Canadian Parliamentary Democracy in a time of crisis

Canada’s parliamentary democracy works, even during a major crisis. Not perfectly, sure; the fact that our parliament cannot work remotely to discuss and vote on bills is very problematic, particularly during this crisis, when the whole House of Commons cannot sit together in the Chamber. So last week, when the Trudeau Government needed the authority to put together an emergency aid funds package in response to the economic toll this crisis has taken on our country, they were forced to call a small number of MPs (32, representing each party in rough proportion to their numbers in the current parliament) in order to pass the legislation which, among other important measures:

  • $15 billion in emergency income support measures for individuals who have to stay home or who have been laid off, but who do not qualify for employment insurance or sick leave.
  • $305 million more funds for Indigenous communities.

This was stalled yesterday when the opposition parties balked at one of the government’s proposed measures: granting the government the authority to “borrow, tax, and spend” on any measure relating to this crisis, for 21 months. Understandably, opposition parties were worried. In our Westminster Constitutional system, raising money and spending money is the responsibility of Parliament, and not the executive. It can be difficult to see this in Canada’s normal political world, as our party system has become so rigid that backbench MPs rarely stand up to their leadership, but constitutionally, it is still parliament that has the sole authority to approve a government’s spending and tax measures. Governments are accountable to our democratically elected House of Commons.

King Charles I of England, Scotland, and Ireland

In the 1600s, a conflict between the legislative branch (parliament) and the executive (the King and his ministers) in England broke out into a civil war, which saw the King of England, Scotland, and Ireland beheaded and a brief tenure of military dictatorship in England. King Charles I wanted to rule without parliament, but parliament insisted that they retain control of the nation’s purse. Today, our Sovereign does not govern, but instead by convention appoints someone from the House of Commons (almost always the leader of the largest party) to lead Her Majesty’s Government – in Canada, that is currently Prime Minister Trudeau. The opposition parties (New Democrats, Greens, Conservatives, and Bloc Quebecois) were weary of granting Trudeau the authority to raise money and spend it how he pleased for 21 months without any parliamentary oversight.

Canada’s House of Commons, temporarily housed in West Block

When the House did reconvene Tuesday, the government and the opposition parties immediately entered negotiations to find a solution. The government maintained that they needed some authority to raise and spend money on their own during this crisis. Events are unfolding quickly, as the House of Commons cannot sit (and refuse to institute remote voting), having to recall a limited parliament every few weeks to approve new spending measures isn’t really feasible going forward, if Canada is going to manage this crisis effectively. Crucially, our democratic system relies on the ability of the House of Commons to hold the executive to account. When the executive was a powerful early modern King in Britain, this was the case. Now that executive authority is wielded by the Cabinet, it is still the case. Andrew Scheer, the leader of the opposition, maintained that our system saw us through previous health crises, as well as the two World Wars. While true, it should be remembered that during the World Wars, parliament was able to sit and could be relied upon to pass measures the government needed for the war effort. Currently, it cannot.

Hours into the negotiating process, the BQ leader angrily denounced the delay, and urged the Prime Minister to push the bill through without opposition support. In order to pass, a bill need only received 50% plus one percent of the members voting – and the BQ promised their support, enough to give the minority Liberal government a majority – but the normal parliamentary process is lengthy, and the only way to pass the legislation quickly (as is being done now) is to secure unanimous support. On the contentious matter of the increased spending power, the BQ leader remarked that the government should have additional powers during this time, but that it should be limited to a period of a few months.

But still, the government and opposition MPs negotiated through the night, and this morning passed the emergency aid bill. The federal government was granted a 6 month authority to raise and spend money related to this crisis. Faced with an unprecedented crisis and a major dispute between the government and opposition parties, over a matter of democratic accountability, a compromise was reached. The bill should receive Royal Assent tonight, and the government can get to work getting emergency funds out to Canadians who need them.

Our democratic system is not perfect. Those who know me know I am a huge fan of the Westminster parliamentary model, but I recognize that it has many flaws. New Zealand, for example, demonstrates that you can have a Westminster parliamentary system, under a Constitutional Monarch, but that allows for voting by a Proportional Representation model, which is infinitely more democratic than the First Past the Post model we continue to use (thanks, Trudeau…). But last night’s proceedings showed that our system works, and can come together in a moment of crisis. It is easy to become frustrated and turned off by politics – it is messy and often, little gets done. But times like these remind us why politics, and our elected officials, matter. And in Canada, we are, on the whole, well served by both.

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