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Going where no Governor-General has gone before Add to ...

In the midst of Canada's worst economic crisis in 80 years, the Conservative government could find itself roped, hog-tied and neutered for weeks as the price Stephen Harper would pay to slam shut Parliament's doors to avoid a confidence vote.

The Prime Minister is considering asking Governor-General Michaëlle Jean to prorogue Parliament - terminate its activities - to give him time to mount an effective counteroffensive to the opposition parties' plan to replace his minority administration with a coalition government.

Using prorogation to duck a confidence vote that would terminate the Conservative government is unprecedented, and, although the Governor-General has the power to refuse Mr. Harper's request, she likely would find herself in stormy constitutional waters if she did.

However, she'd be on firm ground if she granted him a qualified prorogation, severely limiting his ability to govern until he faces the opposition parties in the House of Commons, one of Canada's leading experts on parliamentary procedure said yesterday.

Queen's University political scientist C.E.S. Franks said an unprecedented use of prorogation could validly be met with an unprecedented use of the reserve power of the Queen's representative - the power that can be exercised by the head of state in a parliamentary system without the approval of another branch of the government.

In effect, the Governor-General, by agreeing only to a qualified prorogation, would declare that the government exists in the same state as during an election campaign: unable to carry out anything but the most routine operations, barred from making appointments, executing new policies or authorizing major expenditures. The reason for this is that nobody knows which party ultimately will have the confidence of Parliament.

Thus, prorogation would leave the government with at least one hand - and possibly both - tied behind its back as economic storm clouds roll over the country and bar it, in Prof. Franks's words, "from behaving like Santa Claus" until Parliament resumes.

Prof. Franks and other constitutional experts dismissed as irrelevant a 1968 Manual of Official Procedure of the Government of Canada, which states: "The Governor-General does not retain any discretion in the matter of summoning or proroguing Parliament, but acts directly on the advice of the Prime Minister."

An adviser to the government on constitutional issues provided CTV News with the manual as justification for a prorogation request.

But Prof. Franks said that, at best, the manual is a guideline. The Governor-General's reserve powers or royal prerogatives cannot be constitutionally limited but are defined - and always will be defined - by the situation she faces, he said.

University of Saskatchewan constitutional scholar David Smith agreed. "The exercise of the prerogative [by the Governor-General]is surely fact-specific," he said.

As for the opposition parties and their coalition plan, the expert consensus is that they're following to the letter the precedent established in Canada for the sovereign's representative to approve a change of government without an election.

The test that has to be met is, first, has the government lost the confidence of Parliament?; second, has an election just occurred?; and, third, is there a viable alternative to the government?

The key example is what happened in Ontario in 1985.

The opposition Liberals and New Democrats defeated Frank Miller's minority Conservative government in a no-confidence vote on the Throne Speech.

Mr. Miller asked lieutenant-governor John Black Aird to dissolve the legislature and allow an election. The opposition presented Mr. Aird with a publicly signed agreement to allow the Liberals to govern for two years with NDP support.

Mr. Aird refused to grant dissolution and invited Liberal leader David Peterson to form a government.

***

A glossary of terms

GOVERNORS-GENERAL AND LIEUTENANT-GOVERNORS

Representatives of the Queen, who is head of state in Canada's constitutional monarchy. Constitutionally, they must act on the advice of the prime minister or, in the case of lieutenant-governors, of provincial premiers in all but a few, very narrow actions known as the reserve powers.

RESERVE POWERS

Powers in a parliamentary system that may be exercised by the head of state without the approval of another branch of government. They are described as "the residue of discretionary or arbitrary authority, which at any given time is left in the hands of the Crown" - in other words, those powers of the Crown remaining from the old days of absolute monarchy. They may include the powers to summon, prorogue and dissolve Parliament, and to dismiss governments.

PROROGATION

The act of terminating a session of Parliament - done by the governor-general at the request of the prime minister. All unpassed legislation dies except for private members' bills, and Parliament's agenda is wiped clean. A new session begins with a new Throne Speech. Prorogation differs from adjournment, which is decided by majority vote of the House of Commons or Senate. Unpassed legislation remains on the agenda.

DISSOLUTION

The act of terminating Parliament - and opening the way for an election - by Royal Proclamation issued by the governor-general on the advice of the prime minister.

CONFIDENCE

By constitutional convention, when Parliament votes no confidence in a government on a significant issue - usually involving money - the government must resign or seek a parliamentary dissolution from the governor-general and request an election.

COALITION

A coalition is formed when political parties unite to secure a majority in Parliament and form a government. This differs from a formal agreement, in which one party agrees to support another party or parties but not share in government.

CORRECTION

In 1985, Ontario premier Frank Miller considered asking lieutenant-governor John Aird to dissolve the legislature after his government was defeated on a confidence motion. Instead, he resigned, and Mr. Aird asked Liberal leader David Peterson to form a government. Incorrect information appeared yesterday.

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