Canada's Constitutional Crisis

Resident Fellow
David Frum
In 1975, Australia's Governor General, John Kerr, dismissed Australia's prime minister, Gough Whitlam, and summoned to power the leader of the opposition, Malcolm Fraser.

That's the last time in British Commonwealth history that a Governor General disregarded advice from a sitting prime minister. Kerr's decision provoked the most ferocious political crisis in Australian history.

What the opposition parties are asking for is a constitutional revolution--a reclaiming of monarchical powers last exercised when Victoria reigned.

Yet if Canadian Governor General Michaelle Jean did what the Canadian left now wants--dismiss Prime Minister Harper and install a Liberal-NDP coalition government without an intervening election--she will be extending her powers far, far, far beyond anything that Kerr contemplated:

1) Kerr did not act until an unresolveable political crisis had extended for almost a month--and until the stalemate between an Opposition majority in the Australian Senate and a governing majority in the House of Commons threatened to push the country into financial crisis. The Canadian impasse is not even a week old, and there is no urgent reason why democratic politics cannot be allowed to run their normal course for some time to come.

2) Kerr acted to force an election. He named Fraser as prime minister only on condition that Fraser dissolved both House and Senate and sought immediate elections for both bodies. (Which Fraser then won.) Canada's Liberals by contrast want to be appointed to power without an intervening election. They are not asking the Governor General to break a stalemate. They are asking her to use royal prerogative to choose a government that will endeavor to hold power and avoid an election as long as it can. Nothing like that has been seen in the Westminster democracies since before Britain's Reform Act of 1867.

3) Kerr deliberated carefully before acting. In fact, he secured a letter in writing approving his actions in advance from the chief justice of the Australian Supreme Court. As far as anyone knows, Michaelle Jean has not (yet) done so.

4) Kerr was appointed Governor General by the very prime minister he later dismissed, and belonged to the prime minister's own party. Nobody could accuse him of partisan motives. Kerr was also a man of large independent reputation, who had previously served as chief justice of the supreme court of an Australian state, New South Wales. Canadian Governor General Michaelle Jean, by contrast, owes her appointment to the party that would benefit from her actions, and her previous record shows strong sympathies for the policies and ideology of the coalition seeking to claim power.

It seems incredible in the face of such facts that a Governor General would press her powers further than John Kerr ever contemplated. And my guess is that she won't: that she'll accept Prime Minister Harper's advice and prorogue Parliament for a month, with new elections to follow in the new year. That will be a political crisis--and maybe a big economic mistake--but it will at least follow the normal constitutional rules. What the opposition parties are asking for, by contrast, is a constitutional revolution--or rather a counter-revolution, a reclaiming of monarchical powers last exercised when Victoria reigned.

David Frum is a resident fellow at AEI.

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About the Author


  • David Frum is the author of six books, most recently, Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again (Doubleday, 2007). While at AEI, he studied recent political, generational, and demographic trends. In 2007, the British newspaper Daily Telegraph named him one of America's fifty most influential conservatives. Mr. Frum is a regular commentator on public radio's Marketplace and a columnist for The Week and Canada's National Post.

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