Commentary | Harper: breakin’ his promises, one law at a time

Hyde Park

Does our Prime Minister have the right to disregard his own piece of legislation?

In the past, Prime Ministers have had the advantage of choosing the timing for elections. Stephen Harper relinquished this right with his amendment of Bill C-16 in 2006, setting elections to fixed four-year intervals.

With Harper’s minority government now set to hold a vote only three years after it was elected, his actions have been widely denounced as hypocritical by both the opposition and non-partisan commentators.

According to the Conservatives, Bill C-16 was intended to strengthen democracy by preventing governments from calling what Harper described as “snap elections for short-term political advantages.”

The bill stated that an election could only be called in the event of a parliamentary vote of non-confidence, or in other extraordinary circumstances.

Though Harper claims this election will help to do away with parliamentary inefficiency, the Conservatives have been able to successfully push forward the bulk of their legislation.

If Parliament were really paralyzed, the Conservatives would have lost a confidence vote by now, and an election would have already been called.

But this hasn’t happened, and the strategic advantages for calling the election a year early could be enormous for the Conservatives. Recent polls indicate Harper could very well win a majority government, the Liberal party remains in virtual hibernation since the sponsorship scandal, and the Canadian economy seems poised for a severe downturn before the year’s end.

So again, the fundamental question is: does Harper have the legal right to call an election?

Since constitutional law supersedes parliamentary law, the Governor General retains the right to call an election at any time. That being the case, Michaëlle Jean’s acceptance of Harper’s request to dissolve Parliament may be a slight of parliamentary power, yet it’s not unconstitutional.

Jean has been placed in a compromising position that her predecessors have never before experienced. The constitution requires the Governor General’s actions be based on the Prime Minister’s “advice.” In practice, this has meant the Governor General acts solely on this “advice,” making the position more of an official rubber stamp.

Since the Governor General has accepted the Prime Minister’s request, it seems a precedent has been established. Because the party that created Bill C-16 has capitalized on this bureaucratic loophole, there is nothing stopping future governments from doing the same. Thus, Harper’s actions have essentially nullified the bill he initially enacted in so-called defence of democracy.

Because of the Governor General’s symbolic nature, many analysts have suggested Jean has no right to stop the Prime Minister if he wishes to supersede Parliament. They maintain voters should be left to decide whether Harper overstepped any boundaries or not.

The only way to close the loophole would be through the never-ending process of a constitutional amendment.

Patrick Wight is a Concordia University student. This article originally appeared in the Canadian University Press, a non-profit cooperative of student newspapers.


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