Trudeau’s failed power grab is an attack on democracy

The Trudeau government’s effort to transfer power temporarily from the House of Commons to the Office of the Finance Minister was an unconstitutional attempt to bypass the will of Canadians as expressed in the 2019 election. By stopping them, the opposition parties have done great service to the country.

The effort is puzzling because no such move is contemplated in the Emergencies Act. The Act was designed to transfer enormous ability to the federal sphere, including powers from exclusive provincial jurisdictions, for renewable periods of 90 days. But no previous Parliament considering emergencies had contemplated what Prime Minister Trudeau wanted: to relieve the House of Commons of one of its most significant constitutional features, and for along period of time.

Why would the House of Commons delegate to the finance minister the most important power it holds for a period that is seven times longer than the time the Emergencies Act contemplates for the transferring of lesser powers?

The 90-day requirement in the Act is a deliberate limitation on government power, placed in the understanding that power can be abused, and concentrated power can be abused the more.

Let’s ask what about the present situation is so radically unusual to warrant the deviation? What is so different about this government that Canadians should trust them seven times more than they have contemplated to trust previous governments with emergency powers in the past?

The wish to augment its influence was not about taxes and spending. This was about removing constitutional restrictions and a government wishing to free itself from limitations that voters recently placed on it.

To limit government power and to protect our individual liberties and property, our constitutional traditions place the power to spend and tax in the House of Commons. The lion’s share of the obligations to limit power and protect citizens falls on the shoulders of the House of Commons as a check on the executive power.

Emanating from the same tradition – and going as far back as Magna Carta in 1215 – governments may not appropriate the fruits of their citizen’s labour – of which taxing is one manifestation – without their consent. In our parliamentary democracy, only the House of Commons may grant such consent. What the Trudeau government wanted to do is not contemplated in the Emergencies Act because it is unconstitutional.

Nor can the consent to tax be farmed out. In Eurig Estate (1998), the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the principle that taxation must originate in the House of Commons and cannot constitutionally be delegated to any one government officer or department.

The full consent of the House of Commons to tax and spend is so crucial a piece in our constitutional tradition that losing the confidence of the House may trigger the demise of a government (and therefore an election).

And here is the core of the matter.

We have a minority government, intending to shield itself from the cornerstone principle of responsible government by dispensing with the confidence of the House, circumventing the oversight of Parliament for 21 months.

But why? Not many will believe that Justin Trudeau stealthily intended to start paving a road for Canada to become a banana republic.

The move simply sought to take advantage of a crisis to gain self-serving political convenience. It would have insulated the minority government from all possibility of losing a vote on a money bill for the subsequent 21 months, turning a minority government into an invincible super minority. In fact, Trudeau’s minority government would be even more powerful than the majority government he led before that.

It would have entirely freed the Liberal government from the annoyance of opposition, allowing them to govern in minority without having to satisfy the House on financial matters, and without having to make the compromises that are typical of regular politics.

The opposition parties (less the Bloc which rolled over) deserve good credit here. Government without limitations is very rarely good government. The lack of limitations always opens greater avenues for abusing power. And this government has already been repeatedly reluctant to follow rules and respect the law.

Last fall – with scant representation from Western Canada, and second place in the popular vote – Canadians sent the Trudeau Liberals back to Parliament to form a minority government, thus placing greater limitations on their power than before.

This week, we saw an attempt to shake lose from the inconvenience of that electoral outcome. What we witnessed was a bold attempt at usurping popular power.