward Canadians when making the request.