Have Political Scientists Failed Canada?

This week’s events have got the Canadianists wringing their hands. Why does the average voter know so little about government? As one professor says on the Queen’s University chat-line: How can so many voters be upset at the prospect of a coalition assuming power when it’s perfectly within the rules of parliamentary democracy? Why do so many seem to think that it’s the electorate that chooses the prime minister? Are we failing our students?

Well, probably.

But, heck, we could just as easily say that it’s been a very good week for political scientists, the best in decades, in half a century. The phones don’t stop ringing. The networks, the local television, radio stations. Everyone needs a Canadianist. Immediately, right now. For this afternoon at the latest. Friends call me. “Janet what do you think?” “I mean, Janet, you must know what’s happening.” “Janet, come for dinner; you can tell us all about everything.” It’s delightful! I’m in demand.

Like uncounted others, I turn to the web to refresh my knowledge of the King-Byng wing-ding, which according to some scholars is relevant to our present crisis and according to others is not. Relevant or not, it’s on everyone’s mind. Will I be asked about King-Byng at dinner tonight? Not likely. Nevertheless. The first entry I call up is by Eugene Forsey. (Question: where is constitutionalist Eugene Forsey when you need him? Answer: ever present, ever ready. Dead for years, but still going strong. And more power to him.)

In 1925 Mackenzie King’s Liberals won fewer seats in Parliament than the Conservatives but remained in office with the support of the Progressives. The Conservatives had 116 seats, the Liberals, 101, and the Progressives, 24.

In June 1926, a scandal erupted. (Something to do with a rum runner in government employ; a bureaucrat with the improbable name of Bureau.) King’s prim Progressive support began to drift away. To escape a vote of censure in Parliament, King asked the Governor General, Viscount Byng, for a dissolution. Byng refused and called on Arthur Meighen as leader of Parliament’s the largest party to form the Government. But a few days later, as Forsey tells it: “Meighen’s government was accidentally defeated.” (Huh? Accidentally defeated? Whaaat happened? But let’s go on with the story.) Byng then dissolved parliament, throwing the country into an election, and for goodness sakes Mackenzie King was returned to office with a majority.

Why did King win? It appears that voters were upset that a British appointee (the Governor General, Lord Byng) had overturned their decision of 1925. King campaigned on a promise to loosen ties with the Mother Country and the promise appealed. (In those days the GG acted not only as Canada’s head of state, but also as representative of the British Government. In 1931, it was determined that the GG would continue in the former role (head of state), but not in the latter. Britain would have a High Commissioner in Ottawa. And so it is today.)

Thus we have one point to note with respect to our present situation in December, 2008: in both 1926 and 2008 the voters were/are zealously ready to defend their supposed right to “chose their prime minister.”

Now let’s think about Forsey’s contention that Meighen’s government was accidentally defeated. How do you accidentally let a Government and country slip from you grasp? In a matter of three days? I’m turning to Edgar McInnis, Canada, A Political and Social History (New York and Toronto, 1947).

Meighen, like King, required the support of the Progressives to remain in office. And like King, he managed to alienate them. “Cabinet ministers were still required by law to vacate their seats on acceptance of office – a stipulation that was not abolished until 1931 – and the retirement [of Meighen’s appointees] to seek re-election would fatally jeopardize his government. [Meighen] fell back on the device of appointing acting ministers, who drew no salaries, and took no oaths as heads of specific departments. This shift was at once attacked by the Liberals as unconstitutional and it alienated the Progressives, whose promise of support was predicated on the ability of the Conservatives to constitute a government that was regular in form. After barely three days of office the ministry succumbed to an adverse vote, and Byng was now obliged to grant to Meighen the dissolution he had refused to King. “

So what do we learn? What’s the requirement that ministers be reelected all about? To be continued …

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1 Response to “Have Political Scientists Failed Canada?”


  1. 1 John December 5, 2008 at 11:53 am

    I look forward to hearing the continuation of your reflections on King-Byng. Maybe 2008 does have a precedent?

    If 2008 lacks a precedent, should we ignore the historians, political scientists, and law professors, and look instead to John Locke? His theory of prerogative lies behind ours, does it not?


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