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Popular sentiment and constitutional convention


 

While Michael Ignatieff sends an open letter to Canadian Against Proroguing Parliament, David Eaves reviews a loose survey of the group’s demographics, attitudes and intent. In an essay for The Mark, Michael Marin speculates on the group’s potential to impose unwritten order on Parliamentary democracy.

Canadians have helped spawn constitutional conventions before. The outcome of the 1926 federal election, which produced a Liberal majority in the wake of the King-Byng Affair, contributed to the modern principle of political non-interference by the Governor General. If the opponents of prorogation sustain their pressure, they may play a similar role in 2010.

The Facebook group was the catalyst of public opposition to prorogation, emerging in the days following the prime minister’s call to the Governor General and driving public interest in the story despite its holiday timing. The group fuelled criticism in the mainstream media by serving as a clearinghouse for stories on the issue and funnelling traffic to the websites of large newspapers and television networks. This allowed the story to spill into the offline world and significantly alter the voting intentions of Canadians.

While the Facebook group wasn’t a conscious exercise in constitution making, the nature of constitutional conventions may allow it to serve that very purpose. But the work of Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament isn’t over. In order to ensure that a new convention is born, they are going to have to come out in huge numbers on January 23. Otherwise, the opposition we’ve witnessed over the last two weeks will be interpreted by future underhanded governments as temporary and will fail to restrain their abuse of power.


 

Popular sentiment and constitutional convention

    • "I tend to agree with Marin (that the rallies will hold more sway, if well attended),"

      Still Sean?

      • Yes, but don't mistake my skepticism for cynicism.

        • u sure about that?

  1. While the Facebook group wasn't a conscious exercise in constitution making, the nature of constitutional conventions may allow it to serve that very purpose.

    I'd be interested to hear Mr. Ignatieff elaborate on this point.

    • I'm not sure Mr Ignatieff would choose to elaborate of a remark by Michael Marin

      • I would be interested to hear Mr. Harper's take on what Mr. Marin said. Of course we don't hold government to account — accountability is something for the opposition alone.

        CR, I don't give a rat's a** what the opposition is up to — I want to know what that sad excuse for a PM is going to do.

        • Well, we already know what the PM thinks about prorogation. That's why I'm not really curious about what Harper's take is. ;-)

        • Ha. You think the Prime Minister would ever give us ordinary folk the chance to ask him a real question that wasn't written by the PMO?

      • I guess I worded it poorly. I would be interested to hear Mr. Ignatieff's take on what Mr. Marin said.

        • While it does seem like something that would be "up his alley", Mr Ignatieff has finally started listening -and it would be a shame to lose that…. I fear he likes the sound of his own voice too much!

    • It's Michael Marin's point.

      If you are interested in elaboration from Mr. Ignatieff would it not be more proper to enquire of Messrs Harper, Layton and Duceppe as well?

      • Absolutely. I'd love to hear what everyone has to say. But I'm particularly interested in what Mr. Ignatieff has to say. I'll be checking out his Town Hall on Thursday to see if he's going to propose any solutions to what many members of the Facebook group are demanding:restricting the Prime Minister's unfettered power to prorogue Parliament at his convenience.

        • Actually, it's the Governor General who prorogues parliament, not the Prime Minister. It would be difficult to come up with legislation that restricted her right to do so, short of a constitutional amendment.

  2. On a semi-related note, I'm observing the MI live chat now. So far, it's softball questions.

    • Yup. A few questions about democratic reform and PR, but so far no tough questions about prorogation. No tough questions at all, for that matter.

  3. Poppycock on all points.

  4. "In order to ensure that a new convention is born, they are going to have to come out in huge numbers on January 23. Otherwise, the opposition we've witnessed over the last two weeks will be interpreted by future underhanded governments as temporary and will fail to restrain their abuse of power."

    I just don't get the punditry's insistence over a huge turnout this weekend in order to give legitimacy to the FB protest.

    Aren't the recent polls enough evidence?

    • None of the polls taken so far measure behavioural change, just some kind of conceptual attitude of "something's wrong and I don't like it".

      The protests will give a more tangible feel for the propensity of people to change their behaviour because of prorogation…or whatever.

      • "The protests will give a more tangible feel for the propensity of people to change their behaviour because of prorogation…or whatever. "

        Huh?

        The debate is over whether the FB protestors are legitimate, yes? The polls have clearly shown Canadians responding negatively to Harper's prorogation. Today's poll has Tories in a tie with the Libs yet you are saying that you still need to see tons of people (how many exactly would be satisfactory) in each city to finally accept that the 200, 000 FB protestors are a symptom of what is happening out there?

        • I know it doesn't sound intuitive, but vote intent is an attitudinal measure (and by the way, with the Conservatives and Liberals tied, votes will usually favour the incumbent, and let's not also forget that the Liberals have failed to capitalize on the Tories' oopsie, so the odds of governmental change shrink ever further). It's not to dismiss the NDP or the Bloc, but their likelihood of forming a government is…well…let's not go there.

          I see lots of evidence of attitudinal change – something is definitely in the water. What we haven't seen yet is evidence of behavioural change, and that's what the protests will help to demonstrate.

        • I know it doesn't sound intuitive, but vote intent is an attitudinal measure (and by the way, with the Conservatives and Liberals tied, votes will usually favour the incumbent, and let's not also forget that the Liberals have failed to capitalize on the Tories' oopsie, so the odds of governmental change shrink ever further). It's not to dismiss the NDP or the Bloc, but their likelihood of forming a government is…well…let's not go there.

          I see lots of evidence of attitudinal change – something is definitely in the water. What we haven't seen yet is evidence of behavioural change, and that's what the protests will help to demonstrate.

          • "What we haven't seen yet is evidence of behavioural change, and that's what the protests will help to demonstrate."

            And you believe that a low turnout will suggest that we should dismiss the FB protest?

  5. I submitted about a dozen, but I suspect they're being filtered out.

    I also want to point out that this live chat is making me weep for my generation ("how should the system change for us?" "Do you not feel that …we could benefit from the legalization of marijuana?" Good gracious.)

    • Just noticed another one:

      3:47 Josh Jensen: As you know, the anti-prorogation cause is a non-partisan issue. As we do not have an executive branch of government in this country, it is troubling to see a Prime Minister act as though he has Presidential powers. What will you do to restore the parliamentary and democratic principles that we as Canadians have always been proud of?

      3:49 Michael Ignatieff: We need a Prime Minister who accepts and welcomes the fact that his or her power is limited by Parliament, by independent regulators and by independent institutions like the courts.

      • But we DO have an executive branch.

        • Good point. It will be lost on so many people who think they understand our parliamentary system, but who so clearly don't.

  6. While I think bringing accountability to politics won't happen through protest (or any sustained pressure), I will be there on Saturday.

    It won't be as futile as believing that accountability can be achieved through elections, but at least I will protest with people who still beleive we should have accountability in governance.

  7. See Democracy Watch's article published in a few newspapers over the past few days — it is about how the prorogation of Parliament, and snap elections, delays or escapes accountability in many unreported ways, and the changes needed to ensure ongoing accountability of the federal government in the future (note especially that the NDP's proposal to require a majority of MPs to approve prorogation will not ensure accountability in a majority government)– see it at:
    http://www.dwatch.ca/camp/OpEdJan1510.html

    And to see a link to the Report Card that gives the details on the Harper Conservatives' actual record on democratic reform and good government, and a link to the "Summary of the 90 Undemocratic and Accountability Loopholes in Canada's Federal Government" and a link to an Action Alert to send a letter to your MP and all federal political party leaders calling on them to close the loopholes because they allow 30 or so dishonest, unethical, secretive, unrepresentative and wasteful activities in federal politics, and to see many other useful good government links, go to the following Democracy Watch webpage:
    http://www.dwatch.ca/Clean_Up_the_System.html

    Hope this helps.

    Duff Conacher, Coordinator
    Democracy Watch

    • In other words, please read more of Mr. Conacher's self-righteous blatherings about how evil elected politicians are and how they can only be controlled by the imposition of yet more bureaucratic rules and regulations supervised by high-minded (and unelected) people such as himself? I think I'll give his articles a pass this time.

      • So the role of citizens is to foment on comments sections but not organize? I'm just trying to understand where you draw the line on participation …

        • I have no objection to people organizing, whether by joining political parties or otherwise. I object to the self-righteous attitude of people like Conacher who assume anyone who runs for office is motivated by greed and needs to be treated as a potential criminal.

          As for the argument about prorogation I simply find it a waste of time. The government's use of it in 2008 was a novel and undestandably controversial move – although pretty clearly it was the right thing to do. The current prorogation is a perfectly routine thing for any government to do. It seems to me that most people showing angst over it are simply having flashbacks to the grand coalition and totally confusing the issues.

          • I don’t know how you can say the 2008 prorogation was the right thing to do. You can hate the coalition and still think it was a bad idea: Harper governed for ~50 days while not enjoying the confidence of the House of Commons. He made himself a dictator for that period of time. I’d take a coalition disaster that dissolved into an election over that precedent. How is that situation any different that, hypothetically, Paul Martin proroguing in late 2005 when it became clear he would lose confidence, and just proroguing until late March, all the while governing through orders in council as a dictator?

          • It is not a "dictatorship" for a government to govern while parliament is not in session. Most provincial legislatures sit for relatively short periods (in BC sometimes just for a spring session) and then prorogue – the government and the legislature are not the same thing and there is nothing illegitimate about a government carrying on the business of governing whether or not parliament sits.
            The 2008 incident was an unusual one – but the proof is in the pudding – when parliament returned it confirmed its confidence in Mr. Harper's minstry. And the coalition was obviously a badly conceived and unstable whill o' the whisp.

          • the point isnt that parliament was in session. the point is that it was clear that Harper did not enjoy the support of the majority of the House, hence he had no democratic legitimacy. much like when Martin ignored the clear evidence that he did not enjoy the confidence of the house in 2006.

          • "Harper governed for ~50 days while not enjoying the confidence of the House of Commons"

            Garbage. Harper won a confidence vote on the Throne Speech in the first session of the 40th Parliament on Nov. 27th. Look it up. This was AFTER the Economic Statement, which was cited as the reason for the whole Coalition machinations. The House, by voting confidence on the Throne Speech, essentially endorsed the government's stated program. So when Harper asked the GG to prorogue Parliament the next Thursday, he was less than a week removed from having shown he enjoyed the confidence of the House.
            (cont'd) …

          • How was there a Throne Speech after the Economic Statement? I thought the Throne Speech had to be the first thing to happen–even before electing a speaker?

          • In the interim, the combined opposition had plenty of chances to bring the command of the House into question. They had fully 4 sitting days in which they could have moved a Motion to Adjourn, which if won, would've immediately brought into question the government's command of the House (Harper and Duceppe won two such votes in May 2005, when they were looking to bring down the Martin gov't. That necessitated the confidence vote of May 19th, brought forward by the gov't itself). I can assure you, had the opposition moved and won such a vote, that no prorogation would've been granted by the GG.

            (cont'd) …


          • That the opposition failed in even moving such a simple motion as this, leads me to believe that one or more actors behind the scenes (most likely Ignatieff and his cadre) were dead set against any coalition, and wouldn't have shown for any such adjournment vote.

            That The Coalition basically imploded within days of the prorogation order was all the evidence anyone needed to know that this was not a truly serious alternative government in waiting. When there is a serious alternative ministry in the wings, that has or can easily gain the public legitimacy needed to take down a sitting government, that alternative ministry would not sit on their hands waiting to press their case, and certainly wouldn't vote confidence in the government. See the example of the Peterson Liberals after the 1985 Ontario election. Even though they won less seats than the PC's, they had won more votes, and so they had the legitimacy needed to take down Miller's government, which they did at the first available opportunity, which was the ** Throne Speech **.

          • As for the comparison with Martin, as I said earlier, the Martin government's command of the House was repeatedly called into question by the opposition moving and then winning a few Motions to Adjourn, plus the infamous vote of May 10, 2005, which recommended that the gov't resign, but which the gov't refused to recognize as a clear vote of non-confidence.

            You also have to remember that the House only votes full supply to the government for the rest of the fiscal year in June. So the government at that time couldn't prorogue, 1) because it had lost serious votes in the House, that called into question whether they enjoyed the House's confidence, and 2) because they still needed to win a supply vote on their Main Estimates.

            By contrast the Harper government for this latest prorogation won their votes on interim supply (March), full supply (June), plus votes on two supplementary estimates for fiscal 2009-10, the last being supplementary estimates (B) in December. They had the full confidence of the House, shown by a string of victories on confidence votes.

            The House is being brought back to debate the Budget for 2010-11, and to pass interim supply (Apr-Jun) for that budget.

          • Can't say I read all four disquisitions, seeing as the facts in the first one are blatanly wrong. The SFT was read on 19 November 2008; the Fiscal Update came a week later. Given that the Government introduced a whole new whack of SFT-style material in the latter, which did NOT receive Parliament's approval and must have been regarded as a confidence measure, it is very much doubtful whether the vote of confidence that endorsed the SFT was sufficient to allow the Government to claim it was governing during prorogation '08 with the confidence of the House. Particularly since, informally, a majority of MP's were running around shrieking that they didn't have confidence in the Government.

          • Mike R., the dude that understands our constitution better then then about 200 of our leading Canadian political scientists! but of course they are only lefty, liberal elites, right Mike?

  8. So if 28 million people show up to the protests, will the new measure of success be "it doesn't mean anything until they burn down harper's house?"

    • Well, if the new standard for constutional convention being promoted by Mr. Wherry is the size of the mob that can be organized, I suppose you are on the same wave-length.

      • for the record, I find the term convention tossed around far too loosely, am extremely loathe to declare "new" ones under almost any circumstances, and for certainty would rely on court decisions to decide their existence or not.

        • I agree the term is used very loosely. Certainly, like the common law, constitutional conventions can be created or, I suppose, die away from disuse. The nature of a constitution, however, means that process will be slow – I somehow doubt a future Supreme Court bench will pay much attention to how many people signed up for a facebook page on any particular issue. If that sort of thing really mattered outside the court of public opinion, Stockwell Day would be going by the name "Doris" by now wouldn't he?

    • good point and you are rright – None of it matters one whit the only thing that matters in our system is BUMS IN THE SEATS! – there is only one muscle in the canadian voter that counts and that is the one that marks the spot of which set of BUMS you want in Ottawa : all else is political white noise. Let's say 28 million show up yell at Harper and feel good then go home then come mar 3 we have the Throne Speech which is a confidence motion then the real fun starts because if the oppostion parties vote confidence in the gov't their respective bases would go PRO-ROGUE on them – the real question is always the same DO YOU WANT AN ELECTION OR NOT!

      • In this case, there are remedies without an election -forcing the documents to be released is the underlying issue and hopefully won't need an election.

        The incredible popularity of the anti-prorogue website (biggest in Canada, according to M. Geist) may not have a lot to do with convention but it is impressive and likely indicates a barometer of public opinion.

        But you knew that, troll.

      • In this case, there are remedies without an election -forcing the documents to be released is the underlying issue and hopefully won't need an election.

        The incredible popularity of the anti-prorogue website (biggest in Canada, according to M. Geist) may not have a lot to do with convention but it is impressive and likely indicates a barometer of public opinion.

        But you knew that, troll.

  9. From the Town Hall:

    Ignatieff (3:40): Provided a Prime Minister respects Parliament and its authority, legislation isnt needed. Mr. Harper used prorogation to duck a confidence vote and to evade tough questions in the House. That's wrong. Ive already pledged not to use prorogation that way. The problem is not the power itself, so much as its abuse.
    Mr. Harper has abused his power.

    • Good answer, apart from the self-serving partisanship about the current prorogation. But he's right – the answer to people abusing political power is politics, not legislation.

      (And of course if, heaven forbid, Mr. Ignatieff was ever prime minister he would use the right to ask for prorogation just as every other prime minister has – in his own interests, which he will consider to also be that of the country)

      • "just as every other prime minister has"

        Only three prime ministers have done this: Macdonald, Chretien, and Harper.

        • The only prime ministers who have not prorogued parliament are those like Clark, Campbell and a few others who did not have an opportunity to do so, because their time in office was so brief. The tradition in Canada until the seventies at least was for parliament to have annual sesssions, ending with prorogation and commencing with a new speech from the throne. The length of such sessions (which have been as short as five days) has always been within the perogative of the PM.

          Of course, those who don't like the current PM will say his actions are astoundingly venal and completely distinguisable from the noble high-minded actions of his predecessors. There's no arguing with some people.

          • Yeah, but you do realise that having the GG prorogue Parliament happens after every single session, right? Tell me you realise that. Tell me you realise there is some slight difference between a routine end-of-session act on the part of the Crown and using that power to suspend an uppity Parliament.

          • This isn't an argument, it's just contradiction! ____It is only "killing" a legislative agenda if the Commons decides not to reinstate the bills. They certainly have the ability to do so – which previous governments did not before the relatively recent reforms in that regard. So, yes, I think this is a perfectly normal thing for a government to do. Sometimes governments pass all their legislation in one session, and sometimes not. In any case, its not something to set your hair on fire about is it? The net result of this is that parliament takes a break about five weeks longer than it was going to anyway. Somehow I think the country can survive.

          • That's pretty pathetic, dude.

          • Hard to argue with such a detailed critique.

          • And if parliament choses not to reinstate [ in other words not provide political cover for the PM] we'll doubtless here wailing and nashing of teeth about those irresponsible opposition parties. Quite forgetting who set the process off for to avoid accountability. and how can it be a perfectly normal thing to do if the changes were relatively recent?

          • If the oposition doesn't want to allow the bills to be reinstated they don't have to, but why would they not? Except for spite, of course, but both Mr. Ignatieff and Layton say they are bigger than that.

            Yes, that provision is relatively new. Parliament used to routiinely prorogue with no means to revive legislation other than to start from scratch again. Yet they routinely prorogued – without cries of "dictatorship!" One wonders why.

          • Cross eyed brainwashed right wing religious wackos wonder why.

            regular people see the pattern, the trail of deception, and the petty politicing that harper brings to represent canada.

            Stop campaining and start governing harper!

            Just because you won an election by default doesn’t mean you do not need a canadian plan. forget the harris common sense crap and the howard / bush moral majority garbage.

            get a plan and get on with it!

          • It seems to most people that the economic action plan isn't much like Mr. Harris' attempt to control government spending (which was more like the Chretien/Martin economic policies). Nor does Mr. Harper tend to moralize as you suggest. He seems to me to be more of a classic Bill Davis-type Tory rather than the peculiar stereotype you seem to see.

            Anyway, Parliament will sit in March and the opposition can vote the government down if they want. Do you think they will?

          • "yes, I think this is a perfectly normal thing for a government to do."

            You'll be happy, I'm sure, to cite a single other instance of a Government letting anything like this amount of legislation die.

            Oh, you can't, because it's never happened.

          • It hasn't "died" as it can, and almost certainly will be restored to where it was. There have been lots of instances of governments proroguing to bring in a speech from the throne – provincial legislatures do it every year, as federal governments did until recently.

          • It has to be introduced step by step. It all starts from the top. That's why prorogation is typically invoked at the end of a legislative session, not the end.

            Just to get this straight, though: are you denying that this prorogation had anything to do with the heat the Government was taking on the detainee file, or are you simply asserting that it's right and natural for the PM to prorogue Parliament in order to avoid Parliamentary scrutiny?

          • Yes, I am denying that the prorogation had anything to do with the "detainee" file. I admit, the PM hasn't actually called me to say so, but it seems pretty unlikely it did have anything to do with what is, after all, a pretty minor issue. The "detainee" issue may have been massively interesting for some people, but for the general public it was not, and won't be, a matter that is significant. the question of whether the government moved quickly enough, three years ago, to try and help the Afghans improve their prison system is hardly a top of mind matter for most Canadians. And prorogation doesn't "avoid" anything. It simply delays some committee work for a month or so. And yes, it is perfectly normal for a government to prorogue parliament, for any number of reasons. There have been 145 sessions among the 40 parliaments of this country. That means 105 of those parliaments were prorogued before another session. For any number of reasons.

          • Well the Commons cannot reinstate bills unless someone has killed it first – in this case the government.

            Is this the bar by which we are to measure Harper's actions : will Canada survive?!?

  10. 200,000 people is too big to ignore altogether. Combined with discussions like this, which are becoming ever more frequent, and the protest groups, I agree that there is something worth looking at. Attitudinal shifts are important (very important!) but it's behaviour changes that get politicians to stand up and do something, if for no other reason than behaviour change means votes change. Attitudes can be fluid.

    I believe that a low turnout would signal an attitudinal shift that is not yet complete.

    • I can agree with that.

  11. Another response to a prorogation question:

    3:57 Michael Ignatieff: As a great writer once said, rules are for people with no character. Meaning, that you need to legislate when you cant trust the people who hold power. My view is that we dont need to legislate limits on prorogation. We just need to return to the basic understanding that used to limit prerogative power, namely that you dont use it to duck tough questions in parliament and you dont use it to duck a confidence vote. Harper used it this way and it was wrong, and Canadians are telling him don't ever do that again.

    • "We just need to return to the basic understanding"

      I believe that's called playing checkers.

    • Geez, Ignatieff is good. It's sad that when you have power hungry cheapshots like Harper holding the highest office in the land (de facto), rules have to be conceived to limit the abuse of that power.
      And I know, I know. Every party has done it. I remember when Harper himself decried the abuses on the part of the Liberals in calling snap elections, and vowed to not do it himself…….

    • I disagree with Ignatieff on this. I believe that one of the lessons of the Harper years is that we need explicit rules that provide limits on the Prime Minister's use of his power.

      Virtually everything that the Conservatives have done has been, strictly speaking, legal – prorogation, the excessive use of ten percenters, the constant bombardment of the nation's airwaves with attack ads, and possibly even the In-and-Out spending loophole. But all of these actions have violated Parliamentary tradition, which naively assumed that politicians would behave like ladies and gentlemen. It's becomingly increasingly clear that, if we want to preserve democracy in Canada, some firmer rules have to be put in place.

      Of course, the very people who stand to benefit from the lack of rules are the ones who are given the responsibility of changing them. And it's not as though the foxes are going to pass laws forbidding the raiding of henhouses.

    • Meaning, that you need to legislate when you cant trust the people who hold power.

      Oh, my. Isn't pretty much the entire US Constitution a demonstration of the wisdom of not trusting the people in power?

      Michael! Michael! Look down from the ivory tower! I'm over here! NOT legislating means you need to trust every person who holds power. You really want to sell us on that?

      • That an odd position for you to take MYL. I would have expected you to applaud Ignatieff on this one…he's even got me half convinced…that is until i think of all those minorities yet unborn, and politicians being what they are, and the desire to wield power being what it is.

        • Right. As you say, he had you half-convinced, until you started thinking.

          I don't trust the people in power just because they are in power. I don't WANT them to have so much power over everybody's lives. I am unsure why you should be so surprised.

  12. It is not really possible to fully appreciate how and why a Facebook/online campaign works without participating. There are thousands of activists who are learning first hand how to use political tools and techniques which have only recently been invented. Most of them are young and intelligent and they are exhilarated by the effect they are demonstrably having on the politicians, pundits, press and public.

    The PMO communications machine has been utterly outflanked in so many ways they no longer know which direction they are going to be hit from next.

    The resources represented by CAPP are extraordinary and many now know how to tap them at will. It looks like a huge mess from the outside but I assure you it looks more like a gold mine from the inside.

    16,194 links, discussion topics 1 – 31 out of 1501 as an example

  13. I think the requirement of a massive turnout for real change is simplistic, however there will certainly be a need to address what next.

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