Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Michaëlle Jean and memories of prorogations past

An interesting story came out this week offering some insight into former Governor General Michaëlle Jean's decision to grant Stephen Harper's Conservative government a prorogation of Parliament in 2008 when he was facing defeat at the hands of the Liberal/NDP coalition.

Constitutional scholar Peter Russell told this week that weighing on Ms. Jean’s mind at the time was the likelihood the Tories – had they lost office – would have poisoned confidence in the coalition government through a PR campaign framing the change as an illegitimate transfer of power.
The Conservatives, he told the Ontario-based news website, “have a huge publicity machine” at their fingertips.

“If a ‘no’ had come out of Rideau Hall and an attack launched on a Dion-Layton coalition that said we’ve had a coup d’etat in Canada,” he said, “we would have been there in the headlines of the world like Greece. [That’s] not very good for the country in any which way.”
If you think that fear is unwarranted, you've forgotten the rhetoric that was spewing from the Conservatives at the time. Here's a reminder:

As I wrote at the time, I disagreed with Jean's decision (and I still do) as I think she was wrong on the constitutional question. She should have exercised her powers, but I understand why she didn't feel comfortable doing so.
While I strongly disagree with Madame Jean’s decision, I think she was in a no-win situation no matter what she did, and there was no precedent to inform a decision on prorogual under these circumstances. So I don’t blame her. 
In a no-win scenario she opted to maintain the status quo. Perhaps, given the fact she holds an unelected position, that was the right thing to do. It wasn't the right thing to do constitutionally however, and perhaps we need to look at reforming the role of the head of state in our system of government. We shouldn’t be putting an unelected figurehead in this position if they lack the moral authority to use the powers of their office to make the right decision, using the powers granted to them by the constitution. We need a head of state role in our system of government, but they also need to have the degree of legitimacy needed to play their role when called upon.

But I've digressed. I don’t blame Jean. I blame Harper. He put the Governor-General in this position, and now a very dangerous precedent has been set: illegitimate governments that have lost the support of the people’s representatives can govern with impunity, fleeing parliament at will to avoid accountability. Mark my words: Conservatives, and all Canadians, will come to regret the precedent set here today.
As we now gain more insight into Jean's thinking at the time, it reinforces for me the need to revisit the practice of having an unelected, appointed figurehead serving in the sometimes constitutionally important role of Governor General.

If someone holding that role feels that, as an appointee, they lack the moral authority to exercise their constitutional prerogative because they fear the PR consequences or because it would conflict with the will of the government (and I can understand where they're coming from) then we should consider reforming the system so that we elect our head of state. An elected head of state would have the moral authority to over-rule the government when constitutionally appropriate, and there may be times in the future when it is appropriate. And they could publicly defend their decision.

Whether it means ditching the monarchy or not, I don't see this as a republican issue. We could simply vote for the person the Queen appoints, instead of it being on the PM's advice. But I think having a head of state with the moral authority to use their reserve power is necessary.

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The Rat said...

Jeff, you know as well as I do that the coalition proposed was dangerous for so many reasons, not the least of which was it included Gilles Duceppe in a prominent role. Your guy and Smilin' Jack both stated emphatically they would not form a coalition during the campaign that had just finished and we both know that the real reason for the attempt to bring down the government was the proposed cutting off of the government teat in the form of the per vote subsidy.

Yes, I know Harper proposed something similar and I agree that the stance was hypocritical but that's just part of the equation. Another part was a Liberal leader who was stepping down and suddenly wanted to un-step down and become prime minister. A man who was thoroughly rejected by the electorate, by the way.

Prorogation wasn't the most shining moment for Canada or the Conservatives but an illegitimate, no matter how legal, coalition of losers and separatists would have been worse.

Eric said...

What I find interesting is that no-one mentions that prorogation needn't have stopped the vote of no confidence - it only delayed it.

The members of the other parties could have voted against the throne speech that opened the next session.

The other parties still could have forced the GG to decide between giving them an opportunity to govern or calling an election.

The PM didn't subvert democracy; the opposition leaders chose not to exercise it.

Vancouverois said...

She made the correct decision. The fact that the coalition wasn't able to hold things together long enough to win a vote of non-confidence when Parliament resumed is ample proof of that.