Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is being criticized for not having a vote in Parliament to “authorize” the deployment of a military (and police and civilc service?) force to, presumably, Africa. John Ivison, writing in the National Post, says, quite correctly, that “There is no requirement for any Canadian government to seek the authorization of the House of Commons before sending troops overseas, but,” he adds, “while it may not be necessary, it would be desirable.” Equally, Brian Gable, drawing in the Globe and Mail, suggests that the prime minister is, somehow or other, subverting democracy:
I understand that Prime Minister Harper called for votes to approve military mission abroad, but it was not, in my opinion, a good precedent to set. Mr Ivison says that, “to duck a vote on an African deployment would reverse years of political convention established by that great scourge of all things democratic, Stephen Harper,” but he goes on to remind us that “The former prime minister may have had his own reasons for bringing the Afghan mission to a vote in 2006, not least of which was a desire to split the Liberal Party (which it duly did).“
I’m sorry to say that Prime Minister Harper was wrong, and Prime Minister Trudeau is right not to continue his “convention.”. The correct precedent to follow is, as John Ivison says, that “previous Liberal governments had held “take note” debates but not voted on deployment,” and that is how it should be now. Mr Ivision quotes Churchill: ““I am,” he used to say, with uncharacteristic humility, “the servant of the House of Commons.”” It is very true that Churchill reported to the House of Commons regularly but he did not ask or allow the House to set the grand strategy or “manage” the conduct of campaigns. He was well aware that both were executive responsibilities.
Two important constitutional factors apply:
First, the executive, the Queen in Council, which really means the cabinet, has the authority, which it should not share, to deploy armed forces where and when the situation demands; then
Second, Parliament has the sole, exclusive right and duty to approve or withhold the funds necessary to allow the executive to do as it wishes/needs.
It is a finely balanced system, much more finely tuned than the crude, written “checks and balances” system we see South of the border. The English Constitution, (a little book written in 1873 is still be most authoritative reference) which underlies our (quite unnecessary) Constitution Acts of 1867 and 1982, is a masterpiece of political management science, and it applies to us.
So what should Prime Minister Trudeau do?
- First, hold a “take note” debate to tell Parliament what the government, the executive, the Queen in Council, is doing ~ and that means it is not asking Parliament’s permission to deploy troops. But this allows parliamentarians to express their opinions, on the record, on the issue;
- Second, when the budget is brought down, the budget implementation bills (the plural matters) should be presented in a series, each being a “confidence” motion, related to spending “envelopes,” perhaps, just as an example:
- Foreign and defence;
- Health and social services;
- Police, prisons, borders and security;
- Infrastructure and transfers to provinces;
- Agriculture fisheries and resources;
- Miscellaneous and other government programmes; and
- Debts and statutory obligations.
That would be constitutionally proper and it, unlike fiddling with how we vote, would really so something to “restore democracy” by giving Parliament (and the people) even greater oversight of the budget, envelope by envelope.
For over 1,000 years we, Anglo-Saxons, have held the monarch (the executive, the prime minister and cabinet, today) to account by controlling the purse strings. It makes us unique, different from the historic French, Germans, Italians and Spaniards who, generally, used force to “contain” or “constrain” executive power. For 750 years, ever since Simon de Montfort, we have ensured that “the people,” in their communities, have that voice through their parliament. It is what Justin Trudeau should do: use the executive power he has and allow Parliament to use its power of the purse to balance it. It is the right thing to do and it is the right way to so it.