Friday, May 27, 2005

Canada's Political "Nuclear Option"

I saw a news report the other day that England's Queen Lizardbreath II is in Canada, and her protocol staff were having a bit of a sticky wicket: the current Prime Minister, Paul Martin from Québec, was about to face a no-confidence vote (he seems to have survived, by the way). Just in case Kim Campbell ("I don't mean to be boring, but I actually was the Prime Minister in a Parliamentary system.") is reading, let me explain to you how the Canadian system works.

The Prime Minister is the leader of the party with the most seats in Parliament. (If nobody has 50%, then the top party will form a coalition with one or more smaller parties.) A motion of no confidence means that the Parliament has lost faith in the current ministers (the Cabinet, including the Prime Minister). If the motion carries, the government steps down and calls new elections for the entire Parliament. If the motion fails (or if a motion of confidence carries), the government continues in power.

The tricky part is what the Queen would do if the vote of no confidence had carried with all the proper formalities. The Queen is the head of state in Canada; the Prime Minister is the head of government. However, even moreso than the Queen remains carefully neutral in British politics, she must not give even a whiff of favouritism to one party or another. (She is, after all, a foreigner.) Thus, any public appearances by the Queen would have to be carefully coördinated to balance any political advantage. Even an appearance with a provincial official would need close scrutiny to avoid favouring any party.

The thing is, I said that the Prime Minister "seems to have survived"; I didn't say he actually won the vote. In fact, he lost. The Parliament carried (essentially) a motion of no-confidence, and Canada was suspended in nine days of legal limbo until Martin engineered a deal allowing a motion of confidence to pass. In essence, a motion amending a bill before the Parliament passed, saying that the Parliament has lost confidence in the government. However, the bill itself did not pass until the amendment was removed, although that took 9 days. That's rather complicated for those of us who've never been to Ottawa, so let me give you the American translation: See Paul Martin. See Paul lose a Very Important Vote in the Parliament. See Paul get very sad. See Paul spend 9 days figuring out a way to change the rules. See Paul stay in power. Paul is now very happy.

Lest any Yanks think I'm bashing the Busheviks again, I should point out that Martin is the head of the Liberal Party. The only commonality between Martin's Liberals and Bush's Republicans is a willingness to do anything to hold onto power. Not lightly do I side with an Alberta Tory over a Québec Liberal. It's the Liberals who have been driving the push for gay marriage equality, and Alberta is one of the holdout provinces. Gays can get married in Saskatchewan and Newfoundland, but not in Alberta.

So what is this "nuclear option" I spoke of? The Queen has the ceremonial power to recognise a Prime Minister. What if the Queen spoke out and said that, on the advice of the Governor General, she is recognising the vote of no-confidence from May 10th and calling a new election for [date X]? That would be an extreme measure, in many ways more extreme than Bill Frist's musings. It is also a measure that could only be used once, so the target would have to be unmistakable. I don't think Canada has yet reached that brink, but I would caution Martin that the legal technicalities by which to not call an early election must be balanced against the difficulties of ruling without a mandate. You are on ground as shaky as Bush v. Gore, and you don't have Team America on your side.

(I was born in "Canada's 11th Province," the erstwhile Republic of Texas. I thus claim the perfect knowledge of Canadian politics that is my birthright.)