Prime Minister’s powers could be written down

Letter to the Editor by Duff Conacher, Spokesperson for Your Canada, Your Constitution, July 30, 2012

While many people, including constitutional experts, may disagree with the proposed new governance rules Lori Turnbull, Mark Jarvis and Peter Aucoin set out in their book Democratizing the Constitution (“The Prime Minister is far more powerful than he should be”, The Hill Times, July 23), the key point is that events over the past decade or so have shown that there is no agreement on whether there are restrictions on the Prime Minister’s powers to call elections, shut down and open Parliament, and designate what is a vote of confidence whenever s/he wants.

Some constitutional experts believe that the Governor General has the power to say no to the Prime Minister in certain situations, and other experts believe the Governor General has the power to say no in other situations, and others believe the Governor General never has the power to say no.

The problem is, the experts are arguing about what unwritten rules (so-called “constitutional conventions”) say and mean — and so of course they can believe whatever they want because no one can point to a written rule that clearly says they are wrong.

So, as proposed in Democratizing the Constitution, it seems to make sense that all the federal political parties write down the rules so it will be clear to everyone when the Governor General can say no, and what happens before and after elections, and what a vote of confidence is.

Writing down these rules has made sense to most politicians in most countries, including in parliamentary democracies like Britain, Australia and New Zealand, either in the constitution, or in a law, or as a written convention.

It also makes sense to most Canadians. A recent survey of 2,030 adult Canadians conducted by Harris-Decima for Your Canada, Your Constitution found that 65% want clear rules written down for these key government areas, not only for the federal government but also by provincial governments, lieutenant governors and premiers.

One point not addressed by the book is the enforcement process for the rules. The survey also found that 65% of Canadians want the rules to be enforced by the Supreme Court of Canada.

This Letter to the Editor was published in The Hill Times.