You may have already noticed that bill C-1 and S-1 are not located anywhere in the Status of Government Legislation posts featured on this blog. There is actually a good and very interesting reason for this. In this post we will examine the practical purpose of bills C-1 and S-1 in each session of Parliament and briefly review the historical perspectives of these bills.
Each session of Parliament begins with the formal opening of said Parliament with a Speech from the Throne delivered by the Governor-General on behalf of the reigning Monarch (monarchs have delivered this speech in Canada on various occasions) in the Senate Chamber. However, before the session begins, before all of the MPs make the trek from the House of Commons to the Senate and before all of the Senators and Justices of the Supreme Court take their seats before a filled regal chair in the Senate Chamber the entire Parliament is summoned by the Governor-General on the advice of the Prime Minister. The summoning of Parliament is a formal requirement in accordance with our constitution and established conventions on the opening of a session of parliament. The Summons itself is a Crown prerogative that on convention is exercised on the advice of the Prime Minister and is the literal formation of a particular Parliament by the Crown-in-Canada. This fact is important, the formation of our democratically elected House of Commons and appointed Senate into a particular Parliament with all of the powers, authorities and privileges required to conduct the democratic will of Canadians is rested upon the ordering of certain persons to Ottawa by the Crown. The glaring authority of the Crown in the formation of Parliament is made obvious in the direction the Crown gives to the Usher of the Black Rod to collect Members of Parliament from the House of Commons and summon them, on their feet before the Bar of the Senate, to listen to the Crown’s priorities and objectives for the government and the upcoming parliamentary session.
At the end of the Speech from the Throne, MPs return to the House of Commons and Senators continue business in the Senate. In the House of Commons bill C-1 is normally proposed by the Prime Minister and is titled An Act respecting the Administration of Oaths of Office. In the Senate, bill S-1 is proposed by the Senator representing the Government and is titled An Act relating to Railways. Each bill is considered to be pro forma, in that their mere form represents the historical purpose of the proposed legislation. Each is given a first reading and then is never moved again. And each bill has nothing to do with the title, in fact in recent times the bill itself it not even printed or published. But they are arguably the most important pieces of legislation in each session of parliament. These bills represent the automous nature of Parliament and specifically of each House of parliament. Regardless of what reason the Crown gives in the Senate during the Speech from the Throne for why the Parliament has been summoned and regardless of what priorities the Crown has established for the Government, both Houses assert their independence and ability to set their own business. Without these bills, the Houses may be compelled to conduct only business strictly related to that outlined in the Speech from the Throne, or at least historically that would have been the case.
Each bill is a carry over practice from the British Parliament. In the UK, each session of Parliament begins with the presentation of the Speech from the Throne (albeit with the actual reigning Monarch) and when MPs return to the House of Commons, the government presents C-1, the Outlawries Bill. Like our own C-1 and S-1, the bill is read a first time and then never again dispensed with during the session. Rarely is the bill printed today. And just like the Canadian custom, the bill signifies the independence of Parliament from the Crown. During a review of House of Commons practice in 2002, the Procedure Committee reviewed the practice and determined that it had historical significance with little impact on other business and therefore had no reason to be removed from practice.
You will not see bill C-1 and bill S-1 on the Status of Government Legislation series on this blog because there is little reason to list it constantly in Second Reading in the House of Commons and the Senate respectively. However, that does not undermine their importance. Bills C-1 and S-1 are a constant reminder of the independence of parliament and the democratic authority that we mandate to our elected representatives in Ottawa. Their importance in a free and democratic society cannot be overstated.
Canadians from coast to coast to coast will soon be receiving a shiny postcard in the mail from the Government of Canada inviting them to participate in a new online survey on electoral reform that the Liberals are calling MyDemocracy.ca. The purpose of the new survey, according to Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef, is to engage all Canadians on the issue of electoral reform and to gauge the public desire for the kind of change the government should seek regarding electoral reform. During her brief interview on The Agenda with Steve Paiken last week, the minister explained that several Canadians were unable to attend the ERRE committee meetings that were held in every province and territory in Canada and specifically mentioned rural Canadians who did not have a chance to get out to meetings that were more often than not conducted in large urban centres.
On the face of it, there should be no issue with the government in our modern digital age drafting and sending out an online survey to gauge public opinion on any given issue, the problem here comes from the fact that we have already had an all-party parliamentary committee review the issue and engage Canadians and they submitted a report that was well over 300-pages that provided recommendations to the House of Commons on moving forward on this issue. But the report did not detail what the government secretly wants for electoral reform, specifically that there be no national referendum on the issue and that a ranked ballot PR system form the way ahead in Canada (the Liberals support a ranked ballot system because as the traditional centre party, they will almost always capture run-off second and third choice votes). The NDP has been pushing for a RP system for quite some time, as have the Greens and the Conservatives maintain that any changes to our electoral system required a mandate directly from Canadians in the form of a referendum on the question. The report from the ERRE committee was a product of the current lay of the land in the House of Commons, namely that the Conservatives as official opposition were able to secure the position in the report that a referendum is probably the best way forward and the NDP and Greens both were able to secure a mention that PR was probably the best system to use in Canada. It is important to note that this current “lay of the land” in the House of Commons is the result of the democratic will of Canadians expressed in the previous general election that sent the Liberals to the government benches. These conclusions made Minister Monsef quite upset which lead her to outburst in the House of Commons, attacking the committee for not doing the work it was suppose to do. She later had to backtrack and apologize, but the damage was done. It was also one of the first times in recent memory that a majority government has submitted a minority report alongside a committee report in Parliament.
Monsef has stated that the government’s plan all along was to propose this survey to Canadians, which is mind-boggling because they allowed the ERRE committee to continue what was essentially parallel proceedings without once mentioning that they had a plan to do their own thing down the road. But it gets worse, Monsef was clear during her interview with Steve Paiken, that the government believes the positions outlined in the committee report do not reflect the will of Canadians and that the Liberals, somehow, have some greater insight into the electorate that requires going outside of parliament to get to the source of the concerns of Canadians. There are serious democratic implications for the position of her government, namely the richness of claiming that a report compiled by duly elected Members of Parliament somehow does not and cannot reflect the will of Canadians. Does she understand that such a statement is clearly laying bare the fact that this government does not in any way feel beholden to parliament on the issue? What makes electoral reform so different that the government is not required to have support in the House on the file?
I think that an easy way of understanding how the government is approaching the file can be articulated in an analogy of tree shaking. The Liberals stand around the tree of Canadian opinion and shake and shake and when an apple falls that is not to their own particular liking, for example that Canadians support a referendum on electoral reform, they shake and shake some more saying that “well, not everyone was consulted so we have a duty to ask again.” And when another apple that is not to their own liking falls again they put up their hands and say, “we are here to include all Canadians from all walks of life, and this tree is flawed, let’s try again to get their opinion.” And they shake and shake again until an apple of their liking has fallen to their feet all of the while coming up with vague and soft points on why the previous tree shaking was inferior to the next. Never minding the fact that Canadian taxpayers pay hundreds of millions of dollars to keep the institution of parliament running as a means of governing the country and expressing their will between election periods. We have a Liberal government that is committed to the people, and thus committed to circumnavigating parliament on this file— at least until the right apple falls.
Furthermore, the Liberals are becoming extremely dismissive with Canadians on the file. When questioned why her government did not include more specific questions on forms of electoral systems that could be implemented in Canada, Monsef explained that Canadians do not understand FPTP, MMP, PR and STV and that the issue was too complex and too technical to engage the majority of Canadians. I feel as if Minister Monsef might be projecting her own misunderstandings and difficulty comprehending our Canadian democracy and various electoral systems on to Canadians. At best it is government handling an electorate with kid gloves, at worse it is condescending and arrogant. Either way it does not make good politics for a government that is supposed to be sunny-ways and supportive. You cannot, with one side of you mouth, say that you value engagement and then criticize the quality of results from said engagement, that is double-speak. However, if Canadians are in fact not informed on this subject, it does start to beg the question of it’s importance to everyday Canadian at the moment. Is it possible that the government has created a mountain out of a mole hill here on electoral reform? Especially when we consider how many Canadians are currently out of work, how many are looking down the barrel of losing they jobs and how many young Canadians are fearful for employment in the future. Is electoral reform really something that the government should be pushing at the moment?
At the end of the day, Justin Trudeau made a promise to Canadians that the 2015 election would be the last under first-past-the-post in Canada, it is arguable whether or not this promise and his election victory earned his government a solid mandate to move forward on the file unilaterally. Conservative interim leader Rona Ambrose has handed the government an out in saying that they should drop 2019 as a goal line and should focus on more pressing issues in the country. I am inclined to agree with her, it is time for the Liberal government to drop electoral reform, at least during this current parliament.
Parliament Hill is one of the most beautiful seats of government in the world. The transformation of Ottawa from a back-water logging town, miles away from anything of any importance in early Canada, has been carefully crafted to create a city that reflects the diverse and unique culture and history of Canada. In particular, icons in and around the Parliament Buildings, including within the House of Commons and Senate chambers, present to Canadians a stunning visual history of their roots and aspirations in the formation of a country forged out of distant New World colonies and vast wilderness. In this post we will explore Parliament Hill and learn about the history and intent of icons which have been crafted around the Parliament Buildings.
The Centennial Flame was lit on 1 January 1967 to mark the 100th anniversary of Confederation at the start of the year. It was lit in the presence of then Prime Minister Leaster B. Pearson. The monument is in the form of a flame that burns above a fountain that is lined with the coat of arms of all 10 provinces in Canada. It was envisioned by the federal government and contracted as a joint venture with the provinces in order to honour the provinces uniquely during the centennial celebrations. It has become tradition in Canada for Canadians visiting Parliament Hill to toss coin change into the fountain for good luck. The money collected through this is deposited in a government account and funds the Centennial Flame Research Award which is given “to a person with a disability to enable him or her to conduct research and prepare a report on the contributions of one or more Canadians with disabilities to the public life of Canada or the activities of Parliament.” The Centennial Flame is often mistakenly called the eternal flame. The flame however is not eternal and is often extinguished in bad weather (common in Ottawa) or for routine maintenance– interestingly, however, the fountain does not freeze during winter because of the heating from the flame slightly above the waterline.
The Peace Tower that dominates Centre Block is probably one of the most recognizable features of Parliament Hill and Ottawa as a whole. The tower is 92.2 m tall and features approximately 370 gargoyles, grotesques, and friezes which are common in the Victorian High Gothic style of the Parliamentary precent. After the fire that took the original Centre Block in 1916, the creation of a memorial at the end of World War I coincided, and a tower for the facade of the new Centre Block was conceived. It was officially unveiled in 1922. Within the tower, above the porte-cochere, there is a memorial to all who died during the First World War called the Memorial Chamber. It is a valued 7.3 by 7.3 metre space with tall stained glass windows and the floor is made up of brass plates from shells used during the war. Near the peak of the Peace Tower is a 53-bell carillon that was dedicated to the commemoration of the 1918 armistice that ended World War I and was inaugurated on 1 July 1927, the 60th anniversary of Confederation. The Peace Tower was the first location that the new maple leaf Canadian Flag was flown above Parliament Hill on 15 February 1965.
The Library of Parliament is the oldest part of the Centre Block as a result of a quick thinking clerk closing the giant bronze doors that separate it from the rest of the building during the fire in 1916. The design of the library was inspired by the British Museum Reading Room and is formed circular in the form of a chapter house. It is separated from Centre Block via the Hall of Honour. The roots of the Library go back to the 1790s when the legislatures of Upper and Lower Canada established libraries along the lines of the UK parliament. With the uniting of the two regions under the United Province of Canada the libraries were merged and continued through Confederation in 1867. The Library features Hansard records from almost every legislative assembly in Canada, periodicals for MPs and Senators and significant state reports and publications. Since 1870 there have been only eight Parliamentary Librarians.
When entering Centre Block from the main entrance and walking through the porte-cochere of the Peace Tower one immediately enters Confederation Hall. The entire Centre Block is arranged symmetrically around Confederation Hall and the columns and stone work that dominates the walls and vaulted ceiling present a bold and confident entrance for the seat of government. The arcaded arches are topped by gables sculpted to commemorate the confederated nature of Canada and they support one side of the hall’s fan vaulted ceiling with carved bosses, while the other side rests on a single column in the centre of the room. This column is borne on a stone carved with an image of Neptune amongst sea lions and fish in a mythical sea. It was placed at noon on 2 July 1917, to mark the 50th anniversary of Confederation, and above it was carved the words:
1867 JULY 1917 ON THE FIFTIETH ANNIVERSARY OF THE CONFEDERATION OF BRITISH COLONIES IN NORTH AMERICA AS THE DOMINION OF CANADA THE PARLIAMENT AND PEOPLE DEDICATE THIS BUILDING IN PROCESS OF RECONSTRUCTION AFTER DAMAGE BY FIRE AS A MEMORIAL OF THE DEEDS OF THEIR FOREFATHERS AND OF THE VALOUR OF THOSE CANADIANS WHO IN THE GREAT WAR FOUGHT FOR THE LIBERTIES OF CANADA, OF THE EMPIRE AND OF HUMANITY.
Running along a north-south axis from Confederation Hall to the Library of Parliament is the Hall of Honour. This passageway serves as the corridors where the Speakers of both Houses of Parliament traverse during the Opening of Parliament and the start of each new sitting of Parliament. It is also the location of laying persons receiving state honours for funerals. The hall is bisected by small, vaulted corridors, the east one leading to a committee room, and the west to the old reading room; the latter is known as the Correspondents’ Entrance, as it is lined with bosses and label stops sculpted by Cléophas Soucy between 1949 and 1950 into the visages of ten notable parliamentary correspondents: Charles Bishop, Henri Bourassa, John Wesley Dafoe, Joseph Howe, Grattan O’Leary, Frank Oliver, John Ross Robertson, Philip Dansken Ross, Joseph Israël Tarte, and Robert S. White. he Hall of Honour was intended to be a gallery where statues of notable Canadians would be arranged in the niches along each side. That plan was later abandoned in favour of a more general purpose of commemorating the 1916 fire, as well as honouring those who participated in the Great War. The sculptures remain incomplete; only the north end, closest to the Library of Parliament, has completed carvings.
House of Commons
Centre Block houses both Houses of Parliament. The House of Commons is located in the west side of the building and the Senate is located in the east. The foyer of the House of Commons is accessed via the South Corridor of Confederation Hall. The threshold of the House of Commons features a large ornately carved wooden double door. This is one of the most public spaces within parliament (aside from the House of Commons chamber itself) and is a common feature of news broadcasts across Canada during scrums following significant events within the Commons chamber. It was also a personal favourite location for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to conduct official government announcements. On either side of the entrance are wooden coat lockers for Members of Parliament.
The building’s western wing contains the House of Commons chamber, along with its antechamber and lobbies for the government and opposition, on the east and west sides of the main commons space. The doors to all are of white oak trimmed with hand-wrought iron.
The chamber is 21 metres long, 16 metres wide, and has seats for 320 members of parliament and 580 persons in the upper gallery that runs around the room’s second level. The overall colour scheme is in green—visible in the carpeting, bench upholstery, draperies, paint within the gilded honeycomb cork plaster work of the cove, and the stretched linen canvas over the ceiling—and is reflective of the colour used in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom since at least 1663. That canvas, sitting 14.7 m above the commons floor and designed in 1920 by the New York decorating firm Mack, Jenney and Tyler, is painted with the heraldic symbols of the Canadian, provincial, and territorial coats of arms, with medallions at the intersections of diagonal stencilled bands in an argyle pattern. Running below this, and above the cove, is a continuous gold leafcornicecreated in 1919 by Ferdinand Anthony Leonard Cerracchio (1888-1964), which displays a row of gilt figures, broken at the peak of each pointed arch by cherubs holding a cartouche, and behind all of which runs a painted grapevine with Tudor roses.
On the floor, the opposing members’ benches are spaced 3.96 m apart on either side of the room, a measurement said to be equivalent to two swords’ length, harkening back to when English members of parliament carried swords into the chamber. Directly between, directly opposite the main door, on the chamber’s axis, is the speaker‘s chair, made in 1921 by the English firm of Harry Hems as an exact replica of that in the British House of Commons. It is topped by a carved wood canopy bearing a rendition of the royal coat of arms of Canada sculpted in wood from the roof of the Westminster Hall, which was built in 1397; the whole was a gift from the British branch of what is today the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. The chair has since been augmented with a hydraulic lift, lighting, writing surfaces, and, at the foot of the chair, a television screen and computer screen to aid the speaker in monitoring the process of the house. Behind the chair is a door that gives the speaker access to the speaker’s corridor, which links the commons chamber to the speaker’s chambers, and which is lined with portraits of past speakers of the House of Commons.
In the commons chamber’s east and west walls are 12 windows topped by pointed arches with hood moulds terminated by pendant drops. The glazing within is stained glass, commissioned as a Centennial Project in 1967 by then Speaker of the House of Commons Lucien Lamoureux. Each window contains approximately 2,000 pieces of hand-blown glass—created in Ottawa by Russell C. Goodman using medieval techniques—arranged in a Decorated Gothic style pattern designed by R. Eleanor Milne. Divided into four sections by stone mullions, the upper parts contain geometrical tracery and provincial and territorial floral emblems amongst ferns; in the tracery at the head of the windows are symbols extracted from the coats of arms of the provinces and territories.
As with other areas of the Centre Block, the commons walls are enriched with shafts, blind tracery, friezes, and a sculpture programme. The room was the last space in the building to be carved, with sculptural work only beginning in the late 1950s and continuing intermittently for the following two decades; approximately 225 blocks of varying sizes still remain uncarved. Amongst the work done are three series of stone works: The British North America Act, a set of 12 high reliefs on the east and west walls of the chamber, carved between 1978 and 1985, and illustrating through symbols and narrative themes associated with the federal and provincial responsibilities laid out in the British North America Act; Evolution of Life, a series of 14 sculptures within the spandrels of the pier-arches at the north and south ends of the House of Commons, depicting Canada’s palaeontological past and the evolution of humanity through philosophy, science, and the imagination; and Speakers and Clerks, comprising four heads carved on the jambs of the two doors on either side of the Speaker’s chair, depicting the speakers and clerks of the House of Commons at the time of the opening of both parliament buildings in 1867 and 1920, respectively.
To the Senate’s immediate south is the Senate foyer, a double height space surrounded by a double layered colonnade, the inside ring of attached shaft columns rising to the ceiling and the outside ring of rose coloured limestone columns supporting a second floor gallery. Within the stonework are sculpted depictions of important figures in pre-Confederation Canada, as well as self-portraits of the sculptors who fashioned the stone. A number are dedicated as the Sovereigns’ Arches, with corbels sculpted into depictions of Canada’s monarchs; the latest addition being that of Queen Elizabeth II, unveiled on 9 December 2010. The entire ceiling is of a Tudor style stone tracery filled with stained glass depicting royal emblems, such as provincial coats of arms, as well as symbols of First Nations and the names of all the speakers of the Senate up until the ceiling’s installation in 1920. Above the exterior entrance into the foyer is a stained glass window commemorating the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. Designed by Christopher Goodman and Angela Zissoff of Kelowna, British Columbia, with input from the Speaker of the Senate, Noël A. Kinsella, and the Canadian Secretary to the Queen and Usher of the Black Rod, Kevin MacLeod, and approved by the Queen, the window shows Elizabeth and Queen Victoria with their respective royal cyphers and renditions of the Centre Block during the reign of each monarch. A gift to the monarch from the Senate, it was constructed over six weeks from 500 pieces of machine made and mouth-blown glass from France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and the United States. The Queen unveiled a model at Rideau Hall on 30 June 2011 and, after the finished piece’s installation, the window was dedicated by Governor GeneralDavid Johnston on 7 February 2012.
The Senate chamber’s overall colour is red, seen in the upholstery, carpeting, and draperies, and reflecting the colour scheme of the House of Lords in the United Kingdom; red was a more royal colour, associated with the Crown and hereditary peers. Capping the room is a gilt ceiling with deep octagonal coffers, each filled with heraldic symbols, including maple leaves, fleurs-de-lis, lions rampant, clàrsach, Welsh Dragons, and lions passant. This plane rests on six pairs and four single pilasters, each of which is capped by a caryatid, and between which are clerestory windows. Below the windows is a continuous architrave, broken only by baldachins at the base of each of the above pilasters.
On the chamber’s east and west walls are eight murals depicting scenes from the First World War. Painted in between 1916 and 1920, they were originally part of the more than 1,000 piece Canadian War Memorials Fund, founded by the Lord Beaverbrook, and were intended to hang in a specific memorial structure. But the project was never completed, and the works were stored at the National Gallery of Canada until, in 1921, parliament requested some of the collection’s oil paintings on loan for display in the Centre Block. The murals have remained in the Senate chamber ever since.
Edgar Bundy‘s Landing of the First Canadian Division at Saint-Nazaire, 1915, depicts the first landing of Canadian troops in France, at Saint-Nazaire, led off the Novian by the pipe band of the Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada, and watched by officers, troops, and townspeople. Algernon Talmage painted A Mobile Veterinary Unit in France, showing a scene on the Cambrai front, where a Canadian Mobile Veterinary Unit is taking wounded horses to an evacuating station. Railway Construction in France was painted by Leonard Richmond to show the construction of a railway by the Canadian Overseas Railway Construction Corps, in the deepest trench in France. James Kerr-Lawson was commissioned by the Canadian War Memorials Fund to create both Arras, the Dead City—which depicts the ruins of Arras Cathedral as they were in 1917—and The Cloth Hall, Ypres, a painting of the destroyed, 600-year-old Cloth Hall in Ypres. Claire Atwood‘s On Leave documents (as battlefield scenes were thought inappropriate subject matter for female artists) the home front activities of the Canadian Expeditionary Force at a YMCA canteen in one of London‘s train stations as they await their train to the battlefront. The Watch on the Rhine (The Last Phase) was painted by Sir William Rothenstein to symbolically represent the defeat of Germany, with a British howitzer facing across the Rhine, and old and new Germany embodied in the ancient hills and factory chimney. And Sir George Clausen‘s Returning to the Reconquered Land was painted to illustrate agricultural land behind the front lines in France and shows people returning to their destroyed homes following the armistice.
The recent nomination of Justice Rowe and the new approach that the Liberal government has taken to the appointment of members of the Supreme Court of Canada has invoked a lot of discussion around constitutional conventions. In this post we are going to examine the nature and usage of constitutional conventions in Canada with an eye toward their historical development.
Our Constitution: Written and Unwritten
From a legal perspective, the constitution of Canada does not encompass any one or two documents but a host of documents spanning from the Royal Proclamation, 1762 to the Canada Act, 1982 (the latter of which repatriated our constitution from the United Kingdom and established the Charter of Rights and Freedoms). The Constitution Act, 1982 provides for a list of documents to be considered as “constitutional documents” including the Canada Act, 1982 and the Constitution Act, 1867. However, the Supreme Court has maintained that several pre-Confederation acts (include the Quebec Act, 1774) and other acts (provisions of the Elections Canada Act, for example) ought to be considered with similar weight as specifically listed documents in the schedule of the Constitution Act, 1982. It is worth noting that even in the application and understanding of what documents ought to be considered of a constitutional nature and what documents should not includes forces from both the written and unwritten (or blended) parts of our state structure.
The preamble of the Constitution Act, 1867 calls for a parliament similar in nature to that of the United Kingdom. Ironically, writing down such a provision within a document to be considered the new country’s constitution was actually a departure from British parliamentary tradition. In the United Kingdom, the constitution is entirely unwritten and only recently have written documents such as provisions for the devolvement of state powers within the realm been given the weight of the unwritten provisions of the constitution (similar to how we have arranged ourselves in Canada). At any rate, however, the Dominion of Canada was founded on the premise that the state and the government within parliament be executed in similar fashion to that of the Mother Parliament. For this reason, unwritten provisions of our constitutional fabric were adopted from the United Kingdom. Provisions such as the formation of government visa a vise a Prime Minister and cabinet and the inherent privilege of Members of Parliament, including Senators, in order to properly execute their functions as representatives of Canadians. None of these provisions are mentioned in any constitutional documents, and they did and do not have to be because Canada does function in similar nature to that of the United Kingdom and our early leaders understood how the government of the UK functioned (and if they slipped, the Queen’s Privy Council was not very far). This is markedly different from the positive law of the United States or, even more so, that of Germany. In those systems, it would be impossible to enforce unwritten rules because the entire structure of law is based on the premise that the law must be made clear for citizens. Which begs the question, why do we still have unwritten portions of our constitution?
Conventions: Constitutional Mortar
There are serious advantages to having constitutional conventions and it can even be argued that no state truly functions without at least some unwritten portions of their governing documents. There are significant conventions which dictate the democratic nature of our government, such as the convention of responsible government which is executed when the Governor-General invites the leader with the plurality of seats in the House of Commons to form government and for the executive to be drawn from the ranks of parliamentarians (primarily the House of Commons). There are mundane conventions that keep the government running smoothly and, most importantly, predictably in the interest of Canadians. An easy way to understand the importance of conventions is to think of an agreement that you have made between you and a friend over a repayment of some money. You agree to pay your friend five dollars each week until your twenty dollar owed balanced in paid in full. You write down this agreement clearly and you both sign the document. What you did not include in the document was that weeks consider to start on Monday, you get paid on Thursdays so you expected to provide payment each Thursday and if you did not pay you would have to renegotiate a new agreement or your friend could ask for the full money back immediately. These unwritten understandings between you and your friend are similar to that of conventions within the formation of the state. They have a strong benefit in that they can be changed without having to reopen the original agreement (say, for example your employer starts to pay you on Monday rather than Thursday half way through the payment period). This is important in a national sense, especially in a federation, because grand agreements of the state (i.e. the constitutional documents) are usually agreed upon at a certain time and place and it would represent near-chaos to reopen discussion on amendments at a particular time (this is especially true in Canada given the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords).
Constitutional conventions, interestingly enough, are not enforceable in the courts (although they will acknowledge their existence and function in our governing system). This is important. A key element of constitutional conventions is that they exist so long as the parties involved believe them to be relevant and applicable. Who these “parties” are can vary but will almost always include the government and the official opposition. Canada would be outraged if the Governor-General refused to invite the duly elected leader of the party with a plurality of seats in the House of Commons to form government. And this would not change the convention regardless of the fact that the Governor-General, by written law, has the right to appoint who-ever they wish to form government, it would incite a constitutional crisis on the merits of the violation of the convention. However, take for example the recent announcement of the Trudeau government to look beyond the regional convention pertaining to the appointment of members of the Supreme Court. This is a convention that the government claims is weak and has no relevance in Canada because it ought to be the most qualified (albeit and apparently functionally bilingual) candidate who should be selected. The convention could very well be changing before us, and this is how they do change, especially when the general public does not raise a stink about the issue being changed (and in this case they actually seem to strongly support the Trudeau government position in the Supreme Court matter).
The Inevitable Unwritten
An appropriate closing is the reflection and observation that it is impossible to truly have a pure written constitution with all functions of the government being entrenched in mandated law. There will always be agreements or what some might call “common sense” and “obvious” functions of the state and government that will go beyond what is written but will not violate it. Additionally, each provision of the constitution calling on a particular state actor to act would require unwritten elements regardless the nature of the conduct of this act. It would certainly be burdensome and inappropriate to list each and every aspect of a certain function of state within the constitution documents.
The Library of Parliament has published a wonderful primer on electoral reform in Canada and around the world that scratches the surface of the various options before Canadians. I’ve decided to cut some snippets from the publication to share here with links to the original document so that you may follow-up on your own.
Description: In plurality or majority electoral systems, the winning candidate is the individual who garners the most votes in an electoral district. Depending on the particular rules of the system, the winner may need to receive a plurality (or more votes than the other candidates) or a majority (over 50% of the votes cast).
First Past the Post (FPTP): Under FPTP, an elector casts a single vote for a candidate to represent the electoral district in which the voter resides. Candidates must gain a plurality of votes to be elected.
Alternative Vote (AV): Also used to elect a single candidate per electoral district, this system is often called preferential voting. On the ballot, voters rank the candidates running in their electoral district in order of their preference. To be elected, a candidate must receive a majority of the eligible votes cast. Should no candidate garner a majority on the first count, the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes (lowest-ranked) is dropped, and the second-preference votes on the ballots where that candidate ranked first are assigned to the respective remaining candidates. This process continues until one candidate receives the necessary majority.
Two-Round: Also known as the run-off system, the two-round system has elections with not one but two election days, generally weeks apart. The system used for the first round of voting is largely similar to FPTP, except to win, a candidate must take a majority of the votes cast and not simply a plurality. Should no candidate garner a majority after the first round of voting, a second election is held with only the top two candidates from the first election results. The candidate with the higher number of votes in the second round is elected.
Block Vote: In essence, this system is FPTP but with multi-member constituencies. In each electoral district, voters may cast as many votes as there are seats. For example, if three seats are available in an electoral district, the three candidates with the most votes will be awarded seats.
Origins: Plurality or majority systems can be traced back to historical British parliamentary practice. FPTP continues to be employed to elect members to the United Kingdom (U.K.) House of Commons, and is also the system used today in most countries that were once part of the British Empire or have historical connections to England.
Advantages and Disadvantages: Plurality or majority systems are easy to use and understand, favour the formation of stable majority governments, maintain a geographic link between constituents and members, and encourage broad-based parties. Critiques of plurality or majority systems include that the seat allocation is disproportionate to the popular vote, and the system exaggerates regionalism and wastes votes. Further critiques of the two-round system are that it is the most expensive electoral system, and voter turnout may decrease between the first and second rounds.
Current Use: Australia – Lower house (AV), Canada (FPTP), France (Two-Round), U.K. (FPTP) and the United States (FPTP).
Proportional Representation Systems
Description: As the name suggests, proportional representation (PR) systems seek to closely match a political party’s vote share with its seat allocation in the legislature. Unlike in most plurality systems, in PR systems, voters elect more than one representative per constituency or geographic area. PR tends to be varied and flexible, and the method for calculating seat distribution can be quite complex, with some systems requiring that a minimum threshold of vote share be earned in order for any seats to be allocated. Citizens generally vote for several candidates, or a party, and the results determine which individual members will sit in the legislature, as well as the overall distribution of seats belonging to each party.
List Proportional Representation (List PR): There are two main forms of List PR: closed-list and open-list. Both forms use a regional or national list of candidates in each constituency drawn up by each party before election day.
In closed-list PR, the party ranks the names on the list, and citizens vote for a party, not a specific candidate. Once all votes have been counted, each party is awarded seats in proportion to its share of the national vote. Individual seats are then allocated to candidates of each party in the order in which they are ranked on the party list.
In open-list PR, voters choose a preferred candidate (or candidates) from the list of the party for which they wish to vote. This means that voters effectively determine the order in which the candidates on the list will be awarded seats.
List PR systems are very flexible and have been adapted by the countries using them.
Single Transferable Vote (STV): Citizens in multi-member electoral districts rank candidates on the ballot. They may rank as few or as many candidates as they wish.
In most variations of this system, winners are declared by first determining the total number of valid votes cast, and then establishing a minimum number of votes that must be garnered based on the number of seats to be filled (the “vote quota”). Candidates who receive the number of first-preference votes needed to reach the quota are elected.
If there are still seats to be filled, a two-step count occurs. In the first step, any votes in excess of the quota for elected candidates are redistributed to the second choices indicated on the ballots of the elected candidates, using a weighted formula (this is called “excess transfer”). Candidates who then reach the quota are elected.
If no candidates reach the quota in this way, a second step takes place in which the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes (lowest-ranked) is dropped, and the second-preference votes on the ballots where that candidate ranked first are assigned to the respective remaining candidates.
Such extra counts continue until enough candidates reach the quota to fill all available seats.
Some variations do not involve excess transfer, but only the elimination of the lowest-ranked candidate and the reassigning of the second preferences on the ballots for that candidate. Nonetheless, the counting process still fits the definition of a single, transferable vote.
Single Non-Transferable Vote (SNTV): In this system, as in FPTP and unlike in block vote, each voter selects one candidate only. However, the system differs from FPTP and resembles block vote in that several members are elected per electoral district. The candidates with the highest vote totals are elected. For example, in a constituency where 20 candidates are vying for five available seats, the five candidates with the most votes will all be elected.
Compared to FPTP or block vote, SNTV can facilitate the representation of minority parties and independents, because the minimum number of votes needed to be elected decreases as the number of seats in the constituency increases, giving parties that normally receive a lower percentage of votes a better chance of electing a candidate.
Origins: Discussion of proportional representation can be traced back to the late 1700s. Its first public use was in 1840 during an election held in Adelaide, Australia.16 Some observers have suggested that the implementation of PR systems, especially throughout Europe, was a response to unrepresentative electoral results, with others suggesting economic transformations and the growth of social democratic parties were driving forces.
Advantages and Disadvantages: PR systems produce results most closely matching the actual proportion of votes garnered by parties, permit greater representation of smaller parties, provide for greater choice, and can encourage power-sharing within a Parliament. Critiques of PR systems include that they can be difficult to understand, they tend to create coalition governments, the geographic link between constituent and member is less prominent, they increase the possibility of electing parties with extreme views, the ballots can be long and complicated, and the counting of results time consuming.
Current Use: Australia – Upper House (STV), Austria (Modified Closed-List PR), Belgium (Modified Closed-List PR), Denmark (Open-List PR), Finland (Open-List PR), Ireland (STV), Netherlands (Modified Closed-List PR), Norway (Modified Closed-List PR), Russia (Closed-List PR), South Africa (Closed-List PR), Sweden (Modified Closed-List PR) and Switzerland (Open-List PR).
The modified closed-list PR systems listed above essentially give electors some ability to influence which candidates on party lists are elected by stating preferences on the ballot. The countries use different methods and set different thresholds of vote share needed for election.
Mixed Electoral Systems
Description: Mixed electoral systems combine elements of a plurality or majority system with proportional representation. Citizens in a constituency cast two votes: one to directly elect an individual member to serve as their representative, and a second for a party or parties to fill seats in the legislature allocated according to the proportion of the vote share they receive.
Mixed Member Majority (MMM): Citizens in single-member electoral districts cast two votes: one for a candidate to represent their constituency according to the FPTP system, and one for a party. Each party presents a previously established list of candidates, similar to the List PR system. A predetermined portion of the legislature’s seats are filled using the plurality vote, while the remaining seats are filled by the party list vote.
The two votes under MMM are fully independent of one another; the party seats will not compensate for any disproportionate result in the constituency elections.
Mixed Member Proportional (MMP): This system operates in the same way as MMM, except that a citizen’s second vote, which allocates seats to parties according to List PR, is used to attempt to compensate for any disproportionate results in the FPTP constituency part of the election.
Additional seats are awarded to qualifying parties18 where the number of constituency seats that they won fails to reflect voter support shown in both components of the election.
There are variations among the various MMP systems in how this allocation is made.
Origins: Mixed electoral systems can be traced back to Germany’s adoption of an MMP system following the Second World War. Observers have noted that the system represents a compromise, or third way, between plurality or majority systems, and proportional representation.
Advantages and Disadvantages: Mixed electoral systems provide for fairly proportional outcomes, maintain the geographic link between constituents and members, provide for greater choice, and allow the opportunity for smaller parties to be represented in Parliament. Critiques of mixed electoral systems include that they may be difficult to use and understand, and they create two classes of members (electoral district versus list).
Current Use: Germany (MMP), Japan (MMM), Mexico (MMP), New Zealand (MMP), Philippines (MMM), Scotland (MMP), South Korea (MMM) and Wales (MMP).
The Order Paper and Notice Paper is the most important published document from a legislative standpoint (see the first image). Both the Senate and the House of Commons produce the Order Paper and Notice Paper daily (we are just going to focus on the House of Commons right now). You can find the Order Paper and Notice Paper for the House of Commons here. This document contains two sections; the Order Paper and the Notice Paper. The Order Paper concerns the order in which the House will hear business (all per the Standing Orders, unless otherwise ordered) and presents an outline for business which the government intends to introduce (under the headings Business of Supply, Ways and Means, Government Bills (House and Senate) and Government Business (the specific of these headings are not important yet, we will deal with that in a later post). The Notice Paper is the bulk of the document as it contains the order in which Private Members’ Business, motions, written questions and government bills are presented (basically how the House decides what is going to be debated).
Let’s take a look at Order Paper and Notice Paper No. 3 for the 1st Session of the 42nd Parliament of Canada. From this document we see that the House of Commons will be sitting a normal Monday routine. Further on in the document under Order of the Day we see that the government intends to debate the Reply In Address to the Speech from the Throne. We also get a little piece of information in that the Standing Orders grant six days of debate on this particular piece of business. You can also see a projection for the remainder of the week regarding the debate on this business. Government Orders has an interesting notice for the opposition concerning a Supply Day (otherwise known as an Opposition Day). The Standing Orders allocate a certain number of days broken down into three periods of the year for the opposition to present motions and control the flow of business in the House of Commons (see Standing Order 81). Because parliament has not been sitting for the full period ending 10 Dec 15, the President of the Treasury Board is indicating that the opposition will have one day this period (as per the Standing Orders) and it will be on 10 Dec 15, meaning we can expect an opposition motion of some sort on that day (or whatever else the opposition would like to focus the attention of the House on for that short period of time).