If We Forget We Elect Legislators, Not Governments, We’re in Trouble

February 22, 2022 Updated: February 23, 2022


People had endless fun mocking Ottawa “Freedom Convoy” protesters’ limited grasp of how government works. That infamous “Memorandum of Understanding” did more work than the lonely Confederate flag briefly visible on the first day in substituting scorn for understanding. But it’s sobering to reflect on how little the critics know either.

Including about the weird class divide here. Two recent thoughtful pieces about “Virtuals” v “Physicals” (Ross Douthat, New York Times) or “Practicals” (N.S. Lyons, Substack) contrast sadly with the obtuse performance of many Canadian journalists so firmly in the Virtual camp they don’t know there are other points of view. But if the Virtuals are better at arranging abstract notions into plausible configurations, and the Physicals at arranging concrete objects into effective ones, the former should at least be pretty good at constitutional theory.

Instead, a major Canadian newspaper generally conspicuous for good sense as well as diversity of views, for which I write, editorialized on Feb. 19: “claims by some who are opposed to the current government that it is an authoritarian regime are completely false. Canadians were given the opportunity to vote for a new government in September and this is the one they chose.” Which is rubbish.

Not the first part. It is both true and strangely urgent given overheated cries of “tyranny” from various quarters. But the second is bizarre.

Sure, we had a federal election in September and sure, it was fair. A few glitches don’t invalidate a vote though we must be vigilant. But Canadians don’t elect “governments.” Or prime ministers, or for that matter judges. What we did in September of 2021 is the only thing we ever do in such cases: we elected legislators, riding by riding.

As I’ve observed before, to ignorant catcalls from Virtuals, our government consists of three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial, as our Constitution clearly stipulates. And God help us if they all start working in league rather than in dynamic tension, by the way.

No. Not by the way. Crucially. Casual use of terms like “the Trudeau government” or “the Ford government” undermine liberty because, as Richard Weaver put it with admirable brevity, “ideas have consequences.” So if we forget what we elect, and why, we’re in a heap of trouble.

You cannot be elected dog-catcher in Canada. Or, ironically, anywhere in the United States. There you can be elected judge and even in a few places police chief, one more check on executive power admirable in principle but trivial in practice. Unlike legislative elections.

If you look at the history of self-government in Canada, as I’ve advised convoy supporters to do and now advise their critics, for instance by watching my documentaries, you discover that from Magna Carta on, the critical feature of Anglosphere effective self-government is that the one branch we the people choose restrains the ones we don’t. Primarily the executive historically, though frankly the judiciary increasingly needs scrutiny too.

Another commentator I regard as sensible, an endorsement he might squirm to avoid, tweeted about the Emergencies Act debate: “In almost any other country, the reduction of the legislature to a device for popular veto would be properly regarded as a sign that the veto won’t last much longer.” Au contraire, I respond. In French, since no English king could speak a sentence in English from 1066 until Edward III (reigned 1327–77), by which point Magna Carta was firmly entrenched as above statute law and read aloud in all English cathedrals twice a year to make sure everyone knew their rights, and a separate House of Commons was wresting control of spending from monarch and Lords, a process vaguely promised in Clause 12 of the original 1215 charter and formally completed by 1415.

The whole point of the legislature is to give a popular veto over executive actions, primarily via the “power of the purse.” It’s why we elect legislators. They, and they alone, speak for us in “government,” including deciding who gets to serve as Her Majesty’s first minister and whether that person can declare a state of emergency and seize our bank accounts on suspicion of “unacceptable views.”

If you believe me, and you should, our crucial governmental task today is to restore the legislature as a veto on the executive. And the key initial step is vote for MPs who see themselves as a restraint on the ministry, not its enablers, and govern themselves accordingly. No. Wait. Ideas first. So the key initial step is to understand why MPs must perform that role, and increasingly do not.

Many convoy participants were better with power tools than the separation of powers. And the clevers ridiculed them mercilessly for such misplaced priorities, while making a worse mess of constitutional theory than they would shifting gears in a big rig.

Everyone needs to do better.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

John Robson
John Robson is a documentary filmmaker, National Post columnist, contributing editor to the Dorchester Review, and executive director of the Climate Discussion Nexus. His most recent documentary is “The Environment: A True Story.”