Saturday, November 29, 2008

King-Byng no precedent now

I decided to look over the events surrounding the King-Byng Affair in 1926 and see if it has any lessons for the current stalemate in Ottawa. Let's review the facts. (I've reviewed a couple of online articles to get my facts straight.)

After the 1925 generals, the House of Commons was in a minority or "hung" situation. The Conservatives under Arthur Meighen (grandfather of current Senator Michael) won 116 seats, the Liberals (led by Mackenzie King) had 101 and the left-leaning Progressives under Robert Forke had 24. King had an informal agreement with the Progressives to stay in power.

A few months after the election, one of King's hacks at Customs and Excise was accused of taking kickbacks. The Minister in charge of the Department was fired but then quickly promoted to the Senate. The Progressives were outraged and pulled their support. King, who had lost two procedural votes (not on confidence) but fearing he'd lose one on the corruption issue (which was possibly a confidence matter) asked the Governor General, Field Marshall Viscount Julian Bing of Vimy, to dissolve Parliament and call a new election.

Byng refused, but for two specific reasons: First, the House was still considering a motion of censure and to interfere in that would be tantamount to the Crown stamping on Parliament's freedom of speech; second, he thought the Conservatives should have a chance to rule since they were the largest bloc in the House. King asked Byng to reconsider and that he should consult the British government (remember, Canada was still a colony in those days). Byng declined that, too. Furious, King resigned. Byng then asked Meighen to form a government.

Under the rules of the time, a Prime Minister called in mid-stream ould only make his ministers "acting" ones; to get their posts locked up they would have to individually resign and run in by-elections. King seized on the opportunity, got the Progressives back on his side, and voted non-confidence; an election was called and King won by a landslide. Ironically, he made Canadian independence his issue notwithstanding he was the one who had asked the Colonial Office to intervene; and even though Byng saw correctly that it was an issue for Canadians, not the British, to decide.

After the election, the Dominions (Canada, Australia, New Zealand and a few others) got an understanding (called the Balfour Declaration) that a Governor General was not to be the agent of the London government but of the Sovereign. Thus, the viceroy or vicereine became a "vice-regal" representative. Representation of 10 Downing Street's interests would be instead taken up by a High Commissioner (the functional equivalent of an Ambassador).

So is Stephen Harper correct in saying that the 1926 crisis sets a precedent? I'm not so sure. I'm no constitutional expert, but there are four problems I see with the argument.

First, Balfour did not end the residual power that a Governor General has to seek out a possible government that can be formed in case of a deadlock or vote of non-confidence. There is an example for this -- many cite the 1985 alliance formed in Ontario between the Liberals and NDP, although in that case it was the lieutenant governor that called upon Peterson to replace Miller. The people would not have tolerated two elections in only three months and we're only six, seven weeks past the last election.

Second, King tried to have it both ways first by being for the Colonial Office before being against it. There's no more Colonial Office, and there's no way the Comonwealth Office or the Queen herself is going to get involved in this one; she got burned over Lord Hume in the UK in 1963 and she vowed never again to get involved in party politics.

Third, there wasn't a non-confidence vote that forced King to resign. It was still being considered. He resigned out of disgust to avert the humiliation.

Fourth, I think Harper might have an argument if he won the popular vote by a margin so large the other parties with their combined totals would barely surpass it if at all. That was the case in 1925: The Conservatives had 46.13%, the Liberals 39.74%, the Progressives 8.45%. Add the latter two, you get 48.19%, a difference of 2.03%.

Now look at the 2008 numbers. Conservatives: 37.65%, Liberals 26.26%, NDP 18.18%, Bloc 9.98%. (The Greens, who unfortunately didn't get any, won 6.78%.) Add up the numbers for the progressive parties. 54.42% voted for progressive parties that got into the House, if you add the Greens it was 61.20%. That's a gap of 16.77% or 23.55% depending on how you count it; a huge difference compared to 1925.

A reasonable GG would have to look both at the numbers in the House as well as the popular vote and say to herself, wait a minute -- the opposition parties do have a mandate (albeit a tricky one); it was given to them by the people even if they may disagree on a number of points. Let's see if they can work out their differences and try something.

Now, of course, Harper can end this game of brinksmanship and offer a real economic package rather than make us wait until the New Year. Or he could do what he should have done in the first place, and talk deal with one of the opposition parties to get their support. But if he doesn't, then the opposition parties will have to act. When you promise to make Parliament a calmer place and then make it explode in just the session's second week, then you've lost the moral right to govern.

As for sober second thought that Flaherty referred to yesterday -- that's the Senate's job to do on legislation, and they have no say on confidence whatsoever.

That's my view. If you think the GG has no choice but to call an immediate election, I'd welcome your argument.

UPDATE (10:41 am EST, 1541 GMT): Some minor edits. Also, some may think about the 1975 crisis in Australia where the GG and PM fired each other; but that country's situation was complicated by a double dissolution of both Houses of Parliament, something that couldn't happen here since the Senate is presently an appointed body; also I wonder if it's possible for our Senate to hold up a supply bill for an indefinite period.

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Anonymous said...

Wow. That was thorough. I think I'll just link to you on this one if it comes up at my blog. :)

BlastFurnace said...


Anonymous said...

There's an emerging theme that says something like "I'll bet the NDP voters didn't vote to have their MPs create a coalition with the Liberals." Probably true, but I'll bet there are as many NDP voters who would be equally disappointed if their elected MPs voted with the Conservatives to keep the minority government in place.

I don't think you can really get far with this argument in either direction. Let's just start with the clear fact that all 308 Members of Parliament have been duly elected in their respective ridings. From this fact, it's pretty clear that all have a democratically supported mandate to participate in the governing of the country.

Now some of the MPs will ultimately form the government, and the others will be the opposition. The opposition members will at times criticize the government, and maybe at other times actually support government initiatives. They are still actively participating in the governing of the country, as they were elected to do.

So we have a situation where a group of MPs - the Conservatives - has tried to form a government. The Conservatives had more seats than the other parties, so they were the logical first choice to form the government. However, they have failed to establish a government that has the confidence of the House, so it's time to look for another answer.

Another election will be needed eventually, but why not try to assemble a different group of the already duly elected MPs to form a working government?

Attempting to avoid another election seems a fiscally responsible choice to me. Unfortunate for the Conservatives that they haven't yet shown examples of fiscal responsibility that the country needs so urgently.