You might think it funny that a New Democrat wants to talk about limiting the power of the prime minister on matters of confidence and the triggering of elections.
Yet Manitoba MP Daniel Blaikie has waded in with a quixotic quest to have Parliament, rather than the prime minister, decide what is a matter of confidence.
Mr. Blaikie’s NDP is already in an agreement that calls for the party to support Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government on votes of confidence in the Commons until 2025. And now Mr. Blaikie is arguing, 14 months in, that it’s unfair that the Prime Minister gets to decide what a confidence vote is.
But perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that some New Democrats are gnawing at the ropes that bind them to the Liberals.
They are locked in an agreement that underlines the fact that the Prime Minister controls Parliament’s nuclear option – triggering an election. A minority prime minister can threaten the opposition that if they don’t vote for legislation that he or she considers a confidence matter, it will lead to an election. So the Liberals can slip unpalatable things into a bill and call it a confidence matter. It amounts to an ultimatum.
And the NDP are, in the meantime, effectively protecting the Liberals from election threats. How galling.
Mr. Blaikie wants criteria that set out what a confidence matter is. He wants Parliament to vote on a prime minister’s decision to prorogue, which interrupts a session and closes all Parliament business before a new sitting is convened a few weeks or months later.
Mr. Blaikie set out to battle these abusers of power targeting not just Mr. Trudeau but Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre. Mr. Blaikie said in a news conference he’s trying to limit the Prime Minister’s “gatekeeping” power over Parliament, but Mr. Poilievre won’t support it – borrowing from Mr. Poilievre’s oft-repeated promise to “fire the gatekeepers” to accuse the Tory leader of hypocrisy.
“I say to Canadians, beware the man who criticizes gatekeepers but has no solutions to limit their power, and asks only that you give those powers to him,” Mr. Blaikie said.
It’s true that Mr. Poilievre can’t claim a record as an activist against prime ministerial power. You won’t have much luck finding his complaints when former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper called a snap election, or prorogued Parliament to avoid a non-confidence vote, or stuffed sundry measures into omnibus budget bills. You could argue that in Canada, that’s what MPs on the government side invariably do.
The New Democrats, on the other hand, are perennial opposition-dwellers in Ottawa. Except now they are tied to Mr. Trudeau’s confidence decisions.
There is no reason to doubt Mr. Blaikie’s earnestness on these issues. He’s a second-generation advocate of parliamentary power over the prime minister’s, after his father Bill, and he told reporters Monday that he started mulling these issues when Mr. Harper prorogued Parliament to avoid a confidence vote in 2008.
Now, his motion provides an opportunity for a little bit of worthy debate in the Commons. Let the record show what MPs say.
Yet even if Mr. Blaikie’s motion passes, it won’t change the hard-and-fast rules of Canadian politics. Proroguing and dissolving Parliament are reserved powers of the Crown under the Constitution, and the Crown in almost all cases must follow the advice of the prime minister. Mr. Blaikie’s motion will essentially give Parliament the opportunity to opine on how the prime minister uses those powers.
Still, MPs always have had the power to curtail the privileges of the prime minister. It’s just that usually it’s MPs from the governing party who could do so – and they don’t. But neither has the NDP.
New Democrats, as Mr. Blaikie said, entered into the confidence-and-supply agreement with the Liberals to see some of their policy priorities turned into reality. Maybe they should have insisted the Prime Minister entrench a definition of confidence. In the meantime, they have to accept that Mr. Trudeau has that power.