Archive Page 3

Parliamentry Developments in the News

  • Ian Brodie sends notes from a recent conference at which participants concluded that parliamentary democracies have made the transition to democracy in Eastern and Central Europe better than the presidential systems because they make room for opposition.
  • And I hope readers noted Chris Moore’s comments on recent events in Italy. Moore’s always good on parliamentary developments. I’m now citing Chris Moore’s Canadian History Blog:  “Italy’s new prime minister (and finance minister) Mario Monti, who does not hold a seat in the Italian parliament, has appointed a new cabinet, and none of its members hold a seat in parliament either.  It’s impressive how little concern anyone seems to express over this. They are technocrats, see, they have a job to do.  Democratic responsibility?  Meh. Now, in principle, anyone who holds the confidence of the legislative majority can serve in government in a parliamentary democracy.  Canada has had cabinet ministers and sometimes even prime ministers without Commons seats.  But the whole government?  And for years to come? What is the mechanism for accountability to the legislature, to the people’s elected representatives? It’s striking how little anyone seems to care.”

In Praise of Political Institutions


Pauline Beange, Political Science, University of Toronto, sends this quotation because she knows I will enjoy it (and I do!), and to celebrate the successful defense of her Ph.D. thesis.

“I hope ever to be found on the side of the people and of the Institutions of England. It is our Institutions that have made us free, and can alone keep us so; by the bulwark which they offer to the insidious encroachments of a convenient, yet enervating system of centralization which if left unchecked will prove fatal to the national character.” (Blake, Robert. 1967. Disraeli. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Thanks Pauline, and Congratulations.

Laurier and Papineau

I’m enjoying André Pratte’s new biography of Wilfrid Laurier for the Penguin Group series, Extraordinary Canadians. Here’s a provocative passage:

“ … many members of the French-speaking elite of the nineteenth century, including ardent nationalists such as Louis-Joseph Papineau, felt great admiration for the British and the parliamentary democracy and economic prosperity they had brought to the province of Quebec. They found this system far preferable to the atheistic and unstable republican system chosen by France–which, they remembered with bitterness, had ‘abandoned’ their ancestors.”

He’s right about Papineau! In July 1830, Papineau said in the provincial assembly:

[Britain’s] “best laws have become ours, while our faith, our property, and the laws by which they were governed have been conserved; soon afterwards the privileges of her free constitution were granted us, infallible guarantees of our domestic prosperity, if it is observed. Now religious tolerance, trial by jury, the wisest guarantee which has ever been established for the protection of innocence; security against arbitrary imprisonment, thanks to the privilege of the habeas corpus, equal protection guaranteed by law to the person, honour, and property of citizens; the right to obey only laws made by us and adopted by our representatives – all these advantages have become our birthright, and will be, I hope, the lasting heritage of our posterity. In order to conserve them, we should act like British subjects and free men.”

The passage is cited in Michel Brunet, “The British Conquest and the Canadiens,” Canadian Historical Review, XL (2) June, 1959.

It’s true that when the guns and swords came out in 1837-38, Papineau flirted with ideas of populist democracy as described by Jeremy Bentham and the British Philosophical Radicals. He was always a “divided soul.”

I recommend Pratte’s biography but regard as the one essential commentary on Laurier, Rainer Knopff’’s “The Triumph of Liberalism in Canada: Laurier on Representation and Party Government.” It appeared originally in the Canadian Journal of Political Science and has been reprinted several times. Canada’s Origins, Liberal, Tory or Republican? Janet Ajzenstat and Peter J. Smith, eds. (Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1995).

Historica-Dominion Institute on the Canadian Senate

The Historica-Dominion Institute publishes a daily note about what happened in Canadian history “on this day.” In the National Post, you’ll find it on the diversions page with the crosswords.

Until recently On This Day has been a pretty sober affair. But someone’s having fun with it now. Here’s how it read on September 27, 2011:

“Sept 27, 1990. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney invoked a never-before-used-section of the Constitution to appoint eight extra senators, so that the Liberal majority in the Senate could no longer block passage of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) legislation. It’s the old saying, “if you can’t beat them, join them. And if you can’t join them, evoke constitutional clauses to fundamentally change their makeup and get your way. You know, that old chestnut.”

Self-serving politicians. “That old chestnut.” Always good for a laugh. But, I have to admit that Mulroney’s action looks shoddy.

John A. Macdonald would have thought so.

The Quebec Resolutions of 1774 had no provision allowing appointment of extra senators. The omission was deliberate. In the debates on the Quebec Resolutions in the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada, Macdonald argued that the Quebec Resolutions would prevent ministries from attempting to overrule the independent opinion of the upper house by filling it with a number of its partisans.

“No ministry in Canada in future can do what they have done in Canada before – they cannot, with a view of carrying any measure or of strengthening the party, attempt to overrule the independent opinion of the upper house by filling it with a number of its partisans and political supporters. The provision in the constitution, that the Legislative Council shall consist of a limited number of members – that each of the great sections [of the federation] shall appoint twenty-four members and no more – will prevent the upper house from being swamped from time to time by the ministry of the day, for purpose of carrying purpose of carrying out their own scheme or pleasing their partisans. The fact of the government being prevented from exceeding a limited number will preserve the independence of the upper house and make it, in reality, a separate and distinct chamber, having a legitimate and controlling influence in the legislation of the country.” (John A. Macdonald, Canadian Legislative Assembly, February 6m 1865.)

At the London Conference 1866, before the Canada bill was presented to the British Parliament, the British government argued that appointment of extra senators was needed to prevent deadlock between the House of Commons and the Senate, and was not out of keeping with British parliamentary traditions. A defeat for Macdonald!

Birth of a Country

Last night on the CBC Indian Grove Productions aired its drama, John A.: Birth of a Country, based on the first volume of Richard Gwyn’s  biography of John A. Macdonald. I  loved it.

More, more. Please. The second volume of  the  biography is out and I hope Indian Grove has already started work.

The voices, the Scottish-Canadian accents.  The portrait of George Brown! (This especially.) The role of women: very welcome. The parliamentary scenes! The sheer huge drama of the story.

Ours is a big story. And here at last is a company that can tell it.

Brian Crowley: Is he selling Canada out?

Dear Brian:

I am resigning from the research board of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. I cannot have my name associated with an organization that recommends establishment of a joint legislative committee of the American Congress and the Canadian Parliament.

Canada is a sovereign country. We cannot have sitting members of the American Congress and the American Senate participating in the formal determination of Canadian law.

There could be no objection to an extra-legislative committee  to inform persons from the two countries about common interests. And such a committee might include legislators from Canada and the U.S. But they would not be sitting as legislators. They would not the sitting as law-makers.

Here’s how you put your proposal in the current Macdonald-Laurier Institute Newsletter:  “the time has come to create a joint committee of Congress and Parliament charged with oversight of the Canada-U.S. relationship, holding hearings, issuing reports, and taking their newly acquired knowledge and relationships back to their respective bodies. Give a human face to their relationship with Canada, and a context in which they actually are constrained to learn about it, and they will help to batter down the resistance of the backward-looking generals at the gate.”

The statement is extremely damaging. It will be seen by many Canadians as proof that the Macdonald-Laurier Institute wishes to see Canada incorporated into the United States.

Responsible Government and Colonial Independence


In the blog of August 22 reviewing the new journal The Dorchester Review, I make the argument that each of the British North American colonies became an independent state on adopting the principle of responsible government. In 1848 the colonies walked away from Empire. That’s John Ralston Saul’s contention. That’s mine.

Craig Yirush asks: “If independence was achieved in 1848 or 1867 then why was J.W. Dafoe (and many others) so concerned about our autonomy in the early 20th, and so happy about the Statute of Westminster?”

A good question! I do not have an answer.

You’ll find a good statement of idea the grant of “responsible government” would emancipate the colonies in John Beverley Robinson’s Canada and the Canada Bill (1840). Robinson admired parliamentary government, including its defining principle, “responsible government.” He is extravagant in his praise of it! His sole argument against its adoption in British North America is that it is not a form of rule suitable for a colonial dependency

There’s much more to say on the topic and I say some of it in “Durham and Robinson, Political Faction and Moderation,” in Ajzenstat and Smith, eds. Canada’s Origins, Liberal, Tory, or Republican? (Carleton Press, 1995). And see my Introduction to the new edition of G.P. Browne’s Documents on the Confederation of British North America (McGill-Queen’s, 2009), and my Introduction to the new edition of the abbreviated Lord Durham’s Report (McGill-Queens, 2007). Why didn’t the colonies drift away from Britain? 

And why isn’t Robinson’s argument part of our historical vocabulary today? My guess is that no one has been reading Robinson for years, except, no doubt, Ralston Saul.

We’ve lost much of our institutional history. That’s good news for some of you. There’s interesting work to be done.