May 11, 2005


Canada government loses key vote (BBC, 5/11/05)

Canada's Liberal minority government says it will not resign, despite losing a key censure vote in parliament.

The administration of Prime Minister Paul Martin lost the opposition motion in a 150-153 vote.

The vote was called amid a judicial inquiry into irregularities in the awarding of government contracts by a Liberal administration in the 1990s.

The government said the motion was purely a procedural matter, rejecting calls for it to stand down.

"We will continue to govern on behalf of Canadians," the Liberal leader in the House of Commons, Tony Valeri, told parliament after the vote.

What, the crooked ones?

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 11, 2005 8:28 AM

In a parliamentary system, the parties are sufficiently ideological that whenever a ruling party loses a vote on anything it matters. When that party loses a vote that would have stopped an inquiry into corruption in the majority party, an inquiry which if it finds anything will cause sitting members of the majority party to go to jail, is pretty close to a no-confidence motion.

Posted by: bart at May 11, 2005 9:42 AM

This shows that the English-system unwritten constitution is just as "living" as the American written constitution. Under the English system, the government just fell and has to be re-formed with majority support in Parliament or face elections. The government's not supposed to ignore Parliament and keep on governing.

Posted by: pj at May 11, 2005 12:34 PM

As someone who knows pretty much nothing whatsoever about parliamentary systems, I have a question: If this actually constituted the government saying "We're going to continue to govern even though that's unconstitutional," wouldn't any laws they passed just be written off as illegitimate? I mean, Al Gore and John Kerry can sign or veto all the legislation they want, yelping "I'm the President!" all the while, but that would just be ignored.

Posted by: Tom at May 11, 2005 8:58 PM


The word "unconstitutional" in parliamentary systems does not refer solely to law. A lot of it is unwritten custom that won't be enforced by the courts. If a governing party loses the confidence of Parliament by losing a vote, it is supposed to call an election or turn government over to another party that has the confidence of Parliament. But not all kinds of votes. It is generally agreed that only financial bills, votes of non-confidence and perhaps major substantive legislation count. If the government loses a vote but manages to recapture Parliament's confidence somehow and pass legislation successfully, that is perfectly lawful. The only legally enforceable rule is that Parliament can't last more than five years. The rest is punished at the polls.

The Liberals here are arguing that the loss was on a minor procedural matter and doesn't count. There is so much political disgust right now that they are skating on very thin ice, but strictly speaking they have a case. Martin has now scheduled a formal confidence motion for May 19th. If he loses, he is toast and we are back to the polls.

BTW, another big area of custom is the role of the Crown. If you just looked at the written parts of the British constitution, you would be left with the impression that it was a near absolute monarchy. The Prime Minister and cabinet ministers are not even legal offices. Written constitutional documents refer only to the Crown's advisers.

Posted by: Peter B at May 12, 2005 5:31 AM

Peter - Thanks for the response.
In school they just basically teach us that democracy is democracy, but it's interesting how huge a difference the institutional details make.

Posted by: Tom at May 12, 2005 8:11 AM

Long live Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada.

Posted by: Phil at May 12, 2005 11:22 AM