This article offers a response to arguments put forward by Rainer Knopff and Dave Snow in the Canadian Parliamentary Review about the 2008 prorogation controversy. In “‘Harper’s New Rules’ for Government Formation: Fact or Fiction?” (Vol. 36, No. 1), Knopff and Snow dismiss the theory that the Conservative government and its well-known supporters in the punditry believed that changes in partisan control of parliamentary government could only occur following fresh elections, thereby establishing “new rules”. Instead, they suggest the arguments of government supporters at the time, most notably those of political scientist Tom Flanagan, fit within the mainstream of Canada’s parliamentary tradition and engaged with an “older consensus” articulated by constitutional expert Eugene Forsey in The Royal Power of Dissolution. In his response to this piece, the author is critical of Flanagan’s engagement with Forsey’s book-length argument and suggests Forsey’s conditions for dissolving parliament and holding a new election were not met in the face of the proposed coalition government in 2008.
What constitutional sense can we make of the prorogation controversy of December 2008? Prime Minister Harper claimed that the proposed Liberal-NDP coalition could not take power without a fresh election. Anything short of a vote flouted democratic principles. Conservative talking points alleged this amounted to a ‘coup d’état.’ Opinion writers Tom Flanagan1 and Michael Bliss2 jumped into the fray, Flanagan alleging that the coalition’s “apologists didn’t pay attention in Political Science 101” and instead promoted a “head-spinning violation of democratic norms.”3 The opposition’s conceit, maintained Bliss, was that “they can legally succeed in what millions of Canadians see as the overturning of the outcome of the democratic election, and do it without giving Canadians the ultimate say in the matter.”4 Could not governments change hands without fresh elections? Though coalition governments at the federal level have mostly been the exception, one would think that this was entirely consistent with Canadian parliamentary traditions.