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May 13, 2010

Bad King Stephen

Geoffrey Stevens

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They called it the "Phoney War" - or, in German, "der Sitzkrieg" (the "sitting war") - that period between the German invasion of Poland in September 1939 and the beginning of the Battle of France in the spring of 1940. The two sides dug in and nothing much happened, on the land in Europe at least.

It’s a bit like that in Ottawa these days. Since the last election in 2008, the government and opposition parties have dug in. They glower and growl across the Commons chamber; they flood the country with puerile propaganda; they shake their fists and issue bold threats and dire warnings.

But the threats and warnings are hollow. Even if the three opposition parties could get their acts together, they will not force an election because they know they cannot unseat the Conservatives. And the Conservatives will not punish their opponents by calling a snap election because they know they cannot parlay their minority into a majority; an election would punish the government as much, if not more than the opposition.

So “der Sitzkrieg” continues.

This play-acting might be humorous if there were not some absolutely fundamental principles at issue. One is the right of the people in a democracy to know what their government is doing with their trust and their tax dollars — a right that has been eroded since the secrecy-obsessed Harper Tories took office.

The larger, and related, issue concerns the respective authorities of the executive — the Prime Minister’s Office and the cabinet — and the legislature — the House of Commons and its elected representatives. This is the issue that is playing out now in the battle over the disclosure of secret government documents in the Afghan detainee dispute.

The government refused to produce uncensored documents, citing national security, military strategy or troop morale. The Commons issued an order that the government disclose the documents. The government refused. Last week, Commons Speaker Peter Milliken ruled Parliament has the right to see the documents, warning that the government could be in contempt of Parliament if it continued to refuse. (A contempt ruling would almost certainly force the resignation of the minority government and bring on an election.)

Whatever is in the documents (and there may be nothing very startling) is less important than the core principle: who is the ultimate authority in a democracy — the appointed executive (ministers, aides, bureaucrats) or the elected legislature (the MPs we send to Ottawa)?

Most of the time, the executive and the legislature manage to get along, each respecting the other’s role. But when the relationship breaks down, as it has of late, who is the ultimate authority? Who is the boss?

If you will permit another historical allusion, this was the issue, writ large, that “Bad King John” faced in that meadow at Runnymede in 1215 when he was forced to accept the Magna Carta, the seminal document that reduced the powers of the king, imposed new limits on those powers, and allowed for the creation of a powerful Parliament (albeit not by popular election in medieval days).

Magna Carta remains the basis of British citizens’ rights and its principles resonate in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights and the Canadian Constitution and Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Chances are the Harper government will either cave in or accept a face-saving accommodation to avoid a contempt citation and probable election. A cave-in, an unconditional surrender, would be clearly preferable because it would re-entrench the principle that Parliament must be paramount.

If the Conservatives get their way on the Afghan file, what will happen next time? What will happen if the government tries to hide documents, say, that would reveal a massive electoral fraud or political corruption on a scale that put the Sponsorship Scandal to shame?

Would it tamely produce the documents? Or would “Bad King Stephen” invoke the Afghan precedent and tell Parliament to go to hell, again?

Published by the KW Record, May 3, 2010.

Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. He welcomes comments at

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