Re-election of Ministers, the “Dump,” & Other Matters

In June 1926, Arthur Meighen’s government was accidentally defeated. Some accident! He’d been in power only three days. (See the last blog, Have Political Scientists Failed Canada?)

At that time, as I noted, cabinet ministers were still required by law to vacate their seats on acceptance of office. Thus immediately after Meighen took the reins of power, his newly minted Ministers returned to their ridings to seek once again the electorate’s approval. Meighen tried to carry on government without them and promptly lost a vote of confidence. It could happen to anyone.

So we have the question: why were ministers supposed to seek re-election? The stipulation was abolished in 1931 and everyone on this list will be able to think of reasons. It’s considered a fine thing to be represented in Parliament by a Cabinet Minister; re-election would be almost automatic. Now it is automatic, so to speak.

Here’s Chris Moore’s explanation (1867, How the Fathers Made a Deal, Toronto, 1997):

“There was an ancient logic to this odd requirement. When kings actually ruled, parliaments existed not to govern but as a check upon the government of the Crown. Hence a parliamentarian who agreed to become an advisor to the Crown – a cabinet minister, in other words – was about to serve two masters: the king and the people. It was thought proper that he should secure the consent of his electors before doing so. As the parliament took control of government, and the king ceased to rule, the two-masters problem became moot. But constitutional usages die hard. The obligation on a new cabinet minister to seek re-election survived past confederation.” In this passage (page 21), Moore is discussing John A. Macdonald’s famous or infamous “double shuffle” in the 1850s. (Ha, ha! Thought you’d never understand the double shuffle? It’s a snap once you’ve grasped the principle of ministerial re-election.)

We’re not going to bring back re-election of ministers. But let’s suppose for the sake of argument that we could. There’s a sense in which the two-masters problem that Moore talks about is still with us. Cabinet ministers still have two masters. As members of the House of Commons they serve the people. They sit in the democratic “branch” of Parliament, the branch that represents the populace as a whole. But as Ministers they’re dedicated to the service of a political party and parties, by definition, represent only a part of the populace.

Sounds complicated. But think. The Prime Minister as Member of Parliament must keep in mind the interests of all Canadians. But as a party man, he does not speak for all. He can appeal to all; he can profess to be doing his best for all. But he’s in office only on sufferance. We can turn him out. (I hear muted shouts in the distance: “and the sooner the better.”)

Despite our having given up the requirement for re-election of ministers, the rule is still that Parliament represents all inhabitants of the country, but does not govern. (And in this fact the theorists of a previous age saw our guarantee against popular despotism.) Ministers of the Crown govern, but represent only some of the populace. Their title to rule is conditional. (And in this fact lies our guarantee against oligarchic despotism.) In short, the stipulation that ministers seek re-election was a salutary reminder of rules that secure our liberty.

Now what about the Dump, and the Other Matters? Could the Conservative caucus in Parliament “dump” Harper? Depose him as leader of the Conservative Party? Yes. Could the Liberals or the Coalition depose Dion? Yes. (And at a guess, it would be much easier to do.) A party convention is not required. More  soon.

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