Parliament, principles check a PM's powers

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talks to media in St. Stephen, N.B., Thursday, March 28.

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Recent events in Canada and the United Kingdom raise questions about one commonly held belief in the strength of parliamentary government.

It’s the idea that a prime minister with majority support in the House of Commons can pretty much call the shots. Former Attorney-General Jody Wilson-Raybould’s challenge to Justin Trudeau over prosecutorial independence and Theresa May’s Brexit difficulties highlight limits on the range of executive action available even to a duly empowered prime minister.

Interestingly, there are trade-related overtones to all of this.

The general impression that a parliamentary majority confers relatively unlimited prime ministerial power arises from contrast with the American system. In recent times, too often, the U.S. constitution’s vaunted division of powers among the president, judiciary and members of both houses of Congress–all with fixed-terms in office — has rendered little but political stalemate.

Partisan conflicts over matters of public policy have led frequently to government disruption and shutdown. The traditional parliamentary solution to political stalemate is a vote among House of Commons’ members to test their “confidence” in the ruling government.

A Canadian prime minister who lacks confidence among House members must defer to the governor-general — the Crown’s representative and head of state –who either seeks a new minister capable of rallying confidence or calls a general election. By voting, electors re-establish clear lines of authority.

That checks and balances in the American system result often in gridlock has been a feature of U.S., federal politics since well before Donald Trump. His predecessor, Barack Obama, faced an obstructive Republican majority in Congress which made a point of frustrating his legislative agenda.

Now Trump seems bent on undoing what remains of the Obama legacy, namely his Affordable Care Act, even as Democrats have come to power in the House of Representatives seeking Trump’s undoing. It’s a recipe for government inaction and may yet undermine the North American trade agreement identified by Trump as one of his administration’s leading accomplishments.

Even as trade talks began for the new Canada-U.S.-Mexico Agreement (CUSMA), questions arose about presidential authority. With agreement among the three nations involved, the president now requires Congressional approval.

That Trump may lack required support in the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives to proceed with CUSMA seems, from a Canadian perspective, another headache for Canada’s currently embattled prime minister and one further complication of Trump’s turbulent, trade policy environment. But political stalemate seems increasingly evident even beyond U.S. jurisdiction.

May’s inability to muster enough House of Commons support for terms of withdrawal by the U.K. from Europe’s common market threatens to complicate trading relations with many of Britain’s key customers and suppliers. Even Trudeau’s apparent interventions on behalf of the Montreal-based engineering firm, SNC-Lavalin, arise from that company’s allegedly corrupt past dealings in marketing its services internationally.

Whether or not the prime minister’s efforts represent good public policy by seeking to divert the company from criminal prosecution, Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s contrary view has emerged through thoughtful, well-managed argument on her part. It is very similar to the point on which this very prime minister insisted that Chinese telecommunications executive Meng Wanzhou must face judicial scrutiny over a U.S. extradition request following her December arrest in Vancouver.

Those events have had obvious consequences for canola trade in particular and for Canada/China relations more generally.

Prosecutorial and judicial independence are worthy principles for Canada’s government to defend in a world where the consequences of corruption are far too evident. Such principles do limit the power of a conscientious prime minister to do as he pleases, however, as now seems obvious.