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Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Tillman on the Conventions of the Constitution


Some years ago ... then Prime Minister Harper was strongly criticized in Parliament and in the press for giving advice to the Governor General to prorogue the national parliament. He did this to delay a vote of confidence. Most academics took strong exception to Harpers conduct. I did not. This is why. 


January 4, 2010

Dear Professor,

.... That said, let me tell you my key criticism of your article. I am doing this from memory; so don’t hold me to anything or show this e-mail to third parties. It is quite possible that in writing on the fly I might misstate the position you took in your article.

It seems to me that you need some normative model or guidance or test from which you could determine when a Prime Minister [here Prime Minister Harper] is acting in his own self-interest or that of his party as opposed to his best determination of the public good. There has to be some give here. A Prime Minister is not supposed to be a neutral bystander and he should be able to see the continuance of his Government in office as part (not the whole) of the public good. The next test ought to be—as you indicate—was Parliament granted a full, [fair,] timely, meaningful, and free vote to determine whether a Prime Minister and his cabinet should continue in office, but a full, fair, timely, meaningful, and free vote requires a normative basis to make that judgment. It is not the Westminster tradition that a timely vote means whenever the opposition can muster sufficient votes to bring down the Government. Just as the Government can set the election date, it can, consistent with practice, set the time for confidence votes. Such votes should not be delayed indefinitely, i.e., until the next election. But they need not be tomorrow or on one day’s notice either. As I understand it, what Harper did was delay that vote. There was no allegation of offering opposition members personal benefits to get their votes. If the delay was used to go out to the people to explain the Government’s position (i.e., meaning that the Government put forward its view of what an all-opposition cabinet would mean for the country), then that seems consistent with democratic norms. Indeed, that is consistent with what I believe to be the highest aspirational norms of the Anglo-American tradition. In doing so, a Prime Minister isn’t bringing Parliament to “heel”—I think that was your expression. Rather, such a Prime Minister is making Parliament, including the opposition, accountable. It is true that a delay gives a Prime Minister [and his Government] some benefits—a lack of accountability during the time Parliament is prorogued. But it comes with substantial costs too. During that time, the Government loses the opportunity to move its legislation forward and the delay is seen as weakness on the floor of the House [and across the country at large].

For Harper to have violated a convention of the Constitution or to have given illegal advice to the Governor General [in regard to prorogation], you need to show (or so I believe) some sort of overreach beyond the norms of the [Canadian] Constitution. Such overreach might involve intentional actions by Harper out of self-interest, beyond merely seeking to extend the life of his Government. Such overreach would also include indefinite delay of a confidence vote. Finally, overreach would include seeking to check parliament through grants of lucrative office** to opposition members (or bribes paid by third-parties). [On the other hand], where the time of the delay is used to actively engage in politics, i.e. talking to constituents and the press, that isn’t abuse, that is virtue. You arrive at the opposite conclusion (as I understand your position) because your vision of Parliament is one of its having unchecked supremacy between elections—in that situation, the floor members are entitled to a free vote without notice [to the Government] and they should not be made to explain their positions to constituents outside of an [active] election contest. But if that is your position (and I could be wrong on that), then what is wrong (or so I believe) is your normative vision, not Harper’s conduct.

Finally, don’t the two recent Canadian by-elections, particularly BQ losing a seat to the Tories, indicate that Harper had sound prudential reasons for believing that the voters did not want an all opposition government?

Seth

Seth Barrett Tillman, Tillman on the Conventions of the ConstitutionNew Reform Club (June 6, 2018, 9:28 AM), https://reformclub.blogspot.com/2018/06/tillman-on-conventions-of-constitution.html

**I overstated the normative force of the convention in this particular sentence. 

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