It’s always easy to seek permission when you know you’ll get it. While not required to do so, the Liberals asked the House of Commons to vote recently on whether to ratify the Paris Agreement, an international climate change accord. In contrast, they do not intend to ask Parliament to approve their plan to send 600 soldiers to Africa on a peacekeeping mission. It seems they care to have Parliament’s backing for one important international undertaking but not the other. Odd, no?
I’d venture a guess this has something to do with the issue up for discussion. Putting the Paris Agreement to the House was all upside. It allowed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to shine on a popular topic and was always certain to receive broad party support. A debate on the government’s embryonic peacekeeping mission, on the other hand, would invite some uncomfortable questions. Like “Mr. Speaker, can the minister explain whether there is a purpose for this mission beyond winning a seat on the United Nations Security Council?” Or “Can the minister say where there is any precedent for Canada engaging in an open-ended shopping trip to find a mild to moderately dangerous conflict zone?”
That the Liberals would wish to avoid such questions is understandable. That they’re allowed to is perverse. The fact that cabinet is authorized to act without Parliamentary approval on foreign affairs doesn’t mean it should do so whenever it chooses. On matters of military deployments in particular, the House of Commons should be required to weigh in.
In inheriting Britain’s Westminster system, Canada adopted a legal tradition where foreign affairs are conducted at the prerogative of the Crown. This means the prime minister and cabinet can unilaterally enter international agreements and deploy troops abroad, among other things.
Importantly, the executive’s agreement-making powers are hemmed in by Parliament. In January 2008, the Harper government introduced a policy on tabling treaties in Parliament that, as its name suggests, engages Parliament in the treaty-making process. Under the policy, MPs are to debate proposed treaties and pass motions recommending action in all but exceptional circumstances. Although the executive is not bound by their vote, it would be risky to ignore it.
By comparison, there are few parliamentary checks on the executive’s decision to deploy troops, keep them abroad or bring them home. While Parliament could withdraw confidence from the government or deny funds for a mission, these are fairly blunt instruments that are unlikely to be used in practice.
As such, the executive gets to consult Parliament when it’s convenient to do so, or not when it’s not. To give you a sense of it, the Commons had no say on Canada’s commitment to the Korean War, involvement in Kosovo, initial deployments to Afghanistan or on peacekeeping missions. Given the human, financial and diplomatic stakes of any military expedition, this is extraordinary, even if it’s legal.
MPs complain vociferously whenever they’re not consulted on deployments, but do nothing to stop it. They could, though. A policy like the one on tabling treaties is one option, although there’s a risk it would be ignored at the executive’s whim. Something stronger is necessary.
The British recognized this after then-prime minister Tony Blair committed the country to the 2003 Iraq war. Parliament set about developing a constitutional convention to constrain the Crown’s prerogative. Both houses published reports stating the executive must obtain Commons’ approval for military deployments except in emergencies. In 2011, cabinet updated its cabinet manual with similar language. As a result, cabinet sought Parliament’s approval for enforcing the no-fly zone over Libya in 2011, and sending forces to conduct strikes against Syria in 2013. When the Commons voted against the latter, then-prime minister David Cameron promised to respect the House’s wishes.
There are serious questions to be asked about the Liberals’ proposed peacekeeping mission. The public should have confidence it is not simply about burnishing a nostalgic image of Canada from the 1960s or winning a prized Security Council seat. Only a debate can bring these issues to the fore.
The Liberals of all people should recognize this. As Trudeau recently told MPs, “The government is not obliged to seek the approval of Parliament prior to ratifying the Paris Agreement.… We have chosen, however, to bring this issue before the House because we think it is important that all parliamentarians – and through them, all Canadians – be given a chance to debate and vote on this crucial issue.” Would they care to explain why this same logic does not apply to sending our troops into harm’s way?
This article was originally published at the National Post and is being republished courtesy of the National Post