British Prime Minister David Cameron has announced that he will recall Parliament earlier than anticipated so that MPs can debate how their country will respond to reports of the use of chemical weapons in Syria. For constitutional and political reasons, Prime Minister Stephen Harper should do the same.
As Washington builds support for intervention among its allies, Canada is under pressure, both at home and in the world, to make its position known. The Constitution Act 1867 suggests that the command of our military is an executive power, exercised by the Crown on the advice of the Privy Council. In practice, this means that the powers of the Crown are exercised by the prime minister and cabinet, with no active or discretionary role for the Governor-General. But this begs an obvious question: in formulating a response to the situation in Syria and defining Canada’s possible role in an international response, where does Parliament come in? Is this a decision that cabinet can make on its own, or must the government consult Parliament?
In strictly legal terms, the prime minister and cabinet can command the military without getting Parliament involved but, politically, this is a tough sell, especially since Mr. Harper has engaged Parliament before deploying the military on several occasions in the past. Also, though our written constitution gives the executive branch the power to command the military, our constitution has evolved largely through unwritten conventions. It could be argued that, because there are several precedents on the books for seeking Parliament’s approval before deploying the military, there is an expectation that it will ever be thus. This is how unwritten conventions form.
From a political standpoint, the situation in Syria presents a genuine opportunity for Mr. Harper to shed his image as the anti-Parliament prime minister. If Parliament is reconvened in September rather than prorogued until October, Mr. Harper could show Canadians that he understands the value of parliamentary debate. And, if any decision requires full and open public debate by our elected representatives, surely it is this one. Needless to say, the implications of our response are very serious. We need parliamentarians to consider, from every angle, how our decision will affect the safety of our military personnel, our relationships with allies, and our self-perception with regard to Canada’s role in the world. And, as guardians of the public purse, MPs must consider the cost.
To reconvene Parliament to allow debate on these issues could be considered an act of good faith on the part of a Prime Minister who is often accused of ignoring and even abusing Parliament. Canadians deserve to be informed of the rationale for the government’s decision on this matter and parliamentary debate will help to bring it to light. And, if Mr. Harper really wants to hit the “reset” button and regain control of the national conversation, he could seize the opportunity to meet Parliament for a serious debate on a most pressing concern.
Lori Turnbull is an associate professor of political science at Dalhousie University.