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Law profs mull over constitution

An open letter to Governor General Michaëlle Jean signed by 35 academic constitutional experts is calling on Her Excellency to request that the leader of the opposition form a government should Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative minority be defeated in a vote of confidence.

Citing displays from a majority of Members of Parliament to support a government led by the Official Leader of the Opposition that began last December and continue today, the experts recommend that the Queen’s representative take action.

“It is our opinion that in the event of a non-confidence vote or a request for dissolution of Parliament after only 13 sitting days of the House of Commons, the Governor General would be well-advised to call the leader of the opposition to attempt to form a government,” read the letter.

Three of the signatories met at a Université de Montreal (U de M) panel last week to discuss the events that led up to Jean’s prorogation of Parliament at Harper’s request on December 4, since he was facing a vote on a non-confidence motion over the country’s economic strategy.

All three francophone panelists agreed that Harper’s actions lacked legitimacy, and their arguments offered a glimpse into the psyche of Quebec society, which, according to polls, favoured a coalition government more than any other province.

Stéphane Beaulac, UdeM law professor, said Harper’s decision to ask for a prorogation of Parliament was an “abuse of procedure,” because it effectively closed what he called the most democratic of our institutions.

“He did indirectly what he couldn’t directly do: hold on to power,” said Beaulac.

Worse, Beaulac said, was that instead of using his authority during this parliamentary hiatus to preside over a “caretaker government” that wouldn’t make any serious decisions, Harper decided to appoint 18 senators and confirm a Supreme Court judge.

Beaulac worried that by granting Harper a prorogation without publicizing her rationale, the Governor General set a precedent binding all Governor Generals to the word of the Prime Minister, when constitutionally this isn’t the case, something panelist Hugo Cyr, a law professor at Université de Québec à Montreal, agreed with.

“Without a majority support, he has absolutely no authority to govern, because the people of this country didn’t vote for him directly,” said Cyr, adding that the Conservatives cannot consider the results of last election as a “win.”

“Harper has to look at it as if he now has the right to try and get the support of Parliament,” he said.

The third panelist, Maxime St-Hilaire, who is pursuing his PhD in law at the University of Laval, compared Canada’s system with other parliamentary and semi-presidential systems in Europe.

St-Hilaire described what he considers the ideal parliamentary system – one in which Parliament would govern, the head of state would be apolitical and have the sole authority to dissolve Parliament according to clearly defined rules.

The panelists all expressed hope the Governor General’s reasoning will be made public when she opens the second session of the 40th Parliament today at 1:30 p.m with a Speech from the Throne.

The budget will be introduced Tuesday, but any votes on the budget or the reply to the throne speech, which will be confidence motions, will likely not take place until next week at the earliest.