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NDP Leader Jack Layton speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on March 11, 2010. (Reuters)
NDP Leader Jack Layton speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on March 11, 2010. (Reuters)

Brian Topp

How the rules get written Add to ...

On Wednesday, March 3, Her Excellency Governor-General Michaelle Jean read out a Speech from the Throne. She delivered it in the Senate Chamber, to an audience of seated Senators and Justices, with a group of MPs standing at the bar.

Why? Why wasn't that Speech read out in the House of Commons, where money bills must be initiated and the focus of Canada's federal legislative work takes place?

The reason why is because the Queen (and her various representatives) are not welcome in any House of Commons, anywhere in the world where the Westminster model prevails. Much of the back story is set out here, in a resolution adopted by the British House of Commons on January 17, 1642, (scroll down to the bottom past the links).

Like the King James Bible, the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and many other documents of the same era, this resolution is beautifully written and rewards a read. Here is a digest:

On Jan. 3, 1642, King Charles I had his Attorney-General "impeach" five Members of Parliament, because in his view they were frustrating what Prime Minister Stephen Harper's ministers like to call "the business of government," separate somehow from Parliament (they had helped draft a list of demands history remembers as the "Grand Remonstrance.")

The honourable gentlemen refused to surrender themselves to the King. So the following day, Jan. 4, 1642, King Charles appeared at the House of Commons at the head of a group of soldiers, invaded the Chamber, kicked the Speaker out of his chair and -- having taken his place -- demanded to know where the offending MPs were.

In a remarkable act of bravery, the Speaker, on his knees before the King, informed him that he refused to answer that question (his words were these: "I have neither eyes to see, nor tongue to speak except as this House is pleased to direct me.")

Meanwhile, what these days we would call the "Westminster Five" bolted out of the building, and joined supporters in London. They in turn formed up into an armed force. When he became aware of this, the King slunk out of the House of Commons and out of London. These events helped touch off a civil war that ultimately cost King Charles his head.

And no King or Queen has ever been invited back into the Chamber since -- or dared to enter it uninvited.

The Jan. 17, 1642 resolution I link to above declares that any minister or other councillor who might have advised the King to behave the way he did "are declared public enemies of the State and peace of this kingdom."

Fast-forward 368 years, to last Wednesday.

Once again a House of Commons was dealing with the problem of evil counsellors who had led Her Majesty (via her Governor-General) astray. This time the evil counsellors had prevailed on the Crown to padlock Parliament to avoid a confidence vote (in December, 2008) and then again to avoid a Parliamentary enquiry into allegations of torture against enemy combatants in our power (in December, 2009). On both occasions the evil councillors were abusing the royal prerogative to play for time.

Jack Layton, the opposition Parliamentary leader that Canadians hold in the highest regard these days, moved the following motion: "That, in the opinion of the House, the Prime Minister shall not advise the Governor General to prorogue any session of any Parliament for longer than seven calendar days without a specific resolution of this House of Commons to support such a prorogation."

Layton said some important things during the debate on that motion.

"We must clearly re-establish the basic principles of our democratic system," he told the House of Commons. "The principle of ministerial accountability is critical. This means that the Prime Minister must be accountable to Parliament. And being accountable starts with ensuring that the Prime Minister cannot abuse his powers: first and foremost, the power to lock the doors of Parliament and halt the work of those who were elected by the people to represent them and speak for them."

Layton put his finger directly on the fundamental problem with Mr. Harper's conduct. "In our democracy the people are in charge. Our Prime Minister appears to have forgotten that. Their elected Parliament answers to Canadians and the Prime Minister answers to Parliament. It is not the other way around."

Winding up, Layton reached back into the same principles the Parliamentarians of 1642 spoke to when they voted their great resolution. Layton said: "Kings have been inclined, in past centuries, to exercise such absolute power, to abuse power in exactly that way, and that is precisely why elected legislatures have insisted upon their rights to hold prime ministers, their cabinets and their executives to account. It is fundamental to our democratic system. Our Prime Minister is not a king and it is time he understood that. He has abused his powers and that must not happen again."

Layton's motion then passed on a recorded vote.

This is how Parliamentary and democratic conventions are made in our parliamentary system. A clear statement by the House, after a clear abuse. The House has spoken, and the Crown and its counsellors must now so govern themselves, except at their peril.

In future, a Prime Minister who advises the Governor-General to padlock our Parliament in order to avoid accountability on a great public issue (as opposed to a routine proceeding) is in violation of a direct order from Canada's only legitimate and elected democratic body -- the House of Commons.

In future, a Governor-General who accepts such advice is therefore inviting a wide debate about the future utility of her office -- which would also raise fundamental issues about the future of the Crown in Canada.

Kings Charles, past and future, pray take note.

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