Sunday, May 25, 2014

A Visit from the Prince

Prince Charles and his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall were in the province this week, and by all reports they had a good time, and so did we. I like them both. He has a dreadful job, little privacy, and thousands of smiles to make every year. And the Duchess helps him along.
Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall

At the heart of his appeal (it seems to me) is his very genuine human-ness. He is a gracious and generous man, very concerned for the weak and damaged among us, and quite willing to use his influence when he can to help out. He has had some bad press in the past, but I think that he is past that now.

I am a great fan of the monarchy - he will be King of Canada, after all - even though he has very little power these days, but most crucially, I like the monarchy for the power that is withheld from our Prime Minister.

Mr Harper has been quite open with his contempt for Parliament, for the officers of Parliament like the Parliamentary Budget Officer, the Auditor General and the Chief Returning Officer. He treads on very dangerous ground these days as he sneers at the former Auditor General, who is widely considered to be a woman of scrupulous integrity and unimpeachable patriotism. She is on our side. So was Kevin Page, the Budget Officer, whose office, created by Mr Harper, was then starved of resources to impede his work. And now Mr Harper is sneering at Ms Audrey McLaughlin, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. His contempt for Parliament and its officer is contempt for the citizens of Canada. He shows his contempt for me, and I don't care for it.

Mr Harper is a small man.

But fortunately, Mr Harper is not President of Canada - he is Prime Minister, and he serves at the pleasure of the Queen of Canada, through her representative the Governor-General. And while I have had my suspicions about the suitability of some Governors-General that I remember, they are almost all people of intelligence, integrity, patriotism and dignity, and above all else, they take their job seriously. The first one I remember was Hon. George Vanier, and Roland Michener during our centennial years, and then M. Jules Leger, who was so ably helped by his wife Gabrielle after he fell ill. And we have had a lovely run of great appointments in the last decade. They represent the people of Canada, and our Governors-General do not forget that.

At the pleasure is a lovely phrase. The Prime Ministership is in the gift of the Monarch, and while there are rules and traditions that guide the Governor-General when dealing with Prime Ministerial requests, there is ultimately no recourse except to appeal to the Queen.

This fact consoled me when I watched that other small man of Canadian politics, Mr Mulroney, trying to ram constitutional reform through Parliament in the 1980's. The people stood up to him then, against both the Meech Lake Accord and the Charlottetown Accord, because we knew that he was so desperate for some legacy accomplishments that he was prepared to sell out some of us to please others of us. And I knew that if we could finally prevail on enough Members of Parliament to turn against him, they could force him from office.

MP Michael Chong has recently introduced a Reform Act as a private member's bill, to correct several democratic deficits caused by the excessive power of party leaders. It's a good start, but I think that MP's already have the power to force a leader out of place. There have not been many premiers or prime ministers forced out of office by their own members in recent times, although Premier Redford was forced out in Alberta this past spring, and several have been forced out in British Columbia in past years. Here in Nova Scotia John Savage was forced out by his party in 1997. And in Australia and the United Kingdom prime ministers are forced out of office by their caucuses all the time.

All it would take to force Mr Harper from office would be to have a group of Conservative MP's vote against the government (along with the opposition parties), and with that defeat the government would fall and the Prime Minister would have to visit the Governor-General and resign. If the Conservatives had a new interim leader in place, the Governor-General would ask the new leader if he would form a government, and with the existing majority the new Conservative government would enjoy the confidence of the House. And just the threat of such a move would probably force Mr Harper out. I learned all this in high school civics class, and I wasn't even paying much attention back then.

The key to all of this is the true independence of the Governor-General. Back when Mr Harper was almost defeated by the combined opposition parties he visited the Governor General and asked for prorogation of Parliament. Here is the Wikipedia account of the matter:

A prorogation of parliament took place on December 4, 2008, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper recommended Governor General Michaëlle Jean to do so after the opposition Liberal and New Democratic parties formed a coalition with the support of the Bloc Québécois party and threatened to vote non-confidence in the sitting minority government, precipitating a parliamentary dispute. The Governor General, however, did not grant her prime minister's request until after two hours of consultation with various constitutional experts. Upon the end of her tenure as vicereine, Jean revealed to the Canadian Press that the delay was partly to "send a message—and for people to understand that this warranted reflection."[8][9] It was also at the same time said by Peter H. Russell, one of those from whom Jean sought advice, that Canadians ought not regard the Governor General's decision to grant Harper's request as an automatic rubber stamp; Russell disclosed that Jean granted the prorogation on two conditions: parliament would reconvene soon and, when it did, the Cabinet would present a proposed budget, a vote on which is a confidence matter.[2] This, Russell said, set a precedent that would prevent future prime ministers from advising the prorogation of parliament "for any length of time for any reason."[10][11] Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, wrote of Harper that "no Prime Minister has so abused the power to prorogue."[12]

I like the Governor General's response. She knew who she worked for: the Queen of Canada and the people of Canada, and not the government of the day. Mr Harper did not have all the power on that day, and I have no doubt that it left him fuming.

So when Prince Charles comes calling, at Canadians' expense, I welcome him and I don't fret the paltry sum it costs to host him. He works for us, in the best possible sense of the word.

(Photo of the Prince and Duchess from the Halifax Herald. Used without permission.)

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