“Harper’s New Rules” for Government Formation: Fact or Fiction?

Article 6 / 12 , Vol 36 No 1 (Spring)

“Harper’s New Rules” for Government Formation: Fact or Fiction?

When the minority government of Stephen Harper faced a non-confidence motion and likely defeat by an opposition coalition shortly after the 2008 election the Prime Minister argued that a coalition could not legitimately take power without an election. The impending defeat was staved off by prorogation and subsequent events but the so called “New Rules” of the Prime Minister were criticized by constitutional experts who saw them as infringing the established principles of responsible government which allow the Governor General to appoint a new government following an early vote of non-confidence. The Prime Minister’s later claim that the 2011 election was a choice between a Conservative majority or coalition – seemed to reject his own “New Rules” and was seen as evidence of his political expediency. This paper considers the constitutional politics concerning coalition governments that arose, first in 2008 and then again in 2011. It focuses on the question whether, and if so under what circumstances, a coalition can displace a minority government without holding new elections. It surveys the work of both critics and supporters of the “New Rules” and argues that Mr. Harper’s 2008 and 2011 positions are not inconsistent or contradictory.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is said to have taken a new and constitutionally suspect approach to government formation in 2008, insisting that only new elections could change parliamentary governments. “Harper’s New Rules,”1 generated an outpouring of criticism from constitutional scholars.

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