Following Governor-General Michaëlle Jean’s decision yesterday to prorogue the Canadian Parliament until January 26, Canada’s parliamentary democracy is effectively suspended, and the decision has grave consequences for all countries that follow the Westminster system of government, including Australia and the UK.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who theoretically holds office because of success in elections to the House of Commons, now serves in office despite a clear majority of the House making it clear that they plan to vote against his government and support a new Liberal-NDP coalition government.
The Westminster system, as practiced by Canada as well as Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, gives power to a government led by a Prime Minister despite the fact that neither the Prime Minister or his party faces a direct national election, as in presidential systems. The main effect of this system is that the Prime Minister remains accountable to the lower house of the Parliament throughout their term in office. During the later years of George W. Bush’s US presidency, it has been repeatedly noted that, were he a Prime Minister in a Westminster democracy, he would have been defeated.
A Westminster Prime Minister can only be considered to be a democratic leader as long as they have been selected by the Parliament for the position, either directly or indirectly through the election of party leaders. As soon as a Prime Minister loses the support of the House they become illegitimate, whether there has been an opportunity for the House to formally vote no confidence in the government or not.
By preventing Parliament from sitting for the explicit purpose of avoiding the defeat of his government, Stephen Harper has acted in the same way as many dictators around the world who have dissolved or inhibited democratic legislatures in order to prevent their opposition challenging their hold on power.
When Parliament resumes in January, it is expected that the centre-left coalition will vote no confidence in Harper’s government. It appears that the Liberal-NDP coalition will then ask the Governor-General to commission a new government. In contrast, it appears that Harper will ask the Governor-General to dissolve Parliament and call a new election. Again, it is blatantly undemocratic for a Prime Minister who has lost the one claimed to democratic legitimacy to insist on staying in office and dissolving a Parliament which has rejected him and embraced an alternative candidate, particularly so soon after an election.
In order to improve the Westminster system, a series of reforms could simplify the process, reduce the role of the Governor-General in crises and clarify the democratic solutions in positions of minority governments and constitutional crises without effecting the day-to-day functioning of parliamentary democracy when stable majority governments exist.
Firstly, the appointment of Prime Ministers should be explicitly handed over to the lower house of the Parliament. The ACT does not have a Governor, but rather the ACT Legislative Assembly elects its Chief Minister as the first act of business after the election of Speaker. Rather than making issues such as a budget “confidence votes”, simply allow votes to dismiss the Prime Minister/Chief Minister/Premier.
Furthermore, the scheduling of Parliament needs to be taken out of the hands of the government. Either Parliament could explicitly approve the parliamentary schedule, or a body that represents all parties could make the decision, to allow for urgent circumstances when the schedule must be altered without Parliament returning. This would prevent the ridiculous circumstance of a government shutting down Parliament to prevent the Parliament acting against the government.
Finally, the calling of elections needs to be reformed. I have always supported fixed terms, but I tend to think it needs to be more nuanced. There are occasions, particularly in a hung parliament where no stable government can be formed, that an early election must be held. Firstly, terms would be regularly fixed to happen on a particular day. An early election can then be held, but only with the explicit support of both government and opposition, which could be expressed through a 75% vote through both houses (or just the lower house in the UK and Canada where upper houses are unelected). This could also be used in circumstances like those in Australia in 1975. If 75% agree that the situation is irreconcilable, the Parliament can be dissolved. Short of that, the parties need to find a way to cooperate. It would prevent the reckless point-scoring of the Fraser opposition in 1975, since it would be impossible for an election to be called without the government agreeing, making the blocking of supply pointless except for policy purposes.
By adopting these simple reforms, almost all of the remaining ways that the Governor-General has a practical impact on the political system. It’s conceivable that, by taking away the power to decide government in minority government situations and resolve deadlocks, the role of a Governor-General, Queen or President could be made redundant.