Have confidence in our constitution and the rule of law

Is there a government in the House? Hair-pulling squabbles should not erupt among adults over whether a non-confidence motion swept Paul Martin out of office earlier this week. It is not a matter of theatrics or spin. Governments that can obtain from the House the revenues necessary to their program command its confidence; those that can't, do not. That's all there is to it, and all there needs to be. At least one newspaper editorial said Tuesday's pseudo-non-confidence motion should count because it sends a signal that if a real non-confidence motion came before the House, it would pass. But if so, the signal was unnecessary and if not, it was inaccurate. The Citizen editorialized that "Strictly speaking, the federal Liberals are correct" that it "was not a vote of non-confidence ... But it was a sign that the end is clearly close at hand." Really? The motion instructed a committee to tell the government to resign. Suppose the committee refuses, as it may well. Is a vote that fails to command the rhetorical assent of one of its committees sufficient to dissolve the entire House? Why not just defeat the budget instead?

Another newspaper began an editorial: "Paul Martin's Liberal government has lost the confidence of the House of Commons," and ended by urging the government to "(g)ive the House an immediate chance to vote confidence or no-confidence in the government." What, again? Or did you just admit it hadn't yet done so?

Columnist Andrew Coyne exploded that "we now have a new form of government in this country: government by technicality." A strange way to describe the rule of law. He then concedes that technically "it would be ideal if the vote were on a 'clear' motion of non-confidence, or a supply bill of some kind. But let us remember why we are in this situation, where the House is forced to ask for the government's resignation by way of a report of one of its committees: because the government would not allow it to vote on anything else." So the government exercises tyrannical control over a House it doesn't control. It does not compute.

Our Constitution is not some silly game with arbitrary rules. My old friend John Duffy, "a volunteer adviser to Prime Minister Paul Martin," got it right in Wednesday's Citizen: "The sound and fury of last night's House of Commons vote signifies nothing, and changes nothing. ... The 'confidence of Parliament' is not a matter of perception or symbol. It is like pregnancy; there or not." (His subsequent partisan depiction of the dispute was as ludicrous as it was irrelevant.) Without government, we would succumb to anarchy, but without controls on government, we would succumb to tyranny. So our system tries to steer between these perils in a way grownups can easily understand, by allowing the executive to govern, but only with the consent of the people.

Its method has evolved through hard historical experience. But its unchanging foundation is that, as government is the power of the purse backed by that of the sword, the executive may only carry out its plans, and raise the revenue it requires, with the consent of the peoples' representatives. Any executive that cannot gain that consent is replaced. And the test is simple: Can it pass money bills and non-budgetary motions inextricably connected to them, such as the throne speech or important resolutions concerning the police and military power, and defeat direct censure motions?

These conventions have the merit of being logical and clear. So why not simply vote the government out the old-fashioned way? Especially as the Reform/Alliance/Conservative party long complained that too many bills were treated as confidence motions. We wouldn't be in this mess today if it weren't for the Conservatives' cunning plan to keep Paul Martin in power by not opposing the budget in March, a breach of constitutional convention they scorned to explain. Trying to topple the government via an instruction to a committee is a further breach of such convention, not a restoration of it. So is interrogating themselves in question period. Can't anybody here play this game? Don't they read history books? Are the names of Dicey and Forsey unknown to them?

Stephen Harper just accused Paul Martin of "threatening to slay democracy," while Andrew Coyne says we face a constitutional crisis. People, please. Have some respect for our system and quit the hair-pulling. The government is about to present its budget legislation. If Parliament passes it, the government commands the confidence of the House. If not, it falls because it does not.

There is no novelty here. And none is needed.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson