PARLIAMENTARY DEMOCRACY: THE MCTEAGUE REBELLION
MP's ruse defeated; God save the Queen
by NEIL REYNOLDS
OTTAWA -- Off to the tower with Liberal MP Dan McTeague. Off to the dungeon with the 155 Opposition MPs who joined his treacherous uprising against one of the most important principles of parliamentary democracy. As for Commons Speaker Peter Milliken, off with his head. Without this procedurally expert Liberal co-conspirator, the McTeague Rebellion would have gotten nowhere.
As it happened, the insurrection ended peaceably last week, with Her Majesty's advisers in control. Prime Minister Stephen Harper had successfully defended 300 years of responsible government - though it was a close run affair. God save the Queen.
Mr. McTeague instigated the insurrection with his private member's bill to establish a registered education savings plan (RESP) that would give parents the right to shelter $5,000 a year of their incomes, tax-free, for each child in the family - to a limit of $50,000. Mr. Milliken ruled that the bill was proper, that it was not a money bill - though deleting the dollar signs would have rendered the bill pointless. Sensing an opportunity to gang up on the minority Conservative government, all three Opposition parties united to approve it.
The Crown (which effectively means the cabinet) has held exclusive responsibility for the financial management of the State since Dec. 11, 1706, when - during the reign of Queen Anne, the last of the Stuarts - the British House of Commons passed this motion: "This House will receive no petition for any sum of money relating to public services but what is recommended by [Her Majesty]." This is the principle that formally separates the executive branch of government from the legislative branch. This is the principle that prevents the Legislature from looting the Treasury.
Canada adopted many of Britain's parliamentary traditions and procedures, prominent among them this essential concept of "royal recommendation." But first it experimented. Between 1800 and 1840, a time (incidentally) of cheap whisky, the legislative assembly of Upper Canada allowed individual members to initiate public expenditures, requiring only that they muster majorities of members to support them. They did freely, in other words, what Dan McTeague did nefariously.
Members of the Upper Canada assembly predictably proceeded to form blocs, alliances large enough to approve the release of public funds to family, friends and constituents - as well as to the taverns and the soup kitchens of the province where electors could be bribed. Attorney-General John Beverly Robinson described the anarchic practice at the time: "[Expenditure] measures are taken up by any of the members indifferently."
In the days that Britain paid all the colony's bills, this didn't matter. When Britain stopped paying, it did matter. Taxes increased, along with political tensions. When Lord Durham arrived from Britain in 1839 to investigate the reasons, he was aghast to learn that Upper Canada had abandoned "royal recommendation." His observation was astute.
"The prerogative of the Crown, which is constantly exercised in Great Britain for the protection of the people, ought never be waived in the colonies," he wrote. "The prerogative of the Crown [can] protect the public interests, now frequently sacrificed in the scramble for local appropriations, which chiefly serve to give undue influence to particular individuals and parties."
Mr. McTeague's private member's bill, which by all accounts would have incurred a cost to the Treasury of more than $1-billion, shows that Lord Durham's warning remains relevant - and especially so during our periodic episodes of minority government. In these instances, we need the Crown to protect us from the Commons. Democracy is a terrific thing - but without financial discipline can lead to wrack and ruin. Were all MPs free to authorize billion-dollar expenditures, the cost could equal one-third of the country's GDP in a single session - or a single week.
When Britain passed the Union Act in 1840, uniting Upper Canada and Lower Canada, it heeded Lord Durham's advice and enshrined the "royal prerogative" in law. When it passed the British North America Act in 1867, creating Canada, it expressly prohibited the Commons from passing any money measure that had not first been recommended by the Crown. Without a specific royal recommendation, the Constitution said, [such appropriation] "shall not be lawful."
Thus we balance executive and legislative powers in our parliamentary democracy - as refined and tested through three centuries. The Commons must authorize all expenditures but it can do so only when the Crown has authorized them first. Although the procedures have been amended since Confederation, governments still attach "royal recommendations" to every money-related motion.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper was able to defend the historic royal prerogative last week only by making the seditious legislation a matter of confidence - a do-or-die confrontation with a federal election at stake.
This wasn't (as some observers assumed) mere theatre. The government had a moral obligation, and perhaps a legal obligation, to defend the country from Mr. McTeague's sedition.
Former Queen's University principal J.A. Corry observed 60 years ago, in Democratic Government and Politics, that the Crown - the cabinet - must regard any private-member money bill as a want of confidence. "[Parliamentary] pressure may persuade a government to modify its financial proposals," he noted, "but it is now unknown for the House to openly force revision."
Lamentably, it is unknown - as the McTeague Rebellion demonstrated - no more.
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Wednesday, 19 March 2008
PARLIAMENTARY DEMOCRACY: THE MCTEAGUE REBELLION