Blame Canada

Canadian Governor-General Michaelle Jean has acceeded to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s request to prorogue Parliament until January. Harper’s Conservatives have a minority government: the Opposition Liberals, New Democrats (social democrats/socialists) and Bloc Quebecois together have a majority of sears. They are furious over Harper’s refusal to enact a budget stimulus and his ham-handed attempts to cut their government funding. So they threatened to topple the government on a no-confidence vote.

Josh Marshall calls this a “constitutional coup,” which I think is quite wrong: it’s perfectly legitimate in a parliamentary system. It’s just been rare in Canada, which used to have a stable two-party system, but now seems to resemble a more multipolar model.

So Harper got Jean to shut down Parliament, which will buy him time to change the budget, back off of the politics, and hopefully get the thing to blow over.

Harper has long had the reputation as a partisan hack–imagine if Karl Rove were President–so this comes as no surprise. As Marshall writes, “he’s just shut the legislature down so it can’t do anything.”

The interesting theoretical question here is: why did Jean go along with this? I think that this reflects a lacuna in the theory of parliamentary democracy. If you’re the Governor-General, what is the “democratic” thing to do? Listen to the elected Prime Minister and prorogue, or see where the votes are in Parliament and stay out of it?

Marshall also distorts the matter by noting (accurately) that Jean was technically “appointed” by the Queen. True enough, but she was recommended (and thus actually appointed) by the former Prime Minister, Liberal Paul Martin. She doesn’t seem to be a hack; she’s just trying to figure out what her role is, which as I suggested, isn’t really clear.

I suspect that this will not help Harper: the next few weeks of economic news are going to be bad, and Parliament will just be AWOL. And pushing for prorogation will make him look like a petty bully, which he is.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.