“So, what can be done about this Rump government? Are there provisions in our constitution to declare our pm incompetent? Have him investigated for treason? Force parliament to sit?”
This series of questions arrived in an email. Over the last few months, I have heard or read variations on these thoughts as questions or statements by Canadians with differing measures of influence over others. Here are some of my thoughts in response.
- What can we do about Canada’s Rump Parliament?
As mentioned in a previous blog, the term “Rump Parliament” arose out of the 1648 incident in which English elites seized control of their Parliament. They wanted neither to concern themselves with the interests and interventions of common people nor to be constrained from spending freely or taxing as they saw fit. Once in control, the opposition was barred from exercising Parliamentary functions. The goal then became holding on to political power for as long as possible, without accountability for its use.
When Canada’s federal Liberal, NDP, Bloc and Green parties voted on April 20 to suspend the House of Commons until May 25 in favour of a special committee on Covid-19, opposition parties were stripped of most of their Parliamentary powers. One vital power was retained. The constitutional authority they refused to turn over to the government in the special sitting of the House held March 24 to pass the initial Covid-19 emergency expenditures. That day, the opposition parties denied the Government the control it sought to spend and tax until December 2021 without need of Parliamentary approval.
Another important power is held by the Trudeau Government. The authority to summons Parliament to an otherwise unscheduled sitting, and to set the agenda for such sitting. This constitutional power has been used to call the House and Senate to meet in order to debate spending measures previously announced by the Prime Minister from what Rex Murphy has called the “Tent of Commons” on the front steps of Rideau Cottage where Mr. Trudeau lives.
Thus, the question presented prior to the scheduled sitting on May 25 was whether the almost unbridled political power held by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet would result in a brief Rump Parliament, ending it on that day, or an extended Rump.
One influence of the new People’s Party of Canada, started by former Conservative leadership hopeful Maxime Bernier, is results in ridings it influenced in the 2019 election provided the Liberal Party with a large enough minority to secure a vote in the House with the support of any one of the Conservative, NDP or Bloc parties.
Support provided by the NDP on May 25 enabled the Trudeau Government to continue virtually unopposed until September 21. Parliament will not sit unless summonsed by the prime minister. The interests of a broad number of Canadians will not be represented in the House of Commons or Senate. The decisions of Mr. Trudeau and his cabinet will be unimpeded by Canada’s silent houses of Parliament. The special Covid-19 committee will meet in the House of Commons chamber, portraying the false image that Parliament is meeting. Smoke and mirrors? Or, bait and switch?
So, what can Canadians do?
“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” (1 Timothy 2:1-2)
Former Leader of the Opposition Stockwell Day has said, in a democracy when we pray for those in authority it includes ‘we the people’ to whom our political leaders are accountable.
Canada’s democracy is still in the hands of the electorate.
Canadians can contact elected Members of Parliament and Senators in writing and by phone (not likely in person at this point because of emergency health measures) to express the plea that Parliament sit. It’s easy to find online the contact information for politicians you would like to have read your words, whether snail mail, email or social media. Use those words effectively, not just emotively.
You can reach parliamentarians through social media, but use it wisely. Beware the rabbit holes of unsubstantiated opinions and conspiracy theories, as well as the sin-trap of unrestrained expressions of anger. I have written more on that here.
There will likely soon be a petition on the parliamentary website providing formal opportunity to request Parliament’s return. Add your name. [Note: I won’t sign an e-petition to Parliament found elsewhere than ourcommons.ca as it is likely being used to collect personal information and may not be properly formatted to be admissible in Parliament.] [UPDATE: Link to petition e-2629]
While all provinces and territories have placed limits on numbers of people who may assemble, peaceful public demonstration requesting Parliament’s return is an option. I have shared more detailed thoughts on considerations for public demonstration here.
And Parliament itself? The Government has not presented a budget, so must call Parliament to sit before the end of June to consider expenditures required to keep government services operating. If the opposition parties vote against the Government’s proposal, the Government will be defeated and an election will follow. Of course, the result of an election would be a new Parliament of unknown composition. I’m confident the current measures would not have been undertaken by a majority government as it would have been unmistakably seen to be a power grab. Would a majority for one party or another result from a summer election?
Some regard the current situation as brilliant political gamesmanship by the minority Liberal Government, but even most journalists have come to recognize the situation as disdain for Parliament and Canada’s constitutional governance conventions.
The typical Canadian, however, pays little attention to politics (let alone parliamentary convention). 34% of eligible voters did not vote in 2019. What percentage of the 66% who did vote based their decision on factors other than proposals of the various parties to address issues facing the country? Always voted for a particular party, perhaps even as their parents before them? Voted based on impression of the leaders from social media or snippets in traditional media? Voted based on candidate’s appearance?
These and other questions remain.
Who engages with Canada’s democratic institutions? Which citizens participate in the candidate selection process? Who are, or will be, the candidates? Which Canadians do and will inform themselves? Who votes? We see minimal levels of commitment in all those areas despite efforts of government, media, political parties, and neighbours to encourage greater participation. Canada’s democracy is in the hands of the electorate. Those who participate determine who governs the nation.
- Are there provisions in our constitution to declare our prime minister incompetent?
With the flow of information Canadians encounter about American politics, including provisions on competence and succession for their president, this is comprehensibly asked about Canada’s prime minister. The answer to the question is no. Political parties, however, have the authority to replace their leaders. It is possible for the governing party to replace its leader and thus replace the prime minister.
This suggests another action Canadians can take. Beginning with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, political power has been increasingly centralized in the Prime Minister’s Office. Parliamentarians have been subject to party discipline measures that inhibit to varying degrees their ability to represent constituents or to replace a leader. MP Michael Chong introduced procedural legislation intended to restore more authority to MPs, but it has been paid little attention. Citizens, however, can request that MPs exercise greater freedom to act in the interests of constituents over the interests of political parties.
As I wrote in my book Church in Society: First-Century Citizenship Lessons for Twenty-First-Century Christians,
Politics is supposed to be about people, and governance can be about serving people or about wielding power over them. Surprisingly, the two can co-exist. I know Members of Parliament who delight in serving their constituents. The seduction of power, however, particularly the importance of winning to hold on to power, may interfere with a servant’s heart.
Elected officials benefit from being occasionally reminded their responsibility is to look out for the best interests of all citizens, from sea to sea to sea – Indigenous, immigrant, and those of us Canadians who simply don’t know any other home, whatever our ethnic heritage.
- Are there provisions in our constitution to have the prime minister investigated for treason?
While section 46 of the Criminal Code of Canada sets out the crime of high treason, Prime Minister Trudeau has (to my knowledge) not engaged in activity you will find listed there.
Six weeks after the 2008 election, Prime Minister Stephen Harper prorogued Parliament in early December. His minority government was under threat from an agreement between the opposition Liberal, NDP and Bloc parties. As a result, the House of Commons was adjourned for a total of six days of scheduled sittings and returned on its scheduled date in January, at which time a new Speech from the Throne was presented. The Conservative minority governed two more years before the 2011 election.
People who disagreed with the Harper Government made claims of treason and expressed ‘apocalyptic’ statements about Canadian democracy similar to those being made from the other side of the political spectrum today.
Recently, for the second government in a row, some have been positing and posting their thoughts on history, suggesting current behaviour as mimicking that of Hitler’s national socialists in Germany or Mussolini’s national fascists in Italy. Voter disinterest and seizing control of the respective parliaments in Europe are alleged to be common indicators. Realistically, even if the current (or previous) Government had eyes set on absolute political control, Canada has constitutional protections and divisions of power in place that would prevent success; and, Canada lacks the military or police enforcement capacity for such an attempt to succeed.
Disagreement about politics or political tactics is not a signal that Canada’s democracy has collapsed or is in danger of collapsing, or that a prime minister is attempting to become fuhrer, duce or dictator.
Nonetheless, disregard, disrespect, or derision for institutions at the heart of our democracy, particularly the national Parliament, is disquieting.
- Are there provisions in our constitution to force parliament to sit?”
Yes. Section 5 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms states,
There shall be a sitting of Parliament and of each legislature at least once every twelve months.
That minimum standard has been met by Canada’s Parliament. The House has had 31 sitting days, and the Senate 17, so far in 2020. Only seven House sitting days (four for the Senate) have been held since Parliament rose on March 13, intending a temporary break to deal with Covid-19, scheduled to return on April 20. Three of those seven days were debate on the return of Parliament. The other four were to debate hundreds of billions of dollars in government borrowing and expenditures. All post-March 13 sittings have included Government use of closure to time-limit debate.
The House is scheduled to sit for four hours on June 17 to debate the projected expenditure of $190 billion dollars required to keep federal government services operational. The Senate will sit for two hours of debate if the bill is passed.
As noted above, even most traditional media journalists (covering the political spectrum from left to right) have caught on that what is taking place is a troubling disrespect for the democratic institution of Parliament and the responsible representation of the Canadian people for which we elect MPs.
So what’s the answer?
The answer to Canadians’ concerns is not the seeking of a constitutional loophole. The Trudeau Government has already gone that route.
The answer is not to blame the behaviour of politicians, or necessarily who is in the prime minister’s chair (although their ambitions and decisions are evident contributors to today’s predicament).
The answer is to be found in identifying who is participating in Canada’s democratic processes. Participation determines who sits in the seats of political leadership, and for how long. Our own involvement is key to what you and I can do to prevent this from happening again in Canada’s democracy beyond the current Rump Parliament.