The deployment vote trap

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With Canada sending military assistance to the situation in Iraq, we have heard loud calls for a vote on any deployment from one loud voice – that of Thomas Mulcair, the leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.  Citing a promise that Harper made when he first formed government, Mulcair says that any military deployments must go before a vote in Parliament – by which he presumably means only the House of Commons, since I’m not sure he wants the Senate to weigh in on this as well.  The problem with this particular demand for a vote on any deployment is that Mulcair is walking into a trap.

Deploying troops is a Crown prerogative under our system of Responsible Government.  That means that whichever government has the confidence of the Chamber can govern over matters that include foreign affairs and the military.  One of the advantages of this particular system is that it allows for a more rapid and decisive response, and one where the government is seen to be speaking with one voice.  In our system of government, it also allows for the loyal opposition to hold the government to account for its actions in these kinds of deployments.  If the Chamber is unsatisfied with how the government deals with its foreign affairs or prosecutes military campaigns, well, it has the option of calling a confidence vote at that time.

The arguments in calling for votes before deployments are made are many, but most of them rather facile.  MPs have spoken about how it’s the responsibility of legislators to made decisions before our men and women in uniform are sent into harm’s way.  That is demonstrably false – it’s the government’s job, and the job of legislators to hold them to account for that decision.  There is also talk about needing to bring everyone onside – especially for larger deployments – as a show of unity.  Again, this is false, because our government speaks with one voice under the doctrine of cabinet solidarity, and the legislature is not that voice.  Conflating government – meaning the Prime Minister and Cabinet – and the legislature is antithetical to our system of governance.

This isn’t to say that Parliament shouldn’t debate these deployments, because it absolutely should.  Debate is part of the accountability function.  It should probably not only be debating any deployment to Iraq, but probably our participation in NATO reassurance exercises in the Black Sea and the Baltic states as well because that too is part of holding the government to account for deployments.  (And it is curious that the NDP have said that these kinds of NATO deployments don’t need a vote, without articulating exactly how it’s different).  The line at which the Commons ceases to be able to hold the government to account, however, is when deployments get put to a vote.

The government is laying a trap when they offer votes on deployments because what it does is to launder the prerogative to make the decision, and it makes the legislature complicit in the decision.  In other words, by doing so, it immunizes the government against future criticism because when things go wrong – and things inevitably go wrong – they can simply tell the opposition “You voted for this.”  And if they voted against it, and yet it still passes because the government has a majority, they can and will simply say, “The House decided on this.  The matter is closed.”  It co-opts the legislature and blunts the opposition’s ability to hold the government to account.  It happened before, not only with regards to the Afghanistan mission, but even with criticisms levelled at the government for the appointment of Christiane Ouimet as the first Public Service Integrity Commissioner, or Arthur Porter to the Security and Intelligence Review Committee.  In either case, when things went wrong, the government used the excuses of “you voted on this” or “you agreed when we consulted” to try and avoid accountability.  And make no mistake – it was no high-minded principle for which Harper and Jack Layton signed this agreement about deployment votes in 2006 – it was all about the political advantage each could score in splitting the Liberals over it.

“Oh, but other countries do this – even the UK!” defenders of the deployment vote cry.  The problem is the same in Westminster of immunizing the government, as one Conservative backbench MP there, Jesse Norman, realized and spoke about during the recent debate on the Iraq deployment – something we have yet to see a Canadian MP pick up on.  In other countries that don’t follow our system of Responsible Government, it is often found that their deployments are heavily burdened by caveats in order for them to be palatable enough to win a vote on – as we saw with numerous NATO allies in Afghanistan.

It’s not surprising that the current leader of the opposition is looking to give up yet another means by which he should be holding the government to account – it is, after all, a long-standing tradition among opposition leaders in this country which has been accelerating, especially with the proliferation of Officers of Parliament and the creation of the Parliamentary Budget Officer.  The fact that he doesn’t seem to realise that he’s walking into a trap, however, should be concerning for anyone who understands and respects the role that the opposition plays in our system of government.  It’s also scandalous that the pundit class would also be calling for this vote under the justification that with a majority, Harper would win it anyway.  That’s precisely why he shouldn’t – because it gives him that political cover going forward.

It’s nice to think that by voting on everything, we are trying to be “more democratic” about the way we conduct our governance.  The problem is that these votes weaken the tension that exists between the government and the legislature, and that in turn weakens Parliament’s accountability role.  We shouldn’t be demanding that we weaken that role – and yet that seems to be the state of the debate right now.

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Other articles by Dale Smith

For want of an activist Speaker
The ethics of crowd-sourcing your re-election
Term limits and the outsider fetish
Co-opting backbenchers
Democracy, not technocracy

Follow Dale Smith on twitter: @journo_dale

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