The Observant Astronomer

The passing scene as observed by an observant Jew, who daylights as an astronomer.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Confidence vs. Procedure

The Liberals are trying to claim that the motions in amendment to the concurrence motions are "procedural" in nature and are not motions of confidence. The Conservatives have moved that:
the First Report of the Standing Committee on Public Accounts, presented on Thursday, October 28, 2004, be not now concurred in, but that it be recommitted to the Standing Committee on Public Accounts with instruction that it amend the same so as to recommend that the government resign because of its failure to address the deficiencies in governance of the public service addressed in the report.
Their argument seems to be that the motion is only an instruction to the committee to amend the report so as to call for the government's resignation, and that it would not be until the committee presents its amended report, which is then concurred in, that the government would be defeated. Now the notion of confidence is a slippery thing, but a look at the Canadian historical record suggests that the government's position is nonsense.

Only 4 Canadian governements have been defeated on non-confidence motions. The 1974 Trudeau minority and 1979 Clark minority both fell on sub-amendments to budget motions and promptly resigned. Similarly, Diefenbaker was defeated in 1963 on a Supply motion. The only other case was Meighen's (yes Meighen) government in 1926, to which I'll return.

But what about King's 1926 government you ask? Well, that is the clearest precedent, and the one the Tories are relying on. The 1926 version of the Liberal government was embroiled in a scandal regarding the Deptartment of Customs and Excise. On 18 June 1926, a special committee reported on their investigation (Journals of the House of Commons, 1926, p. 444-9). On 22 June, the Conservatives moved concurrence in the report and proposed an amendment calling on the committee to be called back into existence, and to amend their report in terms that amounted to censure of the government. Unlike the present case, it did not explicitly mention confidence, or call for the government to resign, but stated inter alia (Journals, p. 461) that:
  • Governement ministers had been involved in what was going on at Customs and Excise and had used their influence
  • Their failure to take prompt and effective remedial action is indefensible
  • This practice is detrimental to the best interests of the country
King fought the amendment by proposing a sub-amendment to remove the censure. It was defeated on 25 June . A further series of true procedural motions, i.e. adjournment etc., were defeated that day until he finally managed to adjourn the House (Journals 475-481). On 28 June, after attempting, and failing, to get a dissolution from Governor-General Byng, he resigned. King clearly felt that the amendment was a matter of confidence. When it became clear he would lose, he resigned.

There was a similar case in November 1873 when the government of Macdonald, mired in the Pacific Scandal, resigned rather than face a motion of non-confidence. Mackenzie became Prime Minister and immediately prorogued parliament, but did not request dissolution until the following January.

What of our fourth case of non-confidence? After King's resignation, Meighen agreed to become Prime Minister, and, in accord with the conventions of the day, promptly resigned to face re-election in a by-election. But he wanted to get certain bills passed, so he didn't prorogue, but appointed the rest of the Ministry as Ministers without Portfolio, which didn't require resignation and re-election. King wouldn't stand for it, and managed to pass a motion censuring the government as improperly constituted. Confidence was not mentioned explicitly. Meighen promptly requested dissolution, which Byng had to grant.

There are two other cases of interest to the Liberals. In 1983 the Trudeau government was defeated in Committe of the Whole on a clause of a tax bill. They ignored it. More relevant to the present case is that of the February 1968 defeat of the minority Pearson government at third reading of a tax bill. Pearson chose not to regard this a confidence vote, since the bill had been passed twice before, but immediately introduced the following motion:
That this House does not regard its vote on February 19th ... as a vote of non-confidence in the Government.
No other business was attended to until this motion had been decided. The Liberals won, and that was the end of the matter.

If the amendment to the concurrence motion passes, the Martin government's only option to immediate resignation is a motion like Pearson's. But that will only delay the inevitable. If he does neither, than he should expect a call from the Governor-General.

FURTHER: One thing that ought to be mentioned is that the amendment instructs the committee to do something. I don't think it has the option of refusing without being in contempt of the House. This negates the Liberal's whole "2-stage" approach to the question.


Anonymous evgenya said...

Hello Observant Astronomer,

I just heard about your site from an American colleague who enjoys your political commentaries. I had to pop in and say hello because I, too, am a Canadian, relatively-observant (both jewishly and scientifically) astronomer!

I know much of the Canadian astronomical research community but am racking my brain to figure out who you are. Have we met before? You can see me at the URL linked to my name.

All the best,


1:49 p.m., May 12, 2005  

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