Monarchs cannot govern without the consent of Parliament, but the question is unsettled as to prime ministers

Three views of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Canadian political leaders may not be exactly as illustrated.

First the king and then Stephen Harper! It’s two for two for Parliament … maybe.

Leastways, according to yesterday’s news coverage of House of Commons Speaker Peter Milliken’s ruling, Parliament has achieved a mighty victory over Mr. Harper’s U.S.-Republican-style government in a fight that never should never have had to be fought – reasserting the right of our elected representatives to information about how our country is run.

Specifically, in this case, the information being sought was about how Afghan prisoners of war (or, in the Orwellian language of the modern Canadian governing class, “detainees”) were treated by their Canadian captors. (The problem being, of course, that they may not have been treated as prisoners of war.)

The Speaker ruled that Mr. Harper’s Conservative government would be in contempt of Parliament if it refuses to give members access to the secret story of the Afghan prisoners.

But really, as the Toronto Star quite rightly explained it, this fight is about “who is the ultimate power in Canada and it’s been simmering since shortly after the last election, when Harper was almost tossed out of office by the opposition parties.”

So who does have the power: Our presidential Prime Minister, or Parliament? The Speaker was unequivocal in his answer: Parliament. As another Speaker said in analogous circumstances: “I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here.”

But just as Mr. Harper was prepared to do anything to prevent Parliament from exercising its constitutional right to vote non-confidence in his minority government, Canadians should not expect him to go along with this ruling. Indeed, there were hints in the prime minister’s vague and ambiguous statement today that he has no intention of doing any such thing. After all, kings and other tyrants do not give up their power to elected legislatures without a bitter fight.

Presumably, however this plays out, the prime minister will not attempt to govern completely without the inconvenience of Parliament – though one suspects that, given the opportunity, the man would welcome the opportunity to do so.

This would take the concept of minority government to exciting new extremes, no doubt with the complete support of the National Post, the wavering support of the Globe and Mail and the half-hearted opposition of the Star. (The Suns, presumably, would miss the story unless it could be determined it had an impact on local crime.)

Readers with long memories will recall that something like this was tried some years ago by an unhappy king named Charles, with somewhat dubious results from the monarch’s perspective. His Majesty did manage to rule with a modest degree of success for not quite a dozen years, notwithstanding the absence of Parliament (attempting to pawn the Crown jewels and cutting the ears of a few pamphleteers, the bloggers of the day, along the way). Alas, matters came to a head, as it were, on Jan. 30, 1649.

Different country, you might say, but not so different, really. The lesson in this potted history, one that our prime minister and others who dismiss what today we would call “liberals” should keep in mind, is that just as tyrants do not give up their power willingly, neither do elected Parliaments.

The Canadian Speaker gave Mr. Harper’s Ministry 14 days to cough up the records. But he begged Parliamentarians of all parties to reach a compromise that would avoid a constitutional crisis. “Surely that’s not too much to hope for,” he said.

It is, given the personality and inclination of the man who leads us.

Constitutionally speaking, the effect of the ruckus in England three and a half centuries ago was to establish that a monarch cannot govern without Parliament’s consent.

Apparently it remains to be seen whether this rule applies as well to Canadian prime ministers.

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5 Comments on "Monarchs cannot govern without the consent of Parliament, but the question is unsettled as to prime ministers"

  1. penlan says:

    "Canadians should not expect him to go along with this ruling. Indeed, there were hints in the prime minister’s vague and ambiguous statement today that he has no intention of doing any such thing."

    Could you provide a link to what Harper said? I have no idea what you mean by the statement that "he has no intention of doing any such thing."

  2. David J. Climenhaga says:

    My statement means what it says: I believe it is unlikely the prime minister has any intention of complying with the speaker’s ruling.

    As to statement, which was read by the Justice Minister but clearly emanated from the Prime Minister’s Office, the CBC reported: “In a brief statement to reporters shortly after Milliken's decision, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said the government ‘welcomes the possibility of a compromise while respecting our legal obligations, acknowledged by the Speaker.’ The government will not knowingly break the laws that were written and passed by Parliament,’ Nicholson said. ‘Our government will not compromise Canada's national security, nor will it jeopardize the lives of our men and women in uniform.’” (

    The possibility of compromise? Will not knowingly break the law? Will not compromise national security – as interpreted by whom?

    The tone of this statement is clearly ambiguous – and quite obviously intentionally so.

  3. penlan says:

    Thankyou David. Right now, listening to QP the answers from the P.M. on this issue are the same as you stated above. He is going to try & find a way out no matter what, I'm sure. And Baird is on the attack bringing up Adscam somewhere in every answer he gives to whatever question – typical diverting from the topic. Plus "unholy coalition" has also come up from the Cons.

    These jokers are absolutely maddening.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Gotta' give the Speaker two thumbs up!

    Totally agree about the NP, G & M, and the Suns' (first estate?) journalism!

    Great Blog. Thanks.

    T. Evans

  5. Holly Stick says:

    I wonder if it's deliberately ambiguous because Harper does not want anyone to know what he plans to do (and perhaps he doesn't know himself yet). I think Paul Wells is right about Harper's desire to be the only one who knows something, and then to spring it on people.

    Which can lead to disaster.


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