Inside Politics

Government shutdown: Could it happen in Canada?

Short answer: No, it can't.

Well, that's a bit anticlimactic. What's the long answer?

I'm so glad you asked, since it so perfectly illustrates the brutally binary nature of the Westminster parliamentary system. 

Basically, as long as the government of the day maintains the confidence of the House, it can pass whatever budgetary measures it wishes.

The instant that confidence is lost, however, so, too, is the authority to continue as government.

If a Canadian budget bill -- or, to use the proper term, a supply motion -- were to suffer the same fate as the funding initiatives stymied by the US Senate, the prime minister would have no choice but to make the trek to Rideau Hall to ask the Governor General to draw up the necessary paperwork to dissolve Parliament and call a general election.

(In theory, of course, one or more opposition parties could attempt to persuade the GG to give them the opportunity to test the will of the House, but generally speaking, the question is ultimately put to the electorate, which, in its own way, serves as the ultimate confidence check.)

So, what happens if a government falls without a budget in place? Wouldn't that cause a temporary shutdown, at least?

No, it wouldn't, but it would require the Governor General to issue a Special Warrant -- basically, a short-term line of credit, which allows the government to continue to draw money from the consolidated revenue fund without the authorization of Parliament, albeit very specific, and limited conditions:

      • Parliament is dissolved;
      • a Minister has reported that an expenditure is urgently required for the public good;
      • and the President of the Treasury Board has reported that there is no appropriation for the payment.

Once issued, a Special Warrants is valid from the date of dissolution until 60 days after a general election, and must be tabled within 15 days of the opening of the new Parliament, which also has to retroactively approve it.

Interestingly, until the late 90s, governments could request a Special Warrant any time the House wasn't in session.

In fact, in 1989, due to adjournment/prorogation timing issues, the Mulroney government wound up taking the extraparliamentary appropriation route no fewer than three times in under a year --which, as you can imagine, didn't go over well with the opposition of the day.

Although Speaker Fraser ultimately found that the rules had been followed, "there remained concerns about the legitimacy and propriety of this practice," according to O'Brien and Bosc.

In 1997, then-Liberal backbencher Peter Milliken -- would later, of course, be elected Speaker himself -- put forward a private members' bill that tweaked the law to restrict the use of Special Warrants to periods of dissolution.

Okay, that's all very interesting, but what if the Governor General were to say no?

I don't think that's ever happened. I'm not sure it can happen. I'll try to find out, and update this post if I get a definitive answer. 

UPDATE: It turns out that particular question may be trickier than it looks. As yet, neither the Speaker's Office nor Rideau Hall have been able to provide a simple yes or no answer, so I've sought the advice of a constitutional law professor. So far, the general consensus seems to be that a Special Warrant request could, theoretically, be rejected, but such a rebuff would likely trigger a constitutional crisis of King-Byng-esque epic proportions. 

FINAL UPDATEAnd we have an answer, courtesy of University of Ottawa professor Philippe Lagasse, who offered the following via twitter:

"As with any act of the GG, a refusal is always a possibility, but would only occur in the most extreme cases. But [the] wording of the [Financial Administration Act] makes it fairly clear that the GG would not refuse a request if the stipulated conditions are met. More fundamentally, though, the GG has a foremost duty to ensure the public good and the continuance of government, so unless the warrants are being used in an effort to circumvent the constitution, no refusal is likely." 

In any case, let's all take a moment to thank our lucky stars that, for all its faults, the oft-maligned parliamentary system does, at least, come with a built-in fail-safe device to prevent the country -- or, at least, the operations of government -- from being plunged into fiscal limbo.   

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