Tuesday, 10 May 2005

Confidence tricksters

When is a vote of no confidence not a vote of no confidence? When it takes place in Canada, apparently. As Mustafa Hirji of Points of Information explains, Westminster parliamentary rules don’t obligate the executive to resign when they lose a confidence vote, but nonetheless the traditional response of resignation is key to parliamentary sovereignty:

[R]esponsible government’s preservation requires that the Executive honour votes of no confidence. Otherwise, the Executive ceases to be responsible to the legislature and is, instead, responsible only to the unelected monarch or representative thereof.

Responsibility to Parliament is absolutely key in our system of government. Unlike the United States, we lack checks and blances to constrain the power of the Executive. Parliament is the only meaningful constraint on the Executive and their widespread powers. When this constraint ceases to exist, the Governor-General, effectively chosen by the Prime Minister and likely therefore beholden to him/her, becomes the only check on the Prime Minister. That check is neither realistic nor desireable, let alone democratic or accountable.

Of course, if the role of the governor-general (or, in the case of Britain, the monarch) was taken by an official responsible to the electorate or parliament—most other parliamentary regimes use the largely ceremonial president in this role—the conflict of interest would be greatly diminished. Either way, it seems to me that if parliament does vote in favor of a no confidence motion, and the executive refuses to resign, the governor-general has an obligation to dismiss the executive.

Update: More via InstaPundit: perspectives from Ed Morrissey and “ferret” of Conservative Life, as well as liveblogging from Stephen Taylor (not the PoliBlog guy). Kate also has a post at Outside the Beltway, with a link to another news story on today’s events.


Any views expressed in these comments are solely those of their authors; they do not reflect the views of the authors of Signifying Nothing, unless attributed to one of us.

My understanding is that the vote was on an amendment to a motion on another topic, by which the Liberals are getting away with claiming “not no confidence.” But won’t the Canadian Governor-General just force an explicit vote of no confidence now?

BTW, thanks for clearing up that President / Prime Minister question for me. I’d always wondered.

[Permalink] 2. Daryl Haaland wrote @ Wed, 11 May 2005, 1:08 am CDT:

Yes that is the job of the Governor-General, however Adrienne Clarkson is known for having been a lifelong Liberal supporter. Which is why they appointed her in the first place, it’s always a good idea to cover your ass in as many ways as possible after all. So naturally it is highly speculative as to whether or not she is going to perceive her role in regards to the people of Canada, and ultimately to the Queen, or in regards to her loyalty to the party that got her the plum and largely ceremonial position. Something that MAY have an influence is that the Ultimate arbiter our Head of state HRM Queen Elizabeth II is already scheduled for a visit in a little over a month and a half, and if she comes here and finds the place in an utter constitutional shambles she may appoint her own new Gov-Gen, and new interim government, which she still has the right to do as ultimate head of state of the british commonwealth which we are still a part of. So In other words If Adrienne Clarkson wants to keep her job as Gov-Gen she bloody well better do it right.


[Permalink] 3. Steve White wrote @ Wed, 11 May 2005, 7:50 am CDT:

However, if the Queen does so, she may find that Canada rapidly becomes a de facto republic: there is nothing to stop the Liberals from ignoring her, and nothing to stop Ms. Clarkson from claiming that the Queen can’t dismiss her.


Except, of course, it wasn’t a confidence vote at all, it was nothing more than a recommendation to a committee.

The Conservatives will get their chance on the budget vote. And if they want to explain why they are joining with the separatists to defeat this government, a motion of substance – not some ridiculous sideshow – is the proper forum to do it.

Of course, then they would need to explain why they broke their original deal to support the budget. Blatant opportunism is so ugly when it’s exposed as such.


Stephen: In parliamentary procedure, a motion to recommit with instructions is more than a mere “recommendation”; it is a message from the floor that the committee must amend the legislation in question and then report it back to the floor as amended. See e.g. here; for the Canadian case, see here and here. There is no way to read the amendment as anything other than a motion to recommit with (mandatory) instructions.

See also here for a perspective by a Canadian academic.


The point is, the motion instructed a committee; it said nothing to or about Parliament itself. It is therefore not a vote of non-confidence.

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