Canadians want to put down some ground rules for their elected officials, according to a recent Harris/Decima survey conducted for Your Canada, Your Constitution (YCYC)
According to the survey, 84 percent of Canadians want the powers of the prime minister and the premiers restricted with clear, enforceable, written rules, while only 9 percent disagree.
That sentiment comes as provincial legislatures across the country sit idle, with many not returning from Christmas break anytime soon. British Columbia and Ontario, two of the more active legislatures, have been closed as their governments face mounting opposition.
YCYC is a national education foundation created to spur debate about Canada’s constitution, implicitly with the goal of seeing it revised.
Through the survey, the group asked Canadians, whether unwritten constitutional conventions— such as when the PM and premiers can open and close Parliament or what measures can be included in omnibus bills—should be written down in a clear, enforceable way.
These unwritten conventions include what counts as a confidence vote in the House of Commons. While budget bills are clearly confidence votes, and any government that fails to pass one would fall and face an election, it is uncertain what other bills would count as confidence votes.
This means that during minority parliaments, Canadians and MPs themselves cannot be entirely sure what bills the government must pass to ensure it doesn’t fall. During opposition efforts to amend the last two omnibus budgets, there was uncertainty over whether those amendments votes forced by opposition parties counted as confidence motions or not.
“In most countries in the world, including Britain, Australia, and New Zealand, these rules are written down so the powers of their politicians are clearly defined and restricted, and so the rules can be enforced,” notes part of the question YCYC put to Canadians.
A significant majority of 2,013 respondents, some 84 percent, said they want these rules defined. Support ranged from 80 to 90 percent across the country, male and female, from 18 to over 65, and across income brackets.
It would just be bizarre if a lot of political leaders did not pick up on this national consensus.
— Duff Conacher, Your Canada, Your Constitution
Approximately half the respondents strongly agreed, with 33 percent to 46 percent agreeing.
While 7 to 10 percent disagreed, only 2 to 4 percent strongly disagreed.
Duff Conacher, coordinator for YCYC, says that with such overwhelming support, any opposition party would be wise to push for such reforms.
“Given the survey results, any political leader who takes steps to write down the rules will be applauded by almost every Canadian,” he said.
“It would just be bizarre if a lot of political leaders did not pick up on this national consensus.”
YCYC’s statement on the survey points out that the issue has continued over several controversies in recent years.
“For the past decade, arbitrary opening and shutting down of parliament by the prime minister and premiers, snap elections, omnibus budget bills, questionable votes of confidence, and questionable pre- and post-election moves by various political party leaders across Canada, have caused huge controversies that have been left unresolved, with constitutional experts arguing about whether the unwritten constitutional conventions were followed or violated,” the statement says.
Conacher is calling on political leaders to write down these rules. That can be done through legislation or resolution. Legislation would mean changing the Parliament of Canada Act and the Elections Act at the federal level, and provincial legislature acts at the provincial level.
Another option is asking the parties to agree to a resolution of the written rules.
“The key is just to write them down and have the parties agree to it,” Conacher said.
That could be done relatively easily in Ontario and Quebec, he said, due to the minority parliaments being dominated by opposition parties that would benefit more from the changes.
But for it to work, Conacher noted the rules would need to be clear and specific, otherwise they become unenforceable, like the amendments to the Canada Elections Act that were intended to fix election dates.
Conacher says promising democratic reform is crucial for any party that wants to increase it support or win power.
A spokesperson for Tim Uppal, Minister of State (Democratic Reform), declined to comment on unwritten constitutional conventions, but said the government is working to increase accountability and transparency through Senate reform and tightening the rules around political financing.
The NDP’s democratic reform critic, Craig Scott, did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
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