A Collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh

Canada PM pledges to use 'every legal means to protect democracy' in crisis

[JURIST] In a televised address to the nation [transcript; recorded video] Wednesday evening, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper [official website] promised to use "every legal means" at his disposal "to protect our democracy, to protect our economy and to protect Canada" on the eve of a critical meeting scheduled for 9:30 AM ET Thursday morning with Governor General Michaelle Jean [official profile]. Although he made no specific mention of it in his remarks, Harper is widely expected to ask Jean to prorogue the Canadian parliament until January to avoid losing a vote of confidence in the House of Commons to a putative coalition [accord text, PDF] of two federal opposition parties supported by a third, a move which earlier this week threw the country into constitutional chaos [JURIST report] at the prospect of a change in government without an intervening election. Prorogation - granting of which is within the traditional powers of the governor general [official backgrounder] as resident representative of the Queen, Canada's formal head of state - would mean the end of the current parliamentary session and the death of all government bills in progress. Speaking directly to Canadians, and noting that his minority government had just been returned to power in a federal election on October 14 [election results], Harper castigated the coalition to be led by Liberal Party chief Stephane Dion [campaign website] in association with the leftist New Democratic Party supported by the Bloc Quebecois [party websites]:

The Opposition is attempting to impose this deal without your say, without your consent, and without your vote. This is no time for backroom deals with the separatists; it is the time for Canada’s government to focus on the economy...
Harper said that when parliament resumed he would be offering a new federal budget addressing issues that the opposition parties had flagged in the government's economic statement [press release] earlier this month which immediately precipitated the coalition talks.

In remarks [transcript] responding to Harper's speech, Dion said:
The Harper Conservatives have lost the confidence of the majority of Members of the House of Commons. In our democracy, in our parliamentary system, in our Constitution, this means that they have lost the right to govern.
Speculating on Harper's likely request to the governor general, he added:
Mr. Harper’s solution is to extend that crisis by avoiding a simple vote. By suspending Parliament and continuing the confusion. We offer a better way. We say settle it now and let’s get to work on the people’s business. A vote is scheduled for next Monday. Let it proceed...

Earlier today I wrote Her Excellency the Governor General. I respectfully asked her to refuse any request by the Prime Minister to suspend Parliament until he has demonstrated to her that he still commands the confidence of the House.
Read Dion's letter to the governor general [PDF text].

Jean returned to Canada Wednesday afternoon after cutting short a European state visit. A Canadian governor general has never refused a prorogation request from a prime minister, but no prime minister has ever asked for prorogation in a bid to avoid defeat in the House of Commons. Canadian constitutional experts say such a refusal would be within the rights of the governor general under the office's reserve power, and that at that point she has the option of either accepting the offer of the opposition parties to form a new government, or dissolving parliament and calling a new federal election. In either event Harper would resign as prime minister. The last time a Canadian governor general called on the federal opposition to form a new national government without an election was in 1926, during the so-called King-Byng Affair [backgrounder]. The only true coalition government in Canadian federal history was led by Conservative Prime Minister Robert Borden towards the end of World War I when the country faced a crisis over conscription. The so-called Union Government [backgrounder] of Conservatives and some Liberals and independents ended in 1920.

About Paper Chase

Paper Chase is JURIST's real-time legal news service, powered by a team of 30 law student reporters and editors led by law professor Bernard Hibbitts at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. As an educational service, Paper Chase is dedicated to presenting important legal news and materials rapidly, objectively and intelligibly in an accessible format.

© Copyright JURIST Legal News and Research Services, Inc., 2013.