Westminster falls apart in Canada


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.

Liked it? Take a second to support the Tally Room on Patreon!


  1. G’day Ben,

    I don’t think your last solution – requiring 75% approval to call an early election – would solve much (if anything), especially in Australia’s political environment.

    To demonstrate, imagine such a provision was in place in 1975. Fraser would have held off on money bills for a prolonged period of time in order to get maximum exposure. Then, with the absence of the ability for the PM to advise on an early election, we have two potential paths he could have taken.

    First, he could have passed the bills… but then could easily sit back and said ‘well, the countries still running so we’re acting responsibly… but we are not passing any more of your bills until you call an election.’

    What would have the response been from Whitlam? ‘oh bugger. Rightio then, let’s get it on old chap!’ ?

    I highly doubt it. The country would have been a state of complete political paralysis until such time as a party backed down – or the next election was due (about 18 months away from memory.) And while I don’t profess to have been politically active in 1975, it sounds to me like neither party was willing to give and take much at that point and time. A backdown from either party would have been played as a defeat and consequently harmed them in the subsequent election.

    The second – and scarier – path is that he would continue to not pass the bills, insisting that the majority in the house vote with his minority to call an early election (with your 75% requirement.) What if neither party backed down? What happens then? If nobody cracks, the government shuts down. More likely it’s a matter of who cracks first, and if it had happened to be a few Liberal Senators then we’d revert to ‘ok, so the money bills passed… but that’s the last bill that leaves this place on my watch.’ If the government had backed down that would set a terrible precedent for future oppositions.

    Finally, such a provision would also strip the GG of his (or her now) reserve power to end the madness at any time and call an election. Now, while I don’t agree with the dismissal of 1975, there is certainly a powerful argument for allowing the GG to retain that power for emergencies scholars can’t even fathom today. There’s a reason this power exists at all, otherwise frankly there’s little point at having a separated head of state.

    Anyway. Just a few thoughts.

  2. If the US had a parliamentary system then there would have been no “midterm” elections at which the Democrats beat the Republicans so that point is false.

  3. Tom, I’m not suggesting that Bush would lose at a general election. I’m suggesting that, considering how unpopular he had become with the Republicans by the end of his term that he would have been rolled by another Republican. But the point remains that a Westminster system allows a leader to be replaced, whether it is by their own party or the whole Parliament.

    Max, I disagree with your interpretation of how 1975 would have gone without the Governor-General. The US political system functions without any possibility for early elections and regular cases where the two Houses and/or the Presidency are controlled by different parties. Rather than leading to complete breakdown of government, it forces the parties to compromise. If Fraser didn’t have the possibility of getting the GG to convince Whitlam to hold an election (I don’t think he believed it was possible for Whitlam to be sacked before an election).

    If there is no way out, the Liberal-controlled Senate and the Labor-controlled House would have no option but find a compromise. If they don’t there would be severe political consequences, particularly if there is a shutdown, as there was in the US in 1995. And if there is a shutdown the consequences are serious enough for politicians to want to avoid it.

    In the end it’s a cop-out for politicians to demand an early election if the election result doesn’t please them (whether it’s a hostile Senate, or a hung parliament). That’s what the voters decided. The politicians need to grow up and live with the political reality. Early elections are a cop-out. It’s not reasonable for politicians to expect to govern with absolute power and throw a tantrum if the voters don’t give a clearcut result. Stephen Harper’s downfall has come through pretending to be a majority government in spite of lacking a majority (like the Tasmanian Labor Party of 1989-1992). Governments don’t have a right to absolute power and can’t get a do-over if the voters decide not to give the government complete power.

  4. But see the problem there is that there IS a way out – your suggestion is that parliament can dissolve itself if there’s a 75% agreement (effectively therefore bipartisan support.) Now, a government will very rarely vote to end its term early and call an election, and an opposition will generally be much more enthusiastic about the proposition of one, so effectively one will never be held unless the government agrees.

    Playing the game through, we reach the conclusion that given the strength of party lines, an early election isn’t held unless the PM & Opp Leader agrees it should be. Thus we’re in the same situation as we’re in today. If there was absolutely NO mechanism for an early election (such as in the US) then I agree Fraser would have buckled down and done some work, but if there was an opening as you propose then I would argue that he would do his very best to exploit whatever avenue was available to him – which would have been getting Parliament to dissolve itself. As it stood, he had his party committed to an early election and needed only Labor to agree and he had his victory, and for that he needed Whitlam to back down. I agree he never realistically thought Kerr would get involved as he did – his aim was to break the PM.

    Anyway, I agree it’s a cop out, and I’ve said before in writing that I fully support fixed terms and don’t think that there should be any avenue in which Parliament can be briefly extended or cut short – except via the reserve power of the GG. The fact he holds this power is what makes the Westminster system so stable to start with. Fixed terms ditches the ridiculous circus which wastes so much time and print in an election year which should be spent covering, you know. Issues.

  5. Yeah, I understand, every system has a flaw and that is one. The only reason why I believe that you should be able to cut it short is if neither party is capable of forming a government, hence the 75%.

    I also tend to think there should be an ability to hold a recall vote against an entire Parliament. Maybe if you could get, say, 5% of the voting population (which would be about 650,000 for the Commonwealth) to sign a petition, which would be a massive task, a referendum must be held which, if successful, would result in a general election.

  6. I’ve always liked the idea of citizen initiated referenda and it works well in some legislatures (and horribly in others – California eat your heart out) but as mr mumble pointed out once before… Australians suck at referendums. We’re just too immature for it, as shown by our track record. Still, if ever somebody has the balls to reform the constitution, I’d like to see some sort of system in place where citizens can propose law and if enough signatures are put to it… put it to the public via a referendum (which if passed could only, for example, be altered by parliament with a super majority in both houses, ensuring there can be no political fix.)

    But… I don’t think allowing the people to recall parliament is a particularly smart idea, not least because
    a. it would be bloody costly;
    b. it would abused by the unions the instant it became politically acceptable;
    b. given terms are barely three years as it is, governments already have precious little time to find their feet. If they could could be challenged by the media/public within mere months of a term starting, they’d barely be given time to breathe. This is not healthy for governance or democracy – at some point they have to just be left alone to get onto the job of serving the people, not being in constant campaign mode.

  7. Agreed–it is evident that what PM Stephen Harper did was not in accordance with how a Westminster-style government is supposed to operate. That is, a government that has lost the confidence of the lower house must resign. Having known that his number was up, that would have been the honourable thing to do. However, historical precedents do exist of heads of government digging in their heels when facing losing a vote of confidence in the lower house. One that I remember was the last Liberal Premier of SA, Rob Kerin. Not only did he not quit when two independents threw their support the other way, but state parliament was kept from opening for months. His side’s justification was that ALP Premier Don Dunstan did something similar some 30 years earlier–basically two wrongs make a right. Mr Harper is saying that the opposition is trying to undo the results of the last election, which is nonsense. While his side may have gained seats, they are still in the minority. In fact, they only secured 37.65% of the vote, so may well have done worse had Canada allowed voters to cast preferences as in Australia rather than going by first past the post.

    In this Canadian incident, Governor-General Michaelle Jean would have had a tough job to maintain an appearance of impartiality. She (1) was nominated to office by the former Liberal government; (2) is a francophone, comes from Quebec but was born in Haiti, and held dual French citizenship but felt obliged to relinquish it; and furthermore (3) has had her loyalty to the federation questioned before. To me, the only rationale for delaying a vote of confidence by suspending parliament would be that the coalition of Liberals, New Democrats, and Bloc Quebecois may be so fragile that it will not be able to stay together long enough to govern effectively.

    I think that, in the very least, these shenanigans show that it would be prudent to have what is referred to as the reserve powers of the governor general codified. Indeed, whether the power to prorogue parliament is or is not one has never been mentioned in any article that I have read on the subject. Outside of the British Empire, Nicholas II of Russia and Gus Dur of Indonesia tried to but were rebuffed by their parliaments and were then forced to leave office instead. I recall that the royal governor of Virginia or other American colonies tried to do so as well but were unsuccessful at halting the drive for independence.

    Whether a US presidential system is deficient because a president cannot be removed as easily is a point of contention. Their constitution clearly separates executive and legislative functions of government, which has the advantage of avoiding conflicts of interest arising from ministers also being representatives or senators. Also in practice, it is becoming rare for a PM to be challenged. Many Liberals suspected that John Howard would lose, but he faced no challenge. Perhaps that they believed that Peter Costello would have fared even worse, which would have been quite likely. The last two to be ousted, Bob Hawke and John Gorton, were not that unpopular outside of parliament.

  8. It’s a matter of taste as to whether you prefer a presidential system where the leader cannot be easily removed or a prime ministerial system where the leader can, but clearly it is a feature, not a bug, of the Westminster system that governments can be felled with ease.

  9. Mr. Harper has done Canadians a great service, by exposing deadly flaws in their country’s Constitution. He will do the country a further service, when he prorogues Parliament again for a couple more months or years! (If he can dissolve Parliament, without scheduling new elections, he might just do that, instead.)

    But what will electrify Canada and the world: when frustrated MPs attempt to meet, despite Parliament’s having been prorogued or dissolved; Mr. Harper will disperse them by force of arms, citing the precedents of Oliver Cromwell, and more recently, of Boris Yeltsin.

    What will Canadians do then?

    To allow the legislature to be adjourned without its consent is a fatal error in a country’s constitution, as Canadians are about to find out.

    Cleveland, Ohio USA

Comments are closed.