Fixing the system -

Fixing the system


Starting with the premise that last December’s proroguing of Parliament was “entirely inappropriate, democratically illegitimate and improper,” Brian Topp uses the last installment of his coalition series to suggest two changes.

First, the House of Commons could and should legislate to direct the prime minister to never provide advice to the Governor-General that interferes with the functioning of the House when a confidence motion is before it. This would hopefully make it more difficult for a prime minister to avoid democratic accountability to the House of Commons through a politically illegitimate and improper use of the Royal prerogative.

Second, the House of Commons could (and I think should) legislate that confidence votes must come in one of two forms. Option A: the government is defeated and an election is called. Or option B: the government is defeated and immediately replaced, at that moment, by a new one, specified by the House of Commons in its confidence vote. Subject of course to final approval by Her Majesty, as represented by our Governor-General, who in these circumstances will hopefully be more attentive to the views of the House of Commons.


Fixing the system

  1. Wow, what a surprise, he thinks the coalition should have an easier opportunity to subvert the results of an election the next time around.
    How predictable and partisan.

    • The people's decision was to send less than 155 Conservatives to the House of Commons, thus less then needed to govern with a majority. Simple math dictates that if the rest of the House gets together, they do form a majority. Another possibility is that the Cons find a steady dance partner to make up what they're missing to reach 155.

      Far from subverting them, those *are* the results of the election.

      • Not at all.

        Liberals are not a left party but one of the center.

        Dion promised NO coalition during the election. Had he actually run on a coalition it would have easily been a Conservative majority as disgusted LIberals jumped ship.

        • Hopefully in the future parties will be smart enough to run with no platform like the CPC. Makes it easier afterwwards.

        • To be specific, he promised no coalition with a party that was going to reverse the tax cuts to businesses.
          The NDP dropped that stance as part of their entrance into the coalition agreement.

          • That's a pretty outragoeus distortion of Dion's remarks.

            The no was never conditional on the NDP's stance on corporate tax rates. Nobody in this country who heard Dion thought "OK so if the NDP changes their tax policy there will be a coalition!"

            It was a firm no to the coalition.

            And then an attack about the NDP not knowing economics (generally) with the complaint about the corporate tax rate specifically.

      • don't bother, you'll never be able to use things like "reason" and "logic" on Some_Conservative_Fool here…after all those things tend to have a liberal bias ;)

      • If they had run as a group during the election, then your argument would have merit. But they did not. Therefore, you cannot make that conclusion. In fact, polls immediately following the formation of the coalition showed the Cons would easily win a majority against the coalition when Con support spiked to 46%.

        I can't even imagine the Libs or NDP running with the BQ, they would be creamed if they did so.

        On the flip side, if you intend to argue to that the BQ was not a part of the government, then you are arguing that the Libs/NDP group should govern over the party that had more seats than both combined.

  2. These are horrible "fixes" to a non-existent problem coming from a perpetual fouth place party with no real shot of ever forming government.

    NDP politics and grandstanding should not interfere with the business of the country, something they will never be part of.

    • Nope – no problem here at all.
      Move along people – nothing to see…..

  3. I assume Topp has heard of unintended consequences but does not care in this instance. Writing laws to prevent a specific incident from happening again often lead to bad results. Letting GG have some discretion is the way to go as has been proven by hundreds of years of history.

    Do we really need proposals to make Parliament even less democratic than it already is when people are more and more turned off by political process. Why are NDP so afraid of the public?

    • Letting GG have some discretion is the way to go as has been proven by hundreds of years of history.

      What are you blathering on about. The GG didn't put a stop to the coalition. Ignatieff did that when he decided the Liberals wouldn't remove the Conservatives from power and press the GG to let the coalition form the government instead of sending us into another election.

      Do we really need proposals to make Parliament even less democratic than it already is when people are more and more turned off by political process.

      How do concise rules make Parliament less democratic?

    • Why are NDP so afraid of the public?

      The answer is obvious. If the public is in charge, the NDP can't gain power.

  4. I'm not a constitutional lawyer but I play one on
    Legislation that limits the prime minister's ability to provide advice to the Governor-General would be unconstitutional. End of story.

    Brian's account has been interesting but only insofar as it reminded us all how crazy Marlene Jennings is.

    • nonsense. such limits under specific circumstances (i.e., the loss of confidence) already exist in other jurisdictions, including other Westminster systems.

      That being said Topp's recommendations are still not great and his reading of the actual system is flawed.

      • Do these laws limit the actual ability of the PM to say whatever he likes to the GG, which strikes me as a freedom of expression issue.

        or do they limit what actions an LG/GG can do?

    • "Legislation that limits the prime minister's ability to provide advice to the Governor-General would be unconstitutional."

      Out of curiosity, please elaborate on this…

      • Canadian courts consider a great deal of things, both in writing, in laws, and in tradition (like parliementary immunity) to be part of our constitution.

        Under our system the GG acts after seeking the best advice of the PM. That's the way every Westminster system operates.

        Changing something that fundemental to our system would most certainly require changes to the constitution. Any sort of law would get chucked out by the Supreme court. Just like a binding fixed election date law would get tossed.

  5. I like that he writes thousands of words on how dysfunctional the coalition was from the get go, and then concludes the law should have been written so that they would have formed the government.
    Someone should read back to him his previous instalments.

  6. I think the Goivernor General reached a poor conclusion at the time but I don't think this is the proper response. It's just a quirk of the system, which fortunately very rarely comes into play.

    • It has rarely come into play to date due to the wide range of majority governments we've had.
      With the way things have been going, it's hard to picture this happening, though who knows?

  7. Logic and reason have fallen by the wayside if liberals have any intention of having their views represented by a lunatic like yourself.

  8. It might be more fruitful to require the GG to receive and respond to any such requests in written form as an open letter between the PM and the GG. There is no good reason for all this cloak and dagger BS. What was requested, what was given and why should be explicit and a matter of public record, not hearsay and speculation.

    • Agreed. This has bothered me most of all – the lack of transparency with what went on.
      For all we know, maybe they just had a make out session? ;)
      Ooooooooh – Don Harper!

  9. aww look, he tried to sound smart!

  10. Some day you might try that yourself. But it may be impossible for you.

  11. They don't have to run as a group. In countries that have had successful strings of coalition governments (most notably New Zealand and some Scandinavian countries), the parties run on their own platforms, but then make arrangements within the legislature, based on the election results.

    My only argument is that any combination that makes for stable government in a parliamentary system (i.e., Lib/NDP with Bloc support, Cons with Bloc support, Cons with NDP support) is legitimate, and remains an accurate reflection of election results.

    It does not matter if the party (or combination of parties) that can govern with stability has more or less seats than the one party who has the most seats. What matters is that they can demonstrate they have the confidence of the House. Importantly, this can only happen after it is made patently clear that the party with the most seats (who of course gets first shot at governing) does not have that confidence and cannot lead a stable government.

    In the 1925 election, for example, Mackenzie King's Liberals won fewer seats than Arthur Meighen's Conservatives, but they got to govern anyway because they had the confidence of the House (support from, but not a coalition with, the Progressives) while Meighen had no such support. So the party with the most seats sat as official opposition.

  12. "she extracted her pound of flesh in exchange for the proroguement and not handing power over immediately"

    What do you think GG said to Harper to make him behave?

  13. No idea what she said, but with how fast things calmed down, I'm fairly positive she told him in no uncertain terms to have his party tone down the rhetoric or she would give the coalition it's chance without an election.

    • I doubt very much that if she didn't give it to them then she was going to give it later.

  14. Actually, whether the BQ are part or not, he's arguing that the group with the confidence of the majority of the House should govern — which, funnily enough, is how our system is supposed to work.

    • Those aren't people's complaints about the coalition.

      The broken promise and the timing are my problems with it.

  15. Low taxes, tough on crime, no crazy national projects.

    Sounds like a platform to me.

    Just because you don't like it or disagree with it doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

  16. You mean legal, not legitimate.

    In the recent German election all the parties declared ahead of time which parties they would and would not be open to joining in a coalition with.

    Duing our elections the Liberals promised no coalition with the NDP, the BQ promised no coalition with the Liberals.

    Its hard to see how they could have democratic legitimacy after lying to voters about something so basic and fundemental.

    The only legitimate way to have a coalition is to say ahead of time that you're open to entering one and tell people which parties you'd join up with.

    And then to assert the coalition right after the throne speech, not a month into the new government's term.

  17. Points well taken, with a few caveats:

    There was no coalition in 1925. I am equating the King gov't to the potential 2008 Lib/NDP coalition gov't, and the support of the Progressives then to the support of the BQ now.

    So the correct government/alternative government analogy for 2008 is not 143-77 (38 to 26%) but 143-114 (38% to 44%). (Interesting aside: note how the combined NDP/Lib score is actually higher than the Cons).

    But, yes it's one thing to do it as incumbent, and quite another to unseat the incumbent based on a decision that rests with the GG. I think you hit the nail on the head when you suggest it's the unprecedented nature of it that's the root of the problem. It may have been constitutionally legitimate, but the way it suddenly came about surprised/scared the crap out of a lot of people.

    Maybe next time we'll be less surprised, and consider that a coalition government, whatever the combination of parties in it, is not such a bad option, especially if we're electing perpetual minorities.

  18. The first suggestion is iffy to say the least (well, not really iffy… surely the PM should not be allowed to subvert the House by proroguing it when an actual confidence motion is before it, but that wasn't technically the case in our latest example, as the PM got the GG to prorogue Parliament before the House had a chance to put the motion) but the second, on first glance, seems reasonable.

    It seems to me like it would be a good idea for the House to have to spell out their preferred consequences of a confidence vote in the confidence motion itself. Technically, the GG retains the power to ignore such a clearly made statement of the will of the House on the advice of the Prime Minister, but presumably would be loathed to force an election if a motion passed by the majority of the House of Commons explicitly stated a desire that a new government be formed that actually has the support of the majority of the House.

    Certainly I'd like to see what would happen if the GG were presented with the results of a motion worded more like "The House no longer has confidence in PM X and his government, but we do have confidence in MP Y, and suggest that he or she be permitted to form a government which will then immediately be able to demonstrate that it has the support of the majority of the House of Commons".

    • PM advising an election trumps house seeking coalition every time. (Of course, a GG can do whatever she likes)

      Believe it or not elections are NOT a bad thing. They are an expression of the democratic will of the people.

      Why not trust the people to sort out whether a coalition should rule or a PM should be given a majority ?

  19. If you're willing to start with a premise that's wrong, you can get anywhere with it. Asking for a proroguement was democratically legitimate. Improper and inappropriate, certainly, but it was as democratically legitimate as was Martin's ignoring of a motion of non-confidence being put into amendments to a report to the House.

    And Topp's solution is meaningless regardless. How does one determine that a motion is "before the House" until it comes up? Because people say so to the media? Doesn't wash.

    Even if it did, the governing party could then use that legislation to prevent an election. Put a confidence motion "before the house" scheduled immediately after an opposition confidence motion. And just keep loading them on so that the PM could never go to the GG, no matter what the results were.

    • It's very very important that the rules simply weren't followed in the Martin non-confidence thing. Despite what Coyne and some others keep yapping, there was absolutely no motion for non-confidence that could be put forth at the time which followed the procedural rules. Rewriting a report to pretend its a motion of non-confidence doesn't make it one. If Harper Layton and Duceppe could have waited a week or two there was one coming up (as they eventually did) , but there was no way they could have done so on the day they first wanted.

      If people want the rules to be different, change them in advance. Don't do stuff the wrong way and then huff that it should be right.

    • "How quickly the coalition fell apart seems to attest to its fragility"

      Notwithstanding the internal drama of the Liberal party, the coalition faded because Harper backed off on what he set out to do (prior to the coalition).

  20. I agree. There's a reason I wrote that last post in the abstract. In the specific case of the 2008 election, the biggest (only, in my opinion) knock against the coalition was that they had explicitly said they wouldn't do it.

    For any political party in a parliamentary system to categorically rule out a coalition ahead of an election is just plain stupid.

  21. I understand your argument, and I am not arguing against it directly, because a coalition is legitimate, it's just how you get there that is under contention.

    If my memory serves me well, the 1925 election is not a good analogy, because what happened was that King was the incumbent.

    It is the incumbent's job to dissolve the government folllowing an election, if the incumbent loses the election. Mackenzie decided not to dissolve his government, when he realized he could form the coalition and thus retain power.

    So in some ways the 1925 election is in fact the opposite of the 2008 situation:
    -in 1925, the incumbent was the party with fewer seats, in 2008 the incumbent had the most seats.
    -in 1925, the coalition was installed when the current government chose not to dissolve. In 2008, the coalition intended to take power by expressing non-confidence to cause the PM to dissolve the current government.
    -in 1925, the coalition was formed to maintain the existing PM and government. In 2008, the coalition was formed to replace the existing PM and government.
    -in 1925, the election was closer, 115-100 for Meighen, and 46 vs 39%. In 2008, the election was not close, 142-77 for Harper, 38 vs 26%.
    -in 1925, just two parties were required to join in order to gain a majority. In 2008, three parties were required to avoid being outnumbered.
    -in 1925 the coalition was installed due to King's choice not to dissolve the current government. In 2008, the coalition could only have been installed at the request of the GG.

    There are many ways in which the 2008 move would have been unprecedented.

  22. it is not a matter of freedom of expression, it is limits set on the professional duty of the PM based on an informed understanding of responsible government: that the authority to govern derives from holding the confidence of the House and not from holding a plurality of the seats of the House (although holding the majority of the seats generally guarantees holding the confidence of the House).

    as such, when confidence is lost the PM no longer has the authority to govern the only advice that he provides to the GG is that she/he will resign…

    • Yeah that's not our system at all.

      In the overwhelming majority of cases a PM doesn't resign when he loses confidence, instead he asks the GG to dissolve parliement and takes it to the people for an early election.

      The authority to govern derives from the people first and foremost.

      In that circumstance let the opposition parties run as a coalition, let the PM make the case to the people why he should govern.

      By the by,

      can you please cite an example of such an arrangement you've described ?

      Where the PM is explicitly denied the ability to ask for an election/the GG is denied the discretion to call one ?

      • your understanding of RG and our system is flawed. having to maintain the confidence of the house is what ensures that the will of the people is first and foremost.

        in NZ… andi didn't say that they GG has no discretion to call an election, i just said that she does not do it on the advice of the PM.

        • No not at all.

          On big issues Canadians demand that the government seek a mandate from the people to go ahead with them. If they do not they are harshly punished in the next election.

          This is a case where democratic legitimacy seperates from legalism. The GG has to balance both and is expected to maintain a certain level of popularity with the people, as the representative of the Queen.

  23. Perhaps you want to go look at the quote again.

    • No need, its seared into my head.

      Perhaps you should go back and find a single newspaper headline or Canadian who commented:

      "Dion is open to a coalition as long as Layton agrees to change tax policy."

      If that was the message he was trying to get across then he failed miserably and should have repeated it. Every single other Canadian looked at that and heard – no coalition, attack on NDP economics, bad joke about NDP candidate scandals.

      This notion of going back and inserting a new meaning into old words, a meaning that never existed at the time, for the purpose of your own partisan political purposes is pretty questionable.

  24. I've always believed that both sides were right in this debate.

    It is true that under the parliamentary system of government, two parties can get together and agree to form a coalition government if they have the confidence of the House Of Commons. And they don't have to have agreed to form a coalition before the election. A Liberal-NDP coalition would not have been violating "the will of the people".

    It is also true that such coalitions are virtually unprecedented in Canadian history. And that a coalition would have made a whole lot of people, most of whom were from the West, very very angry.

    I have always suspected that Harper was granted his prorogue on the condition that he get his act together – that he stop turning every vote into a confidence vote, and that he actually try and govern the country. Whether he has done this is debatable, but there has been less political drama lately.

  25. Since you deem so many of us to be ill-informed and bearers of flawed knowlege, could you provide some citations for your statements? Your credentials might be nice too.

  26. Pete, was not meaning to insult you. Apologies.

    You should read the NZ Cabinet Manuel (aval here: if you want further information on alternatives. It is quite good and would be a welcome improvement or our system. NZ, of course is also a Westminster system, but they have specified protocols to making dealing with exactly these kinda of questions more straightforward. For example, re loss of confidence:

    Mid-term change of government

    6.53 A basic principle of New Zealand's system of responsible government is that the
    government must have the confidence of the House of Representatives to stay in office.
    A government may lose the confidence of the House during its parliamentary term.

    6.54 Where loss of confidence is clear (for example, where the government has lost a vote of
    confidence in the House), the Prime Minister will, in accordance with convention,
    advise that the administration will resign. In this situation:

    (a) a new administration may be appointed from the existing Parliament (if an
    administration that has the confidence of the House is available – see the
    information about government formation in paragraphs 6.36 – 6.42); or

    (b) an election may be called (see paragraphs 6.56 – 6.58).
    Until a new administration is appointed, the incumbent government continues in
    office, governing in accordance with the caretaker convention. (See paragraphs 6.16 –

    6.55 In some cases, the confidence of the House may be unclear, for example, in the case of a
    change in coalition arrangements. The incumbent government will need to clarify where
    the confidence of the House lies, within a short time frame (allowing a reasonable period
    for negotiation and reorganisation). The caretaker convention applies in the mid-term
    context only when it becomes clear that the government has lost the confidence of the

    • How is this "law" ?

      It sounds like a non-binding suggestion that all parties agree to at the formation of a new parliement.

      We have a variety of manuels in Canada too. Each parliement is entitled to enact its own rules.

      I see nothing stopping the PM from completely disregarding this and asking the GG for an election.

  27. Aaron, living in Ottawa you must have many constitutional law experts on hand. Could you please ask one of them to weigh in on this debate?

  28. nobody said it is law.

    it is a protocol, that has been in place for a number of years, across multiple governments, the same as our constitutional conventions, and ignoring it would lead to a real constitutional crisis

    as far as what you see, you (specifically you, not Pete) are talking out your arse about stuff you are not well-versed in, so it is not terribly surprising that you do not understand it.

  29. Rudeness and personal attacks generally are a sign that one is less sure of himself then he is letting on.

    OK so there's some protocal/convention with no force whatsoever.

    Its like every other non-binding resolution the house passes and our government ignores (and is free to do so).

    Just like how the house passed a resolution to call an inquiry into the torture thing which went nowhere.

    Ignoring this convention would NOT cause a constitutional crisis. People would cluck their tongues. Nothing else would happen because it has no legal weight behind it.

    • Jesse,

      earlier today you thought that the constitutional conventions i was citing and referenced in the NZ cabinet manual were the equivalent of a government guidance, now you think constitutional conventions are a parliamentary resolution.

      my comment stands: you are in over your head.

      • I am asking you a series of questions in hope that you'll explain yourself and enlighten all of us who are in over our heads as you say with such astounding rudeness.

        Regardless, my point stands – there is nothing to stop the PM of any Westminster system from advising the LG to dissolve parliement and call a new election.

        So far everything you have cited has been far short of law.

        The original point was that such a law, if ever enacted, would be unconstitutional.

        So far you've shown NOTHING to disabuse us of that notion.