More on the Fixed-term Parliaments Act

Philip Norton, a Conservative life peer and a Professor of Government at the University of Hull, provides his synopsis of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act and why the Prime Minister of the UK no longer “calls” a snap election.

Incidentally, if our Senators were all even half as qualified as Norton, our upper chamber would be in much better shape today.

The Norton View

The Prime Minister has announced she will be asking the House of Commons tomorrow to vote for the motion ‘That there shall be an early parliamentary general election’.  She correctly stated the provisions of the Act.  She is thus ‘calling for’ an election, not ‘calling’ an election.  The decision now rests with the House of Commons.  A two-thirds majority of all MPs is required for the motion to be passed.  That majority is expected to be achieved, given that Jeremy Corbyn has said Labour will vote for it.  Indeed, he made it clear some time ago that he would support an early election, thus doubtless aiding the PM in her consideration of whether to seek an election under section 2(2) of the Act.

The Act has only seven sections and one schedule – it is no more than nine pages, including the contents page – and was enacted in September 2011. …

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Posted in Dissolution, Electoral Reform | 1 Comment

British Prime Minister Theresa May Calls *For* An Early Election Under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act

British Prime Minister Theresa May made an announcement outside of 10 Downing Street and has just called for an early general election. But she has not “called” an early general election — because the British Prime Minister no longer possesses this authority.

The BBC has highlighted an interview between Andrew Marr and Prime Minister May from September 2016 in which May said, “I’m not going to be calling a snap election.” Strictly speaking, May has kept her word. However, the Prime Minister no longer has the authority to call a snap election — so, if anything, the BBC should criticize May for having made a promise that she, in fact, had no authority to make in the first place.

Under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, 2011, the British Crown no longer holds any authority over or retains any involvement in dissolution. The Queen no longer dissolves Parliament on the Prime Minister’s advice. Instead, Parliament now dissolves automatically, by efflux of time, every five years, pursuant to the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act itself. The first general election under the act took place in 2015. The Cameron-Clegg government acknowledged in this press release with respect to the most recent dissolution and general election in 2015, “Parliament has been prorogued and will automatically dissolve on 30 March under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.[1]

The Fixed-Term Parliaments Act also outlines two procedures for early dissolution, but the executive also plays no part and has no discretion in these mechanisms either. Section 2 of the Act outlines these procedures. In one case, parliament may be dissolved early if two-thirds of MPs pass a motion “That there shall be an early parliamentary general election.” In the other case, if the Commons votes non-confidence in Her Majesty’s Government by simple majority (“That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government”) but then fails to pass a confirmation vote for a new government (“That this House has confidence in Her Majesty’s Government”) within 14 days, then Parliament shall automatically dissolve in order to break the deadlock. The defeated government would remain in a caretaker capacity during the ensuing election and until the new Parliament meets and passes a confirmation vote in favour of a new government.

In this case, the procedure under section 2(1)(a) applies. The May government itself would likely table the motion in the Commons “That there shall be an early parliamentary general election,” and a two-thirds super-majority would have to vote in favour of it. The Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition and the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, has already indicated that he would support this motion, and so too, probably, would enough of the Labour Party to reach the threshold of a two-thirds super-majority.

Similarly, the Leader of the Liberal-Democratic Party, Tim Farron, has also endorsed the idea of holding an early general election.

Speaker Bercow would acknowledge that the motion had received the support of at least two-thirds of MPs on division, and that verbal acknowledgement alone (nothing more formal than that) would suffice to promulgate the early election into force. However, rather bizarrely, the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act did not put the British Crown’s authority over summoning parliament into abeyance, so the Prime Minister or Cabinet (I’m not sure precisely how that works in the United Kingdom, but in Canada it would be the Prime Minister alone) advises the Queen to issue the summons of the next Parliament at a certain date.

The rationale for the early general election is Brexit. Now that the Westminster Parliament has passed the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act, 2017, the May government has triggered Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon and set in train the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union and now wants to consolidate those gains. And it seems that the other parties in Westminster are happy to religate the Brexit referendum in this upcoming general election campaign.

The early general election would be held on June 8th.

And we can rejoice in other news, too: invoking one of the procedures under section 2 of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, 2011 means that the British media will finally learn, out of necessity, that this statute has put the Crown’s authority over dissolution into abeyance and that the Queen no longer dissolves Parliament on the Prime Minister’s advice.

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[1] United Kingdom, Prime Minister’s Office, 10 Downing Street, “Press Release: State Opening of Parliament to Take Place on 27 May 2015,” 26 March 2015 [accessed 20 August 2016].

Posted in Crown (Powers and Office), Dissolution, Fixed-Date Elections | Leave a comment

Which Are Better: Endnotes or Footnotes?

First, I’m sure that we can agree that Chicago-style notes are vastly superior to the stupid in-text citations of APA. Incidentally, since Cambridge University Press journals use Chicago while the Oxford University Press journals mandate some ghastly in-text citations, we can conclude that Cambridge is the better half of Oxbridge.

But within the note formats, I prefer endnotes over footnotes: ultimately, each format takes up the same amount of space on a manuscript, but endnotes keep it tidy and neat and therefore make it easier to read, especially if you need to include non-citation, explanatory notes. Only an academic would say that turning pages is labour-intensive and difficult work!

I inadvertently kicked off an academic nerdfight on social media earlier with an off-hand comment stating what I regard as self-evident, that endnotes are better that footnotes because they keep the paper tidy. Passions run so high in the endnote-footnote controversy precisely because the stakes are so low.

I’m curious to see what some of my readers think in this poll! I seem to be in the minority.

Posted in Random Thoughts | 4 Comments

Tony Blair’s Canadian Style of Prime Ministerial Government

Tony Blair rolls his eyes at Whitehall.

The British would certainly not say outright that Tony Blair governed like a Canadian prime minister, because it would be beneath the Mother Country to acknowledge one of her former Crown colonies as having provided an example in government. But that is the best conclusion that one could draw from this BBC documentary on Blair’s premiership, which aired in 2007 shortly after his departure from Number 10.

The relevant portion runs from 19:00 to 22:45

Blair operated like a Canadian Prime Minister — like Trudeau I, Chretien, or  Harper, in particular — and exercised his authority to “call consensus,” i.e., to make a decision against a majority of his colleagues, if necessary. The documentary cites his decision to allocate $800 million pounds to the Millennium Dome as one such example. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown alone also decided to transfer the authority to set interest rates from the Treasury to the Bank of England bilaterally, without consulting their cabinet colleagues.

Critics derided Blair’s style as “sofa government,” because he would often make decisions with small groups of ministers, or bilaterally with one minister, or unilaterally while sitting on a sofa in a small office. His Chief of Staff, Jonathan Powell, and his Press Secretary, Alaister Campbell, would often take part in such meetings as well. Powell’s and Campbell’s attendance of full cabinet meetings also caused a row. So, too, did the order-in-council empowering Powell and Campbell to issue instructions to other ministers. Nevertheless, most of these criticisms of Tony Blair’s “sofa government” and Blair’s use of cabinet as  “rubber stamp,” and Blair’s use smaller groups with cabinet (i.e., a cabinet committee) to do the real work, sound remarkably like how our system of government works in practice here in Canada.

Cabinet Secretary Robin Bulter (equivalent to the Clerk of the Privy Council here) clashed with Prime Minister Blair frequently in 1997 and 1998 and denounced Blair in this BBC documentary for never having understood the concept of cabinet government. In that mid-20th century RP accent (perfect for sounding condescending), Bulter intones, “I don’t really think that Tony Blair ever got cabinet government. What he wanted to do was lead the government in a particular direction. He was impatient to do it, and he didn’t see the value of those processes.”

Blair counters: “The fact is, you’re elected as prime minister to get the job done. You’ve got to assert your authority. If you don’t, then you just get absolutely submerged in endless debates and discussions, and nothing ever actually happens or is driven forward.”

The interviewer asks Blair: “Has it ever bothered you that the two key words in Whitehall are ‘Tony wants?'”

Blair: “No, I think that ‘s great, if that’s what they’re saying about the prime minister. I mean, what do we expect them to be saying? You know, I used to say this occasionally when we had this discussion with the civil servants about it. I used to say them: ‘But I’m the prime minister. I was elected to get the job done, and that’s what I want to happen.’ So (laughs incredulously), what’s the problem?”

Pierre Trudeau, Jean Chretien, or Stephen Harper could have said the same.


Posted in Crown (Powers and Office) | 1 Comment

Senator Pratte’s Doublespeak on the Two O Canadas

The French O Canada is an anachronism that must be interpreted metaphorically and remain intact. The English O Canada must be changed whenever fashions change because it is an evergreen document that must be taken literally.

This country has, in fact, two national anthems: the original French O Canada, which has remained unchanged since 1880, and Weir’s English version of O Canada. The two anthems say completely different things and bear no resemblance to one another, and therefore so perfectly represent the Two Solitudes for which Canada is so famous. The French O Canada recounts a glorious crusade, or civilizing mission, to Christianize North America; the English O Canada focuses on Canada’s being a northern landmass and a refuge for liberty.

This Bill C-210 proposes to change only the lyrics to the English O Canada, but it grants the privilege of leaving the original French O Canada intact. Senator Andre Pratte, part of the new Independent Senators’ Group, exemplifies Parliament’s hypocrisy and unequal treatment of the two O Canadas when he gave a speech on Third Reading on 6 April 2017.

First, Pratte made this interesting observation:

Usually Canadians respond when any attempt is made to tamper with tradition. Social media goes abuzz, our inboxes overflow and protests and petitions multiply. Yet this time there was relatively little reaction.

There has been so little reaction from Canadians for good reason: most of them are unaware that Bill C-210 even exists and is poised to become law. Frankly, that was deliberate. The Trudeau government is thankful for Belanger’s private members’ bill precisely because private members’ bills both attract less attention than government bills and provide the government plausible deniability. They learned the lesson from the Harper government, which announced in its Throne Speech in 2010 that they would “ask Parliament to examine the original gender-neutral English wording of the national anthem.” This public and prominent declaration generated a huge backlash, and the Harper government abandoned the proposal.

He also makes a series of contradictory statements on the English and French O Canadas but never explains why Parliament should not treat them equally and make them both subject to revision.

One the one hand, he claims to oppose both political correctness and “its cousin, historical correctness” — both of which he considers a form of thoughtmurder; on the other hand, he intends to vote for a bill that will begin sanitizing the English O Canada for the sake of both political correctness and historical correctness.

I am an adversary of political correctness. I consider it the murderer of thought, and its cousin, historical correctness. Barring a few exceptional cases, I am opposed, for instance, to the renaming of streets, parks and buildings that have been named after historical figures, simply because these individuals are now controversial or because it has come to light that they have made mistakes, even serious ones. History is rarely black and white, though we tend to look at it that way through our lens of certainty. These names of historical figures must not be obliterated; they can be reminders of a complex past, nuanced by shades of grey, and they can serve as lessons for the future.

In other words, Pratte opposes political correctness and historical correctness — except where he doesn’t.

One the one hand, Pratte acknowledges that parliamentarians have already discussed altering also the phrase “Our home and native land” to “Our home and cherished land”, as well as removing God from the English O Canada altogether; on the other hand, he completely dismisses the idea that Parliament would eventually consider making those changes in subsequent legislation. How could he know that? Did he moonlight as a Time Lord while he worked as a newspaper editor? What did Pratte say in 2002 when the Senate first seriously discussed altering the lyrics to “True patriot love in all of us command” in Senator Viennne Poy’s private members’ bills? Andre Pratte has already tumbled down that slippery slope and banged his head on the way down.

As several honourable senators have pointed out, like in “all thy sons command,” other “O Canada” lyrics are equally out of step with what Canadian society has become. Yet, I am certain that Canadians would flat-out refuse to rewrite “O Canada, Our home and native land,” or “God keep our land glorious and free,” unless we find an alternative which, like the one proposed in Bill C-210, goes unnoticed and does not change the general theme of the lyrics that are sung.

But what could easily replace “native land”? Harder still, “God”? In my opinion, the fact that the bill proposes a change that does not impact the tradition of our national anthem explains why the public has been relatively indifferent.

Some have said that we’re headed down a slippery slope, but I don’t think that’s the case. Replacing “thy sons” with “of us” does not mean we would be tossing away an important piece of our history and tradition all in the name of political correctness, as suggested by Senator Wells, for whom I must say I have the utmost respect.

On the one hand, Pratte admits that he would oppose changes to the French O Canada on principle; on the other hand, he has no qualms about altering the text of the English O Canada and dismisses any concerns that changing them once will set the precedent for Parliament to change them again.

So if you ask me whether the lyrics of our national anthem should remain unchanged, spontaneously, I would say yes. That is certainly the case for the French lyrics, even though they no longer reflect the secular and pacifist nature of most of today’s francophone Canadians.   

On the one hand, the English lyrics to O Canada have turned “out of step with what Canada has become,” so Parliament must change them; on the other hand, the French lyrics to O Canada “no longer reflect the secular and pacifist nature” of French-Canadian culture, but Parliament should leave them intact. Don’t you see the difference?

One the one hand, Pratte takes “thy sons” and the English O Canada literally; on the other hand, he takes the civilizing mission — “For your arm knows how to wield the sword; it knows to how carry the cross” — of the French O Canada metaphorically.

Has Pratte listened to himself prattle on about this? This incoherent, self-contradictory speech exemplifies hypocrisy and doublespeak. Only an intellectual could square this circle and then claim that they were the same shape all along. The Hampster Wheel of Rationalization in his head must have spun off its axis and taken flight. He contributed to the Pour un Quebec lucide manifesto of 2005. Would it be too much to ask for Pratte to give un discours luicide sur les deux versions de l’Ô Canada? Sadly, I vote yes.

This evening, at 7:00 p.m., the Canadian Armed Forces are holding a ceremony at the national cenotaph to commemorate the centenary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Even if these Senators, who have, with no sense of irony, debated vandalizing and expunging “thy sons” from the English anthem underneath the paintings honouring the sacrifice of those who fought and died in the First World War, we shall remember thy sons, O Canada, who stood on guard for thee, who bled for thee, and who died for thee.

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