January 30

Canadian crisis evaporates

The Canadian political crisis is no more. The threat of a vote of no confidence in  the minority government of the Prime Minister, the Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper PC MP, has evaporated.  


The agreement solemnly signed by the leaders of the opposition Liberal and New Democratic  Parties to form a coalition government, with an indication of Bloc Québécois support on   confidence issues, did not last long. As we noted here on 8 December, it was always doubtful that the tenuous opposition agreement  would hold together until 26 January, the date when Parliament would resume.

Parliament had been prorogued by the Governor General, Mme. Michaëlle Jean, on 4 December,  2008 in the exercise of her constitutional powers and on the advice of Mr. Harper. The  document is well worth reading.   

This was always a political crisis and never a constitutional one. It is curious that when the  constitution works as it was intended, some commentators insist that the crisis is constitutional. 

The events in Canberra in 1975 also did not constitute a constitutional crisis. Had Mr Whitlam not come  to the Governor-General on 11 November with advice to hold an early half Senate election, the Governor-General could well have delayed taking the action he did.   

Even if the Governors had agreed to the early Senate election, and Mr. Whitlam had won enough  places in the Senate, the new Senators could not have taken office until 1 July 1976. It was  no solution.  

Had Mr Whitlam delayed, it was always possible that someone in the Opposition could  have crossed the floor, or Mr. Fraser could have lost his nerve.

What is often forgotten about 1975 is that Mr. Fraser was playing the same card which  Mr Whitlam and his predecessor had played 170 times since 1950. Sir David Smith reveals  this in his authoritative work, Head of State, Macleay Press, Sydney 2005, pages 263-265.  

So until 1973, Mr. Whitlam strongly believed in the right of the Senate to block supply, and  none of the  commentators so outraged by the 1975 dismissal was at all concerned over the 170 attempt to block supply to bring down a government. The difference was that in 1975 Mr Fraser had the numbers, due to some unorthodox Senate appointments filling causal vacancies.  

In the 170 times Labor attempted to block supply, the  cross bench Senators would not join in.

Politics is a brutal and often unscrupulous game.

This is being demonstrated with clarity in  Canada where the Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff has killed off the coalition that had  threatened to topple the government, agreeing on Wednesday to pass the Conservatives'  budget with minor conditions. 

A report in the Globe and Mail on Thursday 28 January says that Stephen Harper's Tories  quickly snapped up the offer, asserting it was barely a concession.   Jack Layton, the  NDP Leader who would have served in a coalition cabinet, and Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles  Duceppe declared the coalition officially, and decisively, dead. 

Lessons from Canada 

There are four fundamental points which should be made about the Canadian political crisis. 

First, if  this were a crisis,  it was a political crisis , and certainly not a constitutional one . Indeed, rather than  a crisis, it was more of a mess made by politicians acting instinctively as they do all around  the world, attracted to the scent of and addicted to power.

Second, the Canadian Crown was destined to  play the key role in ensuring a constitutional  solution to this crisis among the politicians.   

Third, the powers of the Canadian Crown were exercised by the Governor General  ( no hyphen is used in Canada in contrast to the Australian Governor-General).    

Fourth, the Governor General is above politics because of the crucial fact that she is  appointed by, and owes her allegiance to the Sovereign – and as a consequence she is  a trustee for the  people.  She does not owe any allegiance to the politicians who may  have recommended her appointment, or to the particular party to which the politician  belongs. 

Nor is she a political seeking her own re-election or obsessed by the ideas  of mandate or political agenda.  In brief, Governors General cannot have a mandate  or a political agenda. 

In all these events, the Crown has ensured, as only the Crown can, the continuing peace order and good government of Canada  according to fundamental constitutional principles.





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