Government powers are reduced during an election

The prime minister to likes to act prime-ministerial but his powers are reduced by a little-known convention. You won’t find the Caretaker Convention on any government website but I found a source.


Caretaker conventions are like precedents in law: they determine how government functions.

Powers are reduced because the government has essentially lost the confidence of the house and is at the end of its term says parliamentary expert John Wilson in the Canadian Parliamentary Review.

“The fundamental significance of this observation – when it comes to the importance of maintaining responsible government in our system – is hardly removed by the distinction which is made between a government which has lost the confidence of the House of Commons and one which has merely dissolved parliament in the ordinary course of approaching the legal end of its term in office.”

Canada is in limbo during an election. Once parliament resumes, the Governor General will appoint a party leader most likely to command a majority in legislature. The rules are set down by the Library of Parliament’s instructions to parliamentarians called Constitutional Conventions.

“The Governor General may dismiss a government if (1) an opposition party has won a majority in an election and the existing government refuses to resign, or (2) a government has been defeated on a clear vote of confidence and neither calls an election nor resigns.”

Since this government seems to have a poor grip on the law, Canadians should watch for excesses. The government suspiciously keeps the convention hidden. Mark Jarvis wonders why in his National Post article: Why does Canada not disclose its rules concerning ‘caretaker’ governments (April 4)?

Other countries such as Australia, Great Britain and New Zealand make their Caretaker Conventions public. “By virtue of it not being a public document, it is impossible for the opposition, observers or the public to determine whether its rules have been followed or breached,” complains Jarvis.

Following Jarvis’ complaint, Blogger James Bowden decided to do a little digging and through a freedom-of-information request was sent an unredacted copy of Canada’s Caretaker Convention which he posted on his blog.

Looking at it, I see no reason for secrecy. It spells out the limitations established by experts and agreed to by governments. “Most of these directives serve as common-sense reminders to separate government and partisan activity,” says Bowden.

Failing to make the document publically available creates a sense that the government can do what it wants.

That seems to be the case when the Justice department warned its employees against social media: activity critical of the federal government. The department  thinks that civil servants have a duty of loyalty to the government and must refrain from criticism. That’s contrary to the Convention:

“Those who remain in their position and to become involved on a part-time basis may participate in campaign activities on their own time, outside normal working hours, while not carrying out official duties.”

Or maybe Prime Minister Harper doesn’t want us to know that his government is a caretaker only, just filling in, a nominal administration that will last only until the next government is declared.


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