Neither the Queen Nor the Governor General Can Dissolve Parliament Unilaterally!


The Radicalism of the “Stop Harper” Lobby and of the High-Tory Monarchists

Last year, Bridget DePape abused her position as a Senate Page and mounted a silent protest with her “Stop Harper” sign in the Senate chamber while the Governor General read the Speech from the Throne that opened the 1st Session of the 41st Parliament. DePape has since inspired a new virulent “Stop Harper” Lobby, which has adopted histrionic extra-Parliamentary tactics and anti-constitutional viewpoints on the role of the Governor General of Canada and Queen of Canada in our system of Responsible Government.

Much to my surprise and chagrin, I have also recently learned of the existence of what I can only describe as a small fringe element of High Tories in Canada, who have expressed objection to this entry on some social media because they maintain that the Sovereign in the United Kingdom and Governors General in the Realms at least should be able to dissolve parliament unilaterally. As the tagline of Parliamentum indicates, I am a proud Whig and constitutional monarchist, so I will issue a rebuke to High-Tory monarchists and curb their excesses when necessary.

In short, both these radical leftists and the extremist High Tories either do not understand or explicitly reject the principle of Responsible Government: the Prime Minister exercises power, while the Queen and Governor General exercise authority. This dichotomy between power and authority is the essence of constitutional monarchy.

Petitions to Restore the Despotic Stuart Crown of the 17th Century – I mean, to “Stop Harper”

One Chantal Dupuis from Quebec wrote Buckingham Palace and asked Queen Elizabeth II to dismiss Stephen Harper as Prime Minister and dissolve Parliament unilaterally.[1] Curiously, she justified this flagrant violation of the principles of responsible government because “Canadian democracy is in danger like never before in history.”

Letter to the Queen

Chantal Dupuis wrote the following letter on 16 December 2011 to the Queen of Canada and asked her to engage in a blatant anti-constitutional act that violates every principle of Responsible Government.

As Your Majesty is our head of state, I have no other choice but to ask Your Majesty to help us Canadians to remove Stephen Harper from the office of Prime Minister of Canada, because Canadian democracy is in danger like never before in its history.

In the past, people went to prison for having been found in contempt of Parliament, but now, when the totality of the government Stephen Harper leads is found in contempt, nothing is done to protect Canadians and their constitutional rights.

As a Canadian, I was wondering when Your Majesty would intervene to protect us Canadians? How could Her Majesty, as the chief of Canada, do nothing?

The Senior Correspondence Officer of Buckingham Palace wrote back on 24 February 2012:

Her Majesty has taken note of the views you express but I should explain that there is no question of The Queen dismissing the Canadian Prime Minister or dissolving Parliament as you suggest.

The Governor General of Canada can only dissolve Parliament on the advice of the Prime Minister of Canada. As a practical matter, the Queen of Canada could only dissolve Parliament directly if she were in Canada and if the Prime Minister’s Office, Government House, and Buckingham Palace had made the appropriate arrangements before because of the nature of the Letters Patent, 1947. In other words, the Queen of Canada could also only dissolve the Parliament of Canada by and with the advice and consent of the Prime Minister of Canada. However, as one of my knowledgeable correspondents reminded me this morning, the Queen of Canada still has not exercised the power dissolve the Parliament of Canada when she finds herself on Canadian soil. In May 2005, when Her Majesty visited Canada in order to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the establishment of Alberta and Saskatchewan as provinces, the Martin government commanded the confidence of the Commons by the smallest of margins. The Palace, Government House, and the Office of the Prime Minister all agreed that if the Martin government had then fallen, Governor General Adrienne Clarkson would have issued the Proclamation of Dissolution, rather than Her Majesty the Queen of Canada.

The Queen of Canada tends to exercise only her authority for the more ceremonial and liturgical aspects of constitutional monarchy. For instance, Her Majesty read the Speeches from the Throne in 1957 and 1977 instead of the Governor General, by and with the advice and consent of Prime Ministers Diefenbaker and Trudeau, respectively. And sometimes the Queen of Canada travels abroad by and with the advice and consent of her Canadian Ministers; for instance, Her Majesty rededicated the Vimy Memorial in France in April 2007 as the Queen of Canada rather than as the Queen of the United Kingdom. This solemn ceremony also qualifies as a liturgical function. [A]

If the King or Queen of Canada attempted to dismiss the Prime Minister of Canada and dissolve the Parliament of Canada unilaterally, that action would surely go down in history as the most flagrant violation of the principles of Responsible Government.

Petition to the Governor General

I have also recently learned (hat-tip, Utsav Sanduja) that some of the more extreme left-wing activists have organized an online petition that calls on Governor General David Johnston to dissolve parliament unilaterally because of various alleged abuses of the Harper government.[2] The creator of the petition, one grammatically-challenged “Eve Of-Liberty”, even identifies himself or herself with a photo of the Sergeant-at-Arms dragging Brigdet DePape out of the Senate chamber.

“Eve Of-Liberty” and others have called on the Governor General to dissolve Parliament unilaterally because they hate Stephen Harper: “The Right Honourable David Johnston, Governor General of Canada: Dissolve Parliament. Call for a Full Election”. They introduce their petition with the following description on “why this is so important”:

Canadians do not expect a timely legal remedy to the various investigations surrounding the Conservative Party’s suppression of democratic voting. Election fraud has occurred in 77 ridings to date, however we may never know the full extent or full effect of this Criminal Act. We ask the Governor General to dissolve Parliament and call forth a new Full Election immediately, as we are currently under an illegitimate Government and have zero tolerance for voter suppression. We act in solidarity to use every democratic instrument at our disposition with resolve. It is an essential need for the preservation of the most fundamental and sacred right of every Canadian to see the Harper Government deposed.

The activists then provided the following template and encouraged their like-minded supporters to lend their signatures to the petition – grammatical errors and inaccurate salutations and all!

Dissolve Parliament. Call for a Full Election

To: The Right Honourable David Johnston Governor General of Canada

Excellency,

As a subject of her Royal Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II of England and a concerned Canadian;

I solicitate [sic] and petition you by the present, that you dissolve the current Parliament and declare an immediate Federal Election on grounds of “non-confidence and rejection” by the Canadian population of the current Government due to, individually and in whole of, proven multiple abuses of functions, creation of unconstitutional laws, proven multiple electoral frauds, illegal activities, proven forging of parliamentary documents by a cabinet member and the undemocratic nullification of the House of Commons due to native flaw in the Westminster system.

This solicitation and petition is in accordance of the Canadian Constitution (Constitution Act, 1867) and is within your power in accordance to the Royal Proclamation of 1947 (article V and VI) of the letter patent constituting the office of the Governor General of Canada.

Yours Truly,

[Your name]

The anti-constitutional activists boast as of 5 April 2012 that they have collected 2,675 signatures and intend to amass at least 5,000.

The first duty of the Governor General is to ensure that there is a government in office. Therefore, the dismissal of a government during a crisis is the last action that the Governor General should ever undertake! If anything, an emergency of some kind would only reinforce the necessity of the government of the day continuing in office. Among other things, these activists do not understand that if the Governor General were even able to dissolve Parliament unilaterally, he would in effect also dismiss the government of the day. He would therefore need to appoint a new one immediately thereafter. A true constitutional crisis would ensue.

Second, if the Governor General dissolve parliament unilaterally, and therefore dismissed the Harper government from office, before Elections Canada completed its investigation, the Governor General would in fact prevent both the House of Commons and the Canadian electorate from holding the government to account.

Third, these activists have made the common mistake of applying a fundamentalist interpretation to the written constitution and to the Letters Patent, 1947. By a literal reading of the Constitution Act, 1867, Canada would be akin to a despotic monarchy. However, as the Supreme Court ruled in the Patriation Reference, the conventional constitution plus the written constitution equals the total constitution of Canada. And by the constitutional conventions and principles of responsible government, the Governor General only dissolves parliament upon the advice of the Prime Minister. A unilateral dissolution on the part of the Queen of Canada or the Governor General of Canada would therefore be a wholly unconstitutional act.

Why Unilateral Dissolution Is Anti-Constitutional

King Charles I ruled for 11 years without Parliament, between 1629 and 1640 in what became known as the “Personal Rule” or the “11 Years’ Tyranny.” He then summoned a parliament in the spring of 1640, known as The Short Parliament, because he dissolved it in frustration three weeks later. The Bishops’ War in Scotland bankrupted Charles and forced him to summon another later in the fall of 1640. This Parliament took the radical step of eliminating outright the Crown prerogatives on both prorogation and dissolution through the Triennial Act, 1641. Parliament would prorogue or dissolve itself by act of parliament; both houses would pass the bill, and the King would be bound to give it Royal Assent. The Long Parliament ultimately lasted for 20 years because of the English Civil Wars of the 1640s, the regicide of Charles I in 1649, and the Cromwellian Interregnum of the 1650s. It finally voted to dissolve itself in 1660 after inviting Charles II to return to England. A new parliament then amended the Triennial Act under Charles II but made it ineffective.

After the Glorious Revolution and the installation of William III & Mary, Parliament decided to limit the Crown prerogative on dissolution again, with the Triennial Act, 1695. However, this Act did not eliminate the Crown’s powers to prorogue and dissolve Parliament, which allowed for the offices of prime minister and cabinet to assume this power by convention by the early 19th century. This version merely limited the prerogative by forcing the Sovereign to summon a parliament at least once every three years, which allowed for the possibility that the same parliament would remain in session for three years. Eventually, over the course of the 18th century and the early 19th century, the office of prime minister emerged by convention and the remaining Crown prerogatives on dissolution were transferred by convention from the Sovereign to the Prime Minister. Under Responsible Government, the Sovereign may only dissolve upon the advice of the Prime Minister.

Following the creative protest of Bridget DePape, these myopic activists seek pyrrhic victories. They would sacrifice the constitutional principles of Responsible Government in favour their perceived short-term partisan advantage. They should ask themselves the obvious question: would they advocate that the Governor General or the Queen dismiss a left-wing government that they support and for which they voted? I think not.

Proper Procedure for the Dissolution of One Parliament, Issuing of Writs of Election, and the Summoning of Another Parliament

The Manual of Official Procedure of the Government of Canada rules out all independent vice-regal dissolution: “The advice to dissolve is the prerogative of the Prime Minister.”[3] The Governor General can reject advice to dissolve under “those rare and almost indefinable circumstances when it is necessary for the protection of the constitution”, or when an alternative government that could command the confidence of a majority of the House of Commons exists.[4] The Manual interprets the King-Byng Affair as a significant point of reference for the limited circumstances in which the governor general can exercise the reserve powers.[5]

The Manual supports the notion that the governor general must retain confidence in his prime minister, which in turn implies that the prime minister would need to resign if the governor general rejected his advice.[6]

The discretion of the Governor General in selecting a Prime Minister is exercised within the limits of his position as representative of a constitutional monarch. He is looking for a Prime Minister who will be supported by a majority in the House of Commons and whose advice he will accept as long as he retains his confidence. […].[7]

The Governor General can, under exceptional circumstance circumstances, reject the Prime Minister’s advice to dissolve Parliament. When a Governor General rejects advice of such constitutional significance, he in effect forces the Prime Minister to resign, or may dismiss him directly. However, the Governor General could exercise this reserve power if he can appoint a new Prime Minister, usually by calling on the Leader of the Official Opposition, immediately thereafter so that this new Prime Minister can take responsibility for the Governor General’s actions. The King-Byng Affair of 1926 involved precisely this dynamic: Governor General Lord Byng reject Prime Minister King’s advice to dissolve parliament, so King resigned as Prime Minister. Lord Byng then appointed the Leader of the Official Opposition, Arthur Meighen as Prime Minister. When the new Meighen government lost the confidence of the House of Commons only one week later, Meighen advised Lord Byng to dissolve parliament, and Lord Byng agreed because that particular House of Commons could not support any government.[8]

Unilateral dissolution would mean that the Governor General dissolves Parliament without any prime ministerial advice. As the example above demonstrates, unilateral dissolution is an entirely different matter from rejectingone Prime Minister’s advice to dissolve and appointing a new Prime Minister. The principle of responsible government itself precludes any unilateral action on the part of the Queen or Governor General because they must remain neutral and outside the arena of policy and partisan politics. Responsible government means that the Ministers of the Crown (the Prime Minister and Cabinet, i.e., the government) are collectively and individually responsible for acts of the Crown and responsible to the House of Commons.[9] In addition, the first duty of the Governor General is to ensure that there is a government in office. The government (the Prime Minister and Cabinet) is responsible directly to the House of Commons and indirectly to the electorate. The government must also take collective responsibility for the acts of Crown prerogative, such as the prorogation and dissolution of parliament, which the Governor General carries out upon the advice of the Prime Minister. Unilateral vice-regal action would violate all the fundamental principles of responsible government and represent a retrogression to the despotic Crown of the Stuart Kings of the 17th century.

The documents in the Canada Gazette show that the Government of Canada still follows essentially the same procedure that the Manual of Official Procedure of the Government of Canada described in 1968. All three documents – the dissolution of the old parliament, the issuing of writs of election, and the pro forma summoning of a new parliament – show that the Governor General could not possibly dissolve parliament unilaterally. The Governor General issues the Proclamation Dissolving Parliament “by and with the advice of Our Prime Minister of Canada.”.[10] The Governor General as Governor-in-Council then issues the Proclamation Issuing Writs of Election “by and with the advice of Our Privy Council for Canada,” which means that Cabinet makes the decision.[11] Finally, the Governor General issues the Proclamation Summoning Parliament to Meet on 30 May 2011 “by and with the advice of Our Prime Minister of Canada”, because the Governor General retains no discretion on summoning and proroguing Parliament.[12]

The Deputy Attorney General and the Deputy Registrar General counter-sign the proclamation. The advice of the Prime Minister and the validation of two senior civil servants make unilateral vice-regal dissolution impossible. We have established a country of laws and utterly rejected the despotic Crown of the 17th century.

Similar Posts:


[1] Althia Raj, “Chantal Dupuis: Queen Elizabeth Writes Back After Getting Letter from Quebec Resident Calling For Stephen Harper to Be Fired.” The Huffington Post: Canada, 5 March 2012.
[A] Paul Benoit. “State Ceremonial: The Constitutional Monarch’s Liturgical Authority,” in The Evolving Canadian Crown, edited by Jennifer Smith and D. Michael Jackson, 119-137. (Kingston: Institute of Intergovernmental Relations, School of Policy Studies, Queen’s University, 2012).
[2]
Eve Of-Liberty. “Petition: The Right Honourable David Johnston, Governor General of Canada: Dissolve Parliament. Call for a Full Election.” Change.org [Accessed 4 April 2012].
[3]
Canada. Privy Council Office, Manual of Official Procedure of the Government of Canada, Henry F. Davis and André Millar.(Ottawa, Government of Canada, 1968): 408.
[4]
Ibid., 408-409; James W.J. Bowden and Nicholas A. MacDonald, “Writing the Unwritten: The Officialization of Constitutional Conventions,” Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law 6, no 2 (2012): forthcoming
[5]
James W.J. Bowden and Nicholas A. MacDonald, “Writing the Unwritten: The Officialization of Constitutional Conventions,” Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law 6, no 2 (2012): forthcoming
[6]
Ibid.
[7]
Canada. Privy Council Office, Manual of Official Procedure of the Government of Canada, Henry F. Davis and André Millar.(Ottawa, Government of Canada, 1968):, 146. The Manual provided the following citation for the quote: “Can. H. Of C. Debates, June 30, 1926, p. 5217.”
[8]
Peter H. Russell, Two Cheers for Minority Government: The Evolution of Canadian Parliamentary Democracy (Toronto: Emond Montgomery Publications, 2008):15-25.
[9]
Sir John George Bourinot, Parliamentary Procedure and Practice, 4th ed. (Montreal: Dawson Brothers Publishing, 1916): 102; Paul Benoit, “Parliament and Democracy in the 21st Century: The Crown and the Constitution,” Canadian Parliamentary Review 25, no. 2 (Summer 2002): 2-3.
[10]
Canada Gazette, “Proclamation Dissolving Parliament,” 28 March 2011.
[11]
Canada Gazette, Proclamation Issuing Writs of Election,” 28 March 2011.
[12]
Canada Gazette, Proclamation Summoning Parliament to Meet on 31 May 2011,” 28 March 2011.

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19 Responses to Neither the Queen Nor the Governor General Can Dissolve Parliament Unilaterally!

  1. Greg Felton says:

    James, you do history a great disservice. The governor general has the absolute right to dismiss a prime minister, a right conferred upon his office by King George VI. The GG’s office even acknowledges the power. See:
    http://www.gregfelton.com/canpol/2014_04_22.htm

    Please explain how your claim makes sense if these powers have not been repealed.

    Thank you

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  3. Mr. Terry Mester says:

    Although I’m a Royalist as opposed to a Whig, I agree completely with what you’ve written James. (I suspect that ten years from now you’ll be less of a Whig as you come to realize that 95% of politicians are pigs and thieves and crooks.) I’m always amused by these young anti-Harper people who aren’t old enough to remember the ‘nine year horror’ that was the rotten corrupt Mulroney Progressive Conservative Government (1984-93) which left Canada in a 3-1/2 year long economic Depression! Mulroney was at 9% (that’s nine) in the Polls for his last three years in office, and they ended up with 2 (two) Seats in the 1993 Election! Mulroney brought a bunch of Separatists into his Government who formed the Bloc Quebecois which is what led to the 1995 near-death Referendum. Not only did he bring in the hated 7% GST Tax, but he appointed 8 extra Senators to ram it through the Liberal-dominated Senate! I remember at the time some people wanted the Queen to refuse extra Senators, but I agreed with constitutional professor Joe Magnet’s amusement by such a ridiculous suggestion. It’s not reasonable to expect the Queen or GG to overrule a duly elected Prime Minister who commands majority support in the Commons. However, if there were a Petition signed by a majority of citizens (17+ Million) demanding an Election, then that would be reasonable grounds to act. This Harper Government is good government by comparison to Mulroney — although there’s a lot of the Harper agenda I don’t support.

    The root problem is the ‘first past the post’ Ballot which enables politicians to get elected with less than half the votes. I stopped believing in ‘first past the post’ in 1990 after the Bob Rae NDP Government got a majority with only 38%, and that crooked Mulroney won the 1988 Free Trade Election with only 43%. We suffered through Dalton McGuinty in Ontario who only got 42% which, with only 50% voter turnout, meant that only 21% of voters voted for him. Back in 1991 I wrote a submission to a Commons Committee on Electoral Reform suggesting a two-tiered preferential ballot which would enable people to cast two votes in the event their first choice finished lower than second place, and their second choice was for one of the top two candidates. This type of ballot would redress peoples’ grievances which relate to majority governments getting elected by a minority of voters.

    I once advised someone to stop writing the Queen and GG about his legal problem involving a wrongful conviction. A Judge is a direct representative of the Crown for Subjects to obtain redress from the Crown in the Court. The Queen and GG are too busy to tend to people’s problems. If you can’t get redress via a Court, then go to a Cabinet Minister or your MP.

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  9. There still exists, by convention, a (rightly) rarely-used provision known as Royal Perogative. It includes, amongst other things, the right of the Sovereign to dissolve Parliament without the advice of the First Minister.

    A Canadian Prime Minister once tried to extend Parliament beyond the five year limit, only to have an election called by the Governor General.

    Sone constitutional scholars also suggest that, in the event of a government becomming incapable of governing (while retaining the Confidence of the House), or clearly and obviously at odds with what the pubic wants (which is, unlike what these anti democratic and unCanadian radical leftists believe not the case right now), or, I also suggest, if the First Minister is proven to be so corrupt and blatantly abusing the office for personal gain, then the Sovereign (or representative) could invoke Royal Perogative and force an election.

  10. A Great Read.
    China is currently suing Belgium for $3 Billion under a FIPA-like deal.
    How many Billion $ Lawsuits can we pay before we have no $ left.
    Can the GG help us from becoming owned (slaves) by China or whichever country breaks our bank first ?
    Thank You, Bill

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  17. Alex says:

    Nicely researched article. While you are technically correct about a number of these Constitutional principles, there is one primary issue you did not address: namely, that the office of the Prime Minister does not exist according to any of our Constitutional documents and has merely been passed down to us by procedural and judicial precedents. As such, there is no real constitutional principle to actually guarantee the dissolution of Parliament “on the advice of the Prime Minister” as that position is not technically defined in our constitutional system. Second, as you demonstrated by your analysis of developments in the English Civil War, our system is one which is fundamentally based on the establishment of new precedent and the rejection of old conventions, such as the changes you list to the Triennial Act. A good example of this is the Test Act, which if still in force today would mean that no person who was a member of the Catholic church would be able to attain political office without rejecting certain principles of Catholic dogma. Laws, procedures and precedents can change at any time, and are in effect meaningless unless they are in line with the political realities of the present day. Third, there’s technically nothing to prevent the Governor General from acting unilaterally should they see fit to dissolve Parliament or reject a bill. The legal basis for this claim is found in our Constitution in the following sections:

    55. Where a Bill passed by the Houses of the Parliament (ed: a non confidence vote for example) is presented to the Governor General for the Queen’s Assent, he shall declare, according to his Discretion, but subject to the Provisions of this Act and to Her Majesty’s Instructions, either that he assents thereto in the Queen’s Name, or that he withholds the Queen’s Assent, or that he reserves the Bill for the Signification of the Queen’s Pleasure.

    Disallowance by Order in Council of Act assented to by Governor General

    56. Where the Governor General assents to a Bill in the Queen’s Name, he shall by the first convenient Opportunity send an authentic Copy of the Act to One of Her Majesty’s Principal Secretaries of State, and if the Queen in Council within Two Years after Receipt thereof by the Secretary of State thinks fit to disallow the Act, such Disallowance (with a Certificate of the Secretary of State of the Day on which the Act was received by him) being signified by the Governor General, by Speech or Message to each of the Houses of the Parliament or by Proclamation, shall annul the Act from and after the Day of such Signification.

    Signification of Queen’s Pleasure on Bill reserved

    57. A Bill reserved for the Signification of the Queen’s Pleasure shall not have any Force unless and until, within Two Years from the Day on which it was presented to the Governor General for the Queen’s Assent, the Governor General signifies, by Speech or Message to each of the Houses of the Parliament or by Proclamation, that it has received the Assent of the Queen in Council.

    I’ve been studying these issues for over twenty years and the one thing you will discover as you progress in your research is that for every point in defence of an argument there is almost always a valid counterpoint when it comes to Constitutional scholarship. If the GG wanted to get rid of Harper, there are means to do it. The Canadian public can also do it in their own way if they choose fit, through either civil disobedience, revolution (not likely in Canada, but still possible), or by exerting enough public pressure on the Government to force Harper to resign. Hope you keep up this research and debate, it is needed in this country now more than ever as our public begins to forget and tune out about the laws and customs which effectively govern their lives.

    • Aaron Clausen says:

      You’re committing the fundamental error of assuming that the Constitution is that which is written. While the position of Prime Minister has no written existence in the Canadian Constitution, it exists as a part of the unwritten aspects of the constitution. However, the principle whereby the Sovereign is bound by His or Her Ministers predates the office of Prime Minister, and certainly the George I, the constitutional idea of the Sovereign following the advice of His or Her Ministers was firmly planted into the constitution (but the basic idea predates even that, and certainly one can see the origins of cabinet government as far back as the Tudors).

      As the writer states, the Governor General’s single most important job is to assure that Canada has a functional government. It is not his or her job to decide whether government legislation or policy is right or wrong. Yes, the Queen, and through her, the GG, holds substantial reserve powers which could, in theory, could be used unilaterally (ie. without the consent of Government), but those are only to be used in the most extreme of circumstances.

      While forceful dissolution of Parliament has certainly not happened in modern times, Governor Generals have on very rare occasion dismissed governments. The two that I know of are the King-Byng Affair in 1925, when Lord Byng refused to dissolve Parliament at the request of Mackenzie King, and the 1975 Australian Constitutional Crisis, when Australian Governor General John Kerr dismissed the government of Gough Whitlam.

      On the face of it they seem to prove the vast powers at the Regal or Vice-regal representatives disposal. However, when one looks closer, they also demonstrate the intricacies of unilateral use of such powers. In the King-Byng Affair, Lord Byng was making good on his promise to King that he would offer the Conservative leader, Arthur Meighen, a chance to form a government, so the refusal wasn’t really a unilateral use of reserve powers. The Australian Constitutional Crisis is still hotly debated, and what I’ve read indicates a sharp divide; with some constitutional scholars seeing Kerr’s actions as necessary to breaking a deadlock between the two houses of the Australian Parliament, and others viewing those actions as a violation of the very basic precepts of responsible constitutional government.

I invite reasonable questions and comments; all others will be prorogued or dissolved.

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