Not just "Harper's Rules": the problem with responsible government as critical morality

Date

2010-08-30T17:45:11Z

Authors

Smith, Michael Edward

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Abstract

The Canadian constitutional crisis of 2008 triggered a renewed interest in the structure and workings of Canada’s institutions of government. Particular controversy was generated by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s assertion that only the political party with the most seats in the House of Commons has the right to form a government and that it is illegitimate for the opposition parties to form a coalition with a legislative majority. Peter Russell terms these contentions “Harper’s New Rules”, and is one of a large group of scholars who deride the rules as being undemocratic and in violation of the traditional practice of parliamentary democracy and responsible government (which holds that the House of Commons is the final arbiter on the viability of potential governments). This thesis investigates the quick rejection of Harper’s Rules and determines that their attempt to enforce a critical moral standard on Harper is problematic because for a constitutional convention to be binding on political actors, it requires a consensus on how a convention promotes constitutional principle--a consensus that does not exist about how a party receives a mandate to govern. Throughout Canada’s history with minority government transitions, there has been a subtle discourse that implies many political actors have operated under the norm that the largest party in the House of Commons does indeed have a right to form the government. As well, many of the claims that are made about the democratic origin and purpose of the structure of responsible government are difficult to substantiate and can be challenged. The resulting disagreement makes it difficult to declare a constitutional interpretation to be wrong, given the malleable character of conventions, and that these constitutional disputes can generate into crisis and be exploited for partisan gain. This is the situation the federal party system may soon find itself in, as likely future minority governments will continuously bring the opposing conceptions of a mandate into conflict. This thesis concludes that determining constitutional conventions based on how they defend principle is a hazardous approach because political actors can always frame their actions in the rhetoric of democratic legitimacy, and if the actor can avoid serious political repercussions or find support in the public, then the interpretation becomes viable.

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Keywords

Responsible Government, Constitutional Conventions, Critical Morality, Minority Government, Political Institutions, Canadian Politics

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