Don’t miss the ongoing conversation below regarding political and constitutional implications
The passage by opposition parties of a bill to commit the Canadian government to meeting its Kyoto Protocol obligations is a reminder that â€œseparation of powersâ€ is not a completely foreign idea in parliamentary democracies.
By separation of powers, I mean not the formal structures of the government system, but rather any situation in which the legislative majority and the government (prime minister or president and his or her cabinet) have different policy agendas. We normally think of such separation as being possible only in presidential systems, where the government originates separately from the legislature, and survives for its term independently of its support therein.
The conventional view of parliamentary democracy is of a system in which these things donâ€™t happen, because the government is a creature of the parliamentary majority and can be dismissed (via a vote of no confidence) at any time over policy disagreements. However, it may happen at times under a minority government, especially one without â€œconfidence and supplyâ€ agreements with other parties.*
The Canadian government is of the Conservative Party, which has around 42% of the seats in the House of Commons. On Wednesday, the other three parties (Liberal, New Democratic, and Bloc Quebecois) teamed up to pass the bill, without a single governing-party vote, 161-113.
The bill, which was introduced 10 months ago by Liberal backbencher Pablo Rodriguez, gives the government 60 days to table a detailed plan outlining how Canada will reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. [â€¦]
The bill urges the government to create fines and jail terms for businesses and industries that over-pollute.
The governmentâ€™s allies in parliament attempted to have the bill declared invalid under a rather flimsy argument: That it would commit the government to spending against its own will. Apparently, the governing party has forgotten that in a parliamentary system, the only will that matters is that of the parliamentary majority.
On the other hand, the parliamentary majority canâ€™t enforce a law on its own. That is what the executive is for. Normally, in a parliamentary system, the executive is assumed to be the government supported by a majority, so the government enforces its own majorityâ€™s laws.
With a government wanting to do one thing in this policy area and the parliamentary majority another, we have a genuine separation of powers. If this bill also passes the Senate, will the government implement a law it opposes? Or will it ignore it?
If the government ignores the law, the opposition has one sure way out of the situation: It can pass a no confidence motion and remove the recalcitrant government from office. But do the three parties that passed the bill want a new election?** If not, then the separation of powers remains, parliamentary government notwithstanding.
* If a minority government has confidence and supply agreements, one or more parties without cabinet representation commit to vote to retain the government in the event other opposition parties introduce a no-confidence motion against it, and commit also to vote for the governmentâ€™s budget (which is always a mater of confidence). In exchange, the parties to such agreements are granted certain policy concessions and consultations before major government bills are brought to the floor. See the current New Zealand government, for example.
** Technically, a new election would not be required. The Liberals, NDP, and Bloc could agree on a coalition or minority Liberal cabinet. However, that is almost unimaginable.