The Saddest Day

I am a liberal and a Liberal. To be fair, I once voted NDP, because I am also a staunch believer in strategic voting in a first-past-the-post electoral system. But let there be no doubt; my political blood is red (for any American readers, that’s the liberal colour in Canada…we’ve got it backward).

I cannot for the life of me understand why anyone would support the Conservatives. Whether it’s the business-first, people-second attitude to the economy, or the draconian, not-so-faintly-religious-fundamentalist approach to social “values”, the Conservatives rub me the wrong way, to say the least.

That having been said, I understand that there are people who do not share my views; I think they’re dead wrong, but I understand that they exist and, whether I like it or not, they have the right to hold those views (and to be dead wrong). This is the political plurality that is the fundamental underpinning of modern democratic society; those with different opinions, even wildly different opinions, must peacefully co-exist. Public support will ebb and flow, and governments will come and go, but at the heart of it all lies this central tenet of our society.

Just as important is the concept that these different opinions can be expressed by voting in parliamentary elections. As I pointed out in a previous post, our system of government is very simple; the people elect individual members of Parliament, and the head of state (the Governor-General) asks the leader of the party with the largest number of elected Members of Parliament to form a government. It is critical to remember that not once in our country’s history have we voted for a government or for a Prime Minister. They do that kind of thing in republican democracies like the United States, where the head of state is directly elected. In parliamentary democracies, we vote for a Parliament; the government is appointed based on that Parliament.

The concept of ‘responsible government’ stipulates that the government, appointed by the head of state based on the elected Parliament, must at all times remain ‘responsible’ to the will of Parliament. That is to say, the appointed government must maintain the support of Parliament. In most cases, this is not an issue because the government holds a majority of the seats in Parliament, and whipped votes ensure that the support (or confidence, if you like) of Parliament will be assured. When a government holds a minority of seats, however, things get complicated.

Nevertheless, the fundamental concept here is that governments, be they majority or minority, must maintain the confidence of Parliament.

Now, I cannot stress this next point enough: this concept is the absolute bedrock of our system of government. Without responsible government, the Prime Minister can, in effect, rule as a de facto Monarch. For this reason, the system is bigger than any ideology; it is more important than any single politician, government, or political viewpoint. The system is what binds us together. Like I said, I am as liberal (and Liberal) as they come, but I would sooner see freely Conservative governments for the rest of my days than see the system of responsible government break down; in that direction lies only chaos. I would expect that any Canadian would feel likewise; that the system of government trumps ideology at all times.

After December 4, 2008, we now live in a country in which ideology supercedes responsible government. The Governor-General is in possession of a letter, signed by a majority of the Members of Parliament, stating that they have lost confidence in the Conservative government. She is also aware that a vote confirming this loss of confidence was to be held on Monday December 8, and that a majority of Members of Parliament were prepared to vote ‘no confidence’. Under this scenario, the only path that is compatible with the tenets of responsible government is for the government to resign, since it is aware that it has lost the confidence of Parliament. The Governor-General would then be duty bound to either call an election, or ask whether another party or parties believe that they have the confidence of a majority of Members of Parliament, and thus to form a government.

This is not what has happened.

Instead, the Governor-General has allowed a government to remain in control of a Parliament, the confidence of which it does not enjoy. She has prorogued Parliament until January 26, at which point the government will attempt to gain the confidence of Parliament with a new Speech from the Throne and budget.

Let me explain what this means. It means, without an ounce of hyperbole, that responsible government in Canada is dead. The precedent is set; if a government feels that it does not enjoy the confidence of Parliament, it may ask the Governor-General to suspend Parliament, and the Governor-General will be bound by precedent to do so. Canadian governments are no longer accountable to Parliament.

It makes absolutely no difference whether Prime Minister Harper feels that a Liberal-NDP coalition, supported by the Bloc Quebecois, is good for Canada. The BQ Members of Parliament were freely elected by Canadian citizens, and have a right to participate in the House of Commons, and to form the government, should the right set of conditions arise.

Mr. Harper and the Governor-General have subverted the system of responsible government. They are both aware that the government does not have the confidence of the House, and yet Mr. Harper continues to be the Prime Minister. Once again, it makes absolutely no difference what the alternative to a Conservative government is. Each and every Parliamentarian was freely and legally elected.

Even the most staunchly conservative (and Conservative) out there should agree with me that the system, above all else, must be respected. Responsible government, as the cornerstone of Canadian democracy, is bigger than you or I. Today, we have a government that does not enjoy the confidence of the House, but feels that it has a legitimate claim to power because many (most?) Canadians don’t approve of a Bloc-supported coalition government. Well, I’ve got news for you: the system doesn’t operate like that.

Yesterday, the shape of Canadian politics was radically altered. Canada has become a de facto republican democracy, where the government, not Parliament, is the only thing that matters. Despite the fact that many (most?) Canadians wouldn’t know it, in Canada, ‘government’ is not synonymous with ‘Parliament’; neither the government nor the Prime Minister was elected as such. We have shattered the concept of responsible government; the Prime Minister is now a King, responsible only to himself, beholden to no one.

And, to be frank, it shouldn’t matter what you political affiliation is; that should scare you to the core.


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