King Justin

In my latest column for the National Post I argue that Trudeau manhandling MPs was not just rudeness to colleagues. It was an assault by the executive branch on the legislature and, therefore, on Canadian citizens, who elect MPs to control the government on their behalf.

One more reason we urgently need to fix our Constitution. Please back our documentary project and help us show the way.


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Voting 101

In my latest column for the National Post I argue that we all know on fundamental things we vote by simple majority, Ayes v Nays. Including electing MPs and absolutely including changing how we vote. Otherwise our constitutional order has no legitimacy.


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I’ll drink to that

On Friday a Provincial Court judge in New Brunswick struck down a duly enacted law and I couldn’t be happier. It was a section of the provincial liquor act limiting the right to buy beer next door in Quebec and it was clearly unconstitutional.

Now it might seem that I like judicial activism when it goes my way. But it’s not that at all. It’s that properly designed constitutions are set up to keep government limited even when the ambitions of politicians or a temporary lapse in the good sense of the public push them to expand, and to guarantee that rights are respected even when expedience seems to argue for violating them. When courts strike down laws that infringe basic constitutional guarantees of liberty, it’s not activism. It’s proper checks and balances against legislative or executive activism.

There is in the end no paper defence against people genuinely heedless or contemptuous of their own liberties and those of others. But the American Constitution is famously an appeal “from the people drunk to the people sober” and so is ours even when the issue is the right to buy beer. As a Macdonald-Laurier Institute press release praising the judgement rightly notes, our Constitution deliberately forbade the provinces from engaging in petty internal protectionism.

The release links to a paper I had the privilege of coauthoring with Institute Executive Director Brian Lee Crowley and the late Robert Knox back in 2010 explaining what our Founders did and why and how, and how the federal government could and should act to make their vision a reality. It’s excellent that a court has taken the right view of this matter and I hope the ruling is not appealed or, if it is, that it is upheld.

I also hope the federal parliament will be emboldened to legislate and end to all such protectionism. It clearly has the power and not just the right but the duty.

Meanwhile our own draft constitution, part of our “True, Strong and Free” project, will not only reiterate but strengthen the constitutional provision against internal protectionism just to be safe. But here’s one case where a court has acted in the genuine spirit of the constitution and of upholding legitimate rights not inventing unworkable ones. And it deserves our applause.


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Judges please be nice

An odd piece in today’s National Post by former federal justice minister and attorney-general Peter Mackay laments that “Over the last decade, the Supreme Court has often seemed at odds with elected governments over legislation designed to emphasize enforcement of the rule of law and reflect the public demand for greater accountability.” The complaint is not odd given how often the Court was at odds with the ministry in which he served or given how often Courts do now make law. What is odd is that he offers no remedy.

In the piece, which I’m not linking to because I can’t find an online version, he complains that judge-made law seems not to meet the needs of the situation: “Lost in the activist celebration in some circles are the basic facts. Recidivism rates in some areas of our justice system are on the rise and public confidence in our system is waning and turning victims in particular away from reporting.” And he notes that judges increasingly go beyond their mandate to strike down blatantly unconstitutional law to override decisions made by legislators elected in campaigns in which those issues were thoroughly debated. But his argument seems to be mostly against the substance of what judges are doing, not the process.

To be sure, his concluding paragraph says “Today one branch encroaches on another over mandatory minimums or truth in sentencing. Let the next activist victory not be at the expense of society’s most vulnerable.” And the first part seems to point to rebalancing our constitution. But the second seems to me to be a plea to judges not to misuse their mighty new powers.

I say “activist” victories should not be at the expense of society’s elected representatives, and of the right of the rest of us to control government and set the terms under which it operates. All three branches of government, that is. Which is why, again, we launched our “True Strong and Free” project to fix the constitution, including restoring balance with respect to the judiciary rather than just begging judges to be nice to us.



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Johnson v Obama on Brexit

A nice piece in today’s Daily Telegraph advocating Brexit and criticizing Barack Obama’s intervention in the debate (on which I commented recently), by London mayor and long-time columnist Boris Johnson. He says that “to stay in the EU” is to consent “to the slow and insidious erosion of democracy in this country”. He’s exactly right. And if the pro-EU campaigners aren’t exactly aware of it, they certainly hold a worldview that categorizes genuine self-government as an irritating obstacle to progress rather than vital to preserving a decent society.

There is no European Magna Carta and it matters. And if we want to maintain the foundations of individual dignity and enterprise that have made Canada what it is, we need to recapture our own sense of the enduring importance of self government and an awareness that, to the extent that “progress” and liberty are antithetical, we should choose liberty.


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So close, and yet so far

A curious intervention by Barack Obama in Britain’s debate over leaving the EU. It’s not odd that he supports them staying in. He would. But it’s odd that for once he got the premise so right though as usual he got the conclusion so wrong.

After a ritual nod to Britons’ right to decide their destiny for themselves, the American president launched into a rightly derided and probably counterproductive attempt to cajole and bully them into submerging their sovereignty in the European Union, including threatening their access to American markets with a claim that a genuinely independent Britain would go to “the back of the queue” for a trade deal, well behind the EU. So much for the special relationship, I guess.

I find Obama’s performance more than usually curious because his effort to flatter the British drew on the shared values that underlie that special relationship: “As citizens of the United Kingdom take stock of their relationship with the EU, you should be proud that the EU has helped spread British values and practices – democracy, the rule of law, open markets – across the continent and to its periphery.”

He’s quite right about the first part. Those are British and subsequently American, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand values. Government in the Anglosphere, as we argued in our Magna Carta documentary and will in the “True North and Free” project currently under way, is dramatically different even from government in the more politically pleasant parts of Europe, let alone the rest of the world. And Obama isn’t normally sensitive to such matters, to put it mildly. But he went on to say “The European Union doesn’t moderate British influence – it magnifies it.” And that’s completely wrong.

The EU isn’t democratic. It’s not tyrannical. But it is bureaucratic, centralized and unaccountable. It stands more for rule by law than of law, in the vital sense of fair, stable rules that arise from the people and protect their right to make their own choices. And it stands for government meddling not open markets. I do think the British example has made Europe better over time; even France, let alone Germany, has to some extent been embarrassed into creating more responsive and less repressive governments. But both also made impressive efforts to crush British liberty by force. And neither have embraced the common law system under which governments emanate from the people organically rather than standing majestically, or stodgily, above them.

Obama then claimed that “A strong Europe is not a threat to Britain’s global leadership; it enhances Britain’s global leadership. The United States sees how your powerful voice in Europe ensures that Europe takes a strong stance in the world, and keeps the EU open, outward looking, and closely linked to its allies on the other side of the Atlantic. So the US and the world need your outsized influence to continue – including within Europe.” Which is utter bosh.

Britain’s influence in the world has dwindled dramatically since it joined the European Economic Community, forerunner to the EU, back in 1973. Not only because it joined. But it was part and parcel of turning away from the glorious heritage of liberty that had made this damp, chilly foggy group of islands a hyperpower economically, culturally and militarily and also the “Mother of the Free” described in Land of Hope and Glory. Worse, Britain’s influence in Britain has dwindled, as law, regulation, and even jurisprudence come increasingly from the alien continental system.

For over a thousand years Britons decided their destiny for themselves, via a Parliament that controlled the executive in a way not even Europeans managed and nobody else really even tried. That is the system that spread to the United States as well as Australia, New Zealand and Canada. And precisely because democracy in the desirable sense, rule of law in the desirable sense and open markets in the genuine sense are British values, they should leave the EU.

Europe is so close to Britain. And yet it is so far away. And so is Barack Obama.


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The right to what?

A curious story in today’s National Post says PEI’s Liberal administration will start providing abortions because it doesn’t believe it can defeat a court challenge claiming abortion is secretly a Charter right.

Frankly it sounds like one more case of politicians using judges as a handy excuse to do something they want to do anyway without the hassle of defending it to voters. Time was ministries felt an obligation to defend existing law in court unless they were willing to stand up in the legislature and urge that it be changed or repealed, which arguably contributed to accountability in government. I’m not sure what was wrong with that system. But there’s a deeper question here.

Specifically, how can the Charter mandate abortion so clearly that governments fold like cheap lawn furniture before an activists’ challenge when (a) it doesn’t mention it (b) many of those who wrote the Charter opposed abortion and would be both astounded and horrified to be told that without realizing they’d secretly written it in?

Alternatively, if it’s that obvious, why didn’t the brave politicians notice and act on it before the challenge was filed?

This sort of disingenuous legislative-judicial two-step is no way to settle important and contentious questions. Instead, it’s one more reason we need a real Constitution, based on popular consent, with a real Charter of Rights that guarantees real rights in plain language even citizens can read and understand, with no invisible ink.


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Meet the new senators, same as the old senators

My colleague Kelly McParland writes perceptively that Prime Minister Trudeau’s new Senate appointments have attracted less notice than they should have.

I should confess first that I was once again not on the list and second that Kelly quotes me approvingly in the piece that the list is so predictable “it might have been selected by an affirmative action random-elite-candidate-generator.”. And now I want to return the favour by quoting him approvingly.

“Would it have been too much to include just one new senator who doesn’t see government as the answer to every problem? An entrepreneur? Someone who’s been required to meet a payroll or risked their own money on an idea?”

Apparently it would. Which is why we need to fix the constitution including creating a Senate that is truly legitimate because it is elected, is independent of the Prime Minister and yet effective, and represents the provinces without paralyzing Parliament.

Yes it can be done. Australia does it. And in our upcoming documentary we’ll give a lot more detail on how to make it work. Including why it’s especially troubling to see former senior public servants become legislators. The fusion of the upper reaches of the public service and the legislature into a fourth branch unknown to constitutional theory is not good for our democracy.


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