Tom Flanagan’s Mistake

If the Conservative’s upcoming budget is defeated in the House of Commons should the Governor General invite the Liberal-NDP-Québécois coalition to form a Government? In the Globe and Mail of January 9, Tom Flanagan says: no. The G.G. must dissolve Parliament; Canada’s electorate must speak.

Flanagan’s wrong: the Governor General has a choice. She can opt for dissolution but may also call on Ignatieff to take the reins. It’s up to her. Tom takes an absurd and surprising position in his January 9 column, calling Canada’s “machinery of responsible government,” antiquated, a leftover from “the pre-democratic age of the early 19th century.” Responsible government, the parliamentary practice by which the party or coalition in power must retain the confidence of the people’s elected representatives in the House of Commons on taxing and spending measures, is Canada’s supreme guarantee of political freedom. It is the way in which our constitution ensures the contestation of political parties for office.

British North Americans wrested their freedom from the Imperial Government in1848, when responsible government was introduced in first one British North American province and then another, overthrowing the colonial oligarchies – the Chateau Clique, the Family Compact, the “Official Parties” in the Maritime Provinces. Once responsible government was established, the extension of the franchise and the development of extra-parliamentary parties were inevitable.

Tom’s a victim of the reinterpretation of Canadian political history introduced in the mid-twentieth century and still in vogue (think of George Grant, Gad Horowitz, Louis Hartz, Seymour Martin Lipset), which ignores the story of responsible government and argues that our true Canadian heritage reveals a bent toward toward populism, communitarianism, and, for goodness sakes, oligarchy. In older text books, Confederation is described as the affirmation of the freedoms won in 1848. In the reinterpretation of our history favoured by Grant and his disciples, Confederation is said to incorporate the culture of collectivism and deference (deference!) that supposedly underpinned the Family Compact.

In brief: before 1848 Governors acted as Head of Government, weighing in on one political side or the other, using the authority of the Imperial Parliament to suppress dissent in the colonies. After 1848 they were required to confine themselves to the role of Head of State. And so it is today. Governor General Jean is our Head of State. She’s a referee, not a player. In a stalemate (when there’s a fight on the ice), she blows the whistle, repositions the participants and then steps out of the game, letting the competition for political power, on which depends our liberty, continue unfettered. It’s a mistake to try to enlist her on one side or the other.


7 Responses to “Tom Flanagan’s Mistake”

  1. 1 Craig January 20, 2009 at 8:10 pm

    Dear Janet,

    All Flanagan said is that in this situation – that is,
    with an ad hoc coalition which no one voted for – the GG
    should call an election.

    Where is the violation of responsible government in that?
    I thought responsible government was in part making the
    executive depend on the house and ultimately on the voters.


  2. 2 janetajzenstat January 22, 2009 at 2:29 pm

    Hello Craig. In the Westminster system the Head of State retains a small degree of discretion. It’s almost automatic that a Governor General accepts the Prime Minster’s advice. But if in the G.G.’s considered opinion an election is unlikely to change the composition of the House, he or she is free to call on the Leader of the Opposition to form a Government. She’s more likely to do so when the country has only recently been through a election, and still more likely to do it if the Opposition can make the case that it commands the support of the parliamentary majority. (Google King-Byng.)

    There are two elements in parliamentary systems that represent the entire populace and in the ordinary way of things neither takes the reins of government. (The first is the House of Commons. The second is the Governor General.) Parliamentary systems leave the governing of the country to a party, a group representing only a “part” of the population. The system originated as means to get rid of unsatisfactory rulers without the bother of a general revolution. The fact remains that Jean retains a sliver of monarchical power and when she is called on to make the kind of decision a true monarch makes, as she will be if Harper’s budget is defeated, we treat that it as if it were the unanimous decision of us all.

    Recent parliamentary events will go into the the text books. Other countries are watching. Add the fact that the Liberal party promoted Ignatieff to Leader without a party convention. We live in interesting times.

  3. 3 Craig January 22, 2009 at 11:45 pm

    Thanks, Janet.

    I agree with what you wrote. But I still don’t think that
    it would violate the norms of responsible government
    to have an election in these cases (as Flanagan argued). Indeed, I would even be in favor of codifying a set of rules to guide the GG. I had some correspondence with Adam Tomkins re this (author of ‘Our Republican Constitution’).

    While I realize that a parliamentary system allows for Jean to hand power over to the Liberal-NDP-Bloc coalition, I still think that they should have to face an election first. And I don’t see how this would violate parliamentary norms, which in any case are not fixed in stone. I also think King-Byng was different in that Meighen had more seats than the Dion Liberals, and there was no question of an alliance with a separatist party. And even then, King rode to victory decrying Byng’s undemocratic decision.

    I really like the blog, and am also reading your book on Locke and the founding.


    Craig Yirush

  4. 4 Chris January 24, 2009 at 9:55 am

    Hi Janet,

    I agree with Craig. The point is that there is no precedent for the situation at hand and a fresh election is the most logical choice in light of the principle of responsible government.

    If I had the opportunity, I would certainly tell the GG that King-Byng should have no bearing on her decision, since its circumstances are very different from the current one. If one did want to apply King-Byng, the only relevant lesson for today is that the GG should follow the advice of the P.M., since in the Byng-King affair, the electorate rejected clearly the decision of Lord Byng by trouncing Meighen and reinstalling King in power.


  5. 5 Rob Leone February 4, 2009 at 1:20 am

    There is a case in the UK where Baldwin’s Conservatives won the plurality of seats, were allowed to form a government because of it, but they didn’t last beyond their Thrown Speech; the Lab-Lib coalition government took over from there. Baldwin’s government didn’t make it past the first week of his parliamentary session at Westminster. The Crown granted the coalition the opportunity to govern. The real problem with the Lib-NDP coalition is that they don’t have more seats than the Conservatives (which was unlike the Lab-Lib coalition in the 1920s that took over from Baldwin). They rely on a pledge by the Bloc to support the coalition. I am sure the G-G would see this as unstable.

    I thus agree with Janet. Even though we might think it proper and more legitmate to go to an election (which, granted, is a perfectly valid option for her), we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that we don’t elect a government. We elect a parliament from which the government is chosen.

    So here’s a question: I’m told that in the event that the G-G said no to Harper’s request for prorogation AND the G-G would also not grant an election, that the entire Conservative caucus would resign en masse which would then trigger a general election. Is that possible from a procedural perspective?

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