Top five myths about the Queen and the UK constitution

The 2017 British election is over. Either out of ignorance or an effort to make things more dramatic, reports have played up the Queen’s role in government formation. Although we might expect the UK to have a better grasp of the Queen’s role in the constitution, that’s not always the case.

So, just for fun and to vent, here are what I see as the top five myths about the Queen’s role in the British constitution:

1) The Queen continues to have a significant role in government formation and the life of a Parliament. 

As laid out in the UK’s Cabinet Manual, the process of government formation in the UK keeps the Queen out of the fray. Political parties are expected to work out who can carry the Commons’ confidence themselves. In addition, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, 2011 removed the Queen’s power to dissolve Parliament and gave it to the House of Commons.

2) The Queen is a pure figurehead and has no influence / the Queen continues to exercise outsized influence over  government policy.

I put these together since they both make the mistake of going too far, but at opposite extremes.

The Queen doesn’t have substantial influence over the affairs of government, but she does have powers of persuasion and her views have mattered quite a bit in the past. However, it’s overstated to say that the Queen or Prince Charles are involved in directing ministers over policy matters.

3) The Queen and the Prince of Wales personally veto bills.

The Guardian likes to talk about the supposed ‘secret’ veto powers that the Queen and Prince of Wales have over legislation in the UK. In reality, they’re not secret and they don’t exercise the veto themselves. Legislation that touches on the powers or property of the Queen and Prince of Wales is subject to what’s known as Crown consent. Although it’s true that withholding Crown consent can prevent a bill from become a law, that decision belongs with ministers, not the royals.

4) The Queen is paid and subsidized by the British taxpayer. 

This is a pretty pervasive myth and even ardent monarchists fall for it. The Queen’s official residences and activities are funded via the Sovereign Grant and the amount is ultimately determined by Parliament. Because the Sovereign Grant is paid by the Treasury, it’s argued that the Queen is therefore getting money from taxpayers.

This is wrong for a few reasons. First, not all money that goes into the Treasury comes from taxes or taxpayers. Among other sources are the profits of the Crown Estate. The Crown Estate are holdings that the Queen owns in her official capacity. As part of an agreement that dates to the 18th Century, every new monarch agrees to surrender the profits of the Crown Estate to the Treasury in exchange for a set amount of funding. When this deal was originally struck, the monarchy needed additional money from Parliament because the revenues of the Crown Estate were insufficient. Today, the Crown Estate makes a good deal of money (£304.1 million in 2015-2016), far more than the Queen requires to run her official households and affairs (£76.1 million for 2017-2018). As a result, Parliament initially indexed the Sovereign Grant to 15% of the Crown Estate’s profits, though that can be adjusted as required.

Now, the retort I often get is: but the money comes out of the Treasury, so it’s still taxpayer money. But the reason that it comes out of the Treasury is simple. The Treasury is a consolidated fund: all money goes into a big pot and gets distributed after. That’s how a consolidated fund works.

5) The Queen is a British citizen. 

The Queen isn’t a citizen of the UK; hers is the authority that confers citizenship.

Wait, what? Back before the idea modern state and citizenship, people were a monarch’s subjects and the Crown was the concept of the state. This remains formally true in the UK. The Crown is the formal concept of the state, the Crown and the Queen are fused in law, and therefore the Queen is the authority that grants citizenship.

By the way, this is also why the Queen isn’t a Canadian citizen, despite being Canada’s head of state. She doesn’t need Canadian citizenship because she’s the personification of the Canadian state and the authority that grants Canadian citizenship.

 

More on the awkwardness of Charles and the Canadian Constitution

I have a piece up today at Policy Options looking at Prince Charles’ awkward constitutional status in Canada.

The article mentions the divisibility of the Crown and Canada’s previous position on royal succession.

For those who are interested, here’s an elaboration of that part of the argument:

Canada was under the sovereignty of the Imperial Crown of the United Kingdom when the Dominion was confederated in 1867. There was no notion of a separate Canadian Crown at the time, nor of a distinct Queen of Canada. Following the Statute of Westminster, 1931, however, the Imperial Crown was gradually divided, such that there were separate and distinct Crowns and Queens for the United Kingdom, Canada, and the other Dominions. This was reflected in the Sovereign only taking advice from the ministers of the Dominions for matters that affect their state alone, the updating of Royal Styles and Titles, and the seminal finding of the English Court of Appeal in the 1982 Alberta Indians case, where Lord Justice May noted that “In matters of law of government the Queen of the United Kingdom is entirely independent and distinct from the Queen of Canada.” If the British and Canadian Crowns are now separate and distinct, the Prince can only have a constitutional status in Canada by virtue of Canadian law.

This brings us to the second option: that references to the Queen in the constitution implicitly give her successors a Canadian status. Historical developments up to 1982 reinforce this interpretation. When Canada was a Dominion of the British Empire under the sovereignty of the Imperial Parliament, British laws related to royal succession applied to the colonies and self-governing Dominions by paramount force. This meant that the Act of Settlement, 1701, the main law dealing with royal succession, applied in Canada. Following the Statute of Westminster, 1931 the British Parliament was prevented from legislating for Canada without the request and consent of the Canadian government. Hence, an alteration to the British law of royal succession would no longer apply automatically to Canada through paramount force. The Canadian government would need to request and consent that the British law apply to Canada. This is what occurred in 1936 when Edward VIII abdicated. Since his abdication required a changes to the law of royal succession, the Canadian government requested and consent that the British Parliament’s His Majesty’s Declaration of Abdication Act, 1936 extend to Canada.

Further evidence that Canadian law included matters of royal succession came in 1978, when the Trudeau government introduced Bill C-60, An Act amending the Constitution. Section 30 of C-60 would have styled and titled the Queen as the “Queen of Canada” alone and held that her “her sovereignty as such shall pass to her heirs and successors in accordance with law.” This reference to law must have meant Canadian law for two reasons. First, the purpose of the Bill was to sever Canada’s legal and constitutional ties with the United Kingdom, as well as clarify that the Queen of Canada was uniquely Canadian. Second, the explanatory notes accompanying the Bill make no mention of the statement surrounding succession. If the intent had been to break with the precedent set in 1936, then one would expect it to at least be mentioned.

Bill C-60 was later abandoned and a new constitutional framework was negotiated between the federal and provincial government. When completed, the draft of what would become the Constitution Act, 1982 only included a provision that that “office of the Queen” would require the unanimous consent of Parliament and provincial legislatures to amend. When asked in 1981 why laws related to royal succession were not included in the schedule of the new constitutional document, then attorney general Jean Chrétien assured a parliamentary committee that the schedule was not exclusive; those laws were part of the Canadian constitution, despite not being explicitly mentioned.

After the Constitution Act, 1982 came into force, the Canadian government changed its mind. After the Commonwealth heads of government agreed to update the laws of royal succession in 2011, Queen Elizabeth II’s realms began updating their respective rules. Australia and New Zealand passed their own act updating the rules of royal succession in Australian and New Zealand law, as did the United Kingdom. Canada chose a different course. The Canadian government merely asked Parliament to assent to Britain’s new royal succession bill.

In effect, the Canadian government reverted to its pre-1931 position, effectively arguing that the British law of royal succession automatically applies to Canada, no longer by paramount force, but owing to an uncodified principle.

Lagassé’s rules for academic commentary in popular media

A few years ago Glen McGregor caused a row among Canadian political scientists on Twitter.

McGregor was laying out a few rules for political reporters and he included this one:

No more quoting political scientists:  It’s lazy and signals the reporter couldn’t find any other apparently neutral or objective source to talk. These people work in academics, not politics, so I’m not interested in their opinions on anything but their own research.

We got defensive, but as Andrew Potter and Paul Boothe pointed out, he was making an important point: Both journalists and academics are better off when professors only comment on what they know or what they can show.

This advice has become all the more important in light of the Potter Affair.

Potter’s ‘resignation’ from the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada has raised questions about academic freedom, the link between academic freedom and tenure, and the threat that McGill’s actions represent to women and minority academics.

But the Potter Affair has now given rise to another notion: that his op-ed represents the dangers universities run when they encourage professors to be visible in the media, write op-eds, and share their views with audiences outside the academy.

I think this presents a false dichotomy and turns our attention away from the real problem: the responsibilities of university administrators and the relationship between universities and powerful donors.

Nonetheless, I fear that the Potter Affair will be used by professors who never bought into public outreach, social media, etc., to cloister academics back into the safe, comfortable world of the ivory tower.

(Columnists who don’t like sharing the op-ed pages with academics may not mind that either. We can’t ignore the tensions that Potter pointed out between journalists and academics.)

As an academic who thinks wider engagement is important, and that professors make a valuable contribution to public debates through op-eds and media interviews, I’m determined to resist efforts to drag scholars back into a monastic model, where we only speak to one another or only blog about our latest peer reviewed articles.

But I also recognize that these critics aren’t totally off base. They’re right that we hurt the reputation of academics when we opine about things that fall outside of our areas of expertise.

Unless we avoid that damage, we may fuel efforts to cloister us.

So, in the sprit of McGregor’s Dogme95 of political reporting, I offer my rules for academic media engagement:

1) Only do interviews or write op-eds on subjects that fall under your area of expertise.

This is pretty simple. Don’t comment on American politics if you work on Canadian politics. Don’t write about international political economy if you study international security. I’m not saying you can’t have an opinion about subjects that you don’t research, but you shouldn’t use your professorial status to give your lay opinions more clout than they’re worth.

2) If you’re asked to do an interview or op-ed on a subject that you don’t research, recommend a professor who does work on the area, especially if you know qualified women or visible minorities.

Journalists need people to give informed takes and opinion page editors need content. If you are respecting rule 1 and can’t comment, direct them to people who can. And while you’re at it, help women and visible minority professors get more recognition. Again, pretty simple stuff.

3) Be provocative and exploratory in op-eds or blogs, but acknowledge that’s what you’re doing.

Op-eds and blogs are a great way of offering an informed, but provocative perspective. If there’s a topic in your area of expertise in the news, you should write about it and use your knowledge to offer a novel perspective, particularly if you expect most columnists to stick with rote points. You can also use op-eds and blogs to put new ideas out there. If you’ve got a hunch about something based on your expertise, then you can use these venues to test the waters. In both cases, however, it’s imperative that you tell the reader that you’re being exploratory or that you’re making an educated analysis, not representing the findings of a research project.

4) Finally, use op-eds and blogs to present analyses and arguments that wouldn’t be novel enough (or long enough) to publish in an academic journal or book, or when academic publishing would take too much time to get it out there.

I’m sure you’ve all been there. You see something in the news and want to offer an expert analysis of what’s happening. Or you see politicians deliberately misleading the public on an issue that falls under your area of research. You want to offer a corrective, but you know you aren’t saying something sufficiently novel for a peer reviewed journal article or book. Or you know that the issue will be long forgotten if you do go that route. In these cases, write an op-ed or a blog.

In closing, none of these rules are meant to silence academics. On the contrary, they’re meant to get us better prepared for the push to shut us up that seems to be brewing post-Potter.

I suspect most of us already follow them. But putting them out there offers a helpful counterbalance against the false dichotomy of academic research versus public engagement.

Have ‘peace’ operations been voted on by the Commons?

It’s unclear whether the Trudeau government will hold a vote in the House of Commons for its planning peace operation(s).

Although I don’t think they should for the reasons I’ve outlined here, here, and here, I suspect that the government ultimately will bring this mission(s) before the House for a vote.

The political advantages of holding the votes are many and the downsides are few in the short-term.

For the record, though, it’s important to recall that the Harper government only held votes for missions that were explicitly involved offensive operations.

Here’s a sample of Canadian military missions that weren’t brought to the Commons for a vote under the Harper government, because they weren’t combat operations or were tied to allied obligations:

The CAF training mission to Kabul, Afghanistan, 2011-2014 (Operation Attention).

The CAF’s support to French counterterrorism efforts in West Africa, 2015.

The CAF’s ongoing training mission in Ukraine (Operation UNIFER).

The deployment of naval forces and CF-18s to Central and Eastern Europe (Operation Reassurance).

The initial deployment of the CAF units to advise and assist local forces in Iraq, August-September 2014.

Were the Trudeau government to not hold a vote for a ‘peace’ mission, it would therefore be following the precedents set by its predecessor.

And I would also note that, despite what’s often assumed, the Liberals didn’t press for a vote on the advise and assist to Iraq in August-September 2014. They supported the mission without a vote until the issue of air strikes arose.

 

On elites and hard-working families

What does the term ‘elite’ mean in contemporary Canadian politics? Can someone such as Kellie Leitch, a physician and former Cabinet minister, stand in opposition to elites, given that she seems to be one?

Although this is not my area of study, it’s something that I think about a lot in my spare time. I’m not sure why, but I find it fascinating.

In so doing, I’ve come across a number of articles that make a key point: the word elite no longer refers to those possessing wealth or power. Elites can possess wealth and power, of course, but that’s not what the word necessarily implies anymore. This also helps explain why a number of people who have wealth and power use the term to great effect. In our contemporary political debates, elites refers to a set of characteristic, habits, traits, and performances that stand in contrast to the characteristics, habits, traits, and performances of ‘regular people’, or more commonly in Canada’s political thesaurus, ‘hard-working families’.

Now, it’s important to realize that ‘elites’ and ‘hard-working families’ are ideal types. Nobody fits perfectly into either category. Most of us can locate ourselves in both groups, depending on which subsets define us. As well, it’s possible to move in and out of the categories.

Based on my own, admittedly casual observations of how these terms are used, here’s a short, and somewhat sarcastic, list of what I think people mean when they speak about ‘elites’ and ‘ regular people / hard-working families’:

Elites

  • You work in a sector that depends on public funds (bureaucracy, university, NGOs, the arts), but you don’t wear a uniform (military, police, firefighter, nurse, paramedic) and you aren’t middle management or below (administrative assistant).
  • If forced to choose, you’d rather walk to work than have a bigger house.
  • You have a degree in social science or the humanities (economics and political/military history are exceptions.)
  • You own a hybrid or electric car, or think you should one day; alternatively, you cycle most everywhere.
  • You enjoy travelling overseas, but get annoyed when there are too many North American tourists.
  • You understand the following concepts and could easily incorporate them into a conversation or a piece of writing: privilege; cis; practice (yoga, writing, meditation, etc); neoliberalism.
  • You live near the downtown core of one of the following cities: Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Ottawa, and/or you live fairly close to a university.
  • You are bilingual or aspire to be (and not because you need to be for work.)
  • Your computer is a Mac and your phone is an iPhone.
  • In sum, you really do like a surprising number of the things listed on the site Stuff White People Like

And with respect to Canadian politics in particular:

  • You have attended, or one day hope to attend, the Banff Forum or a Canada 2020 conference
  • You were not a fan of the Harper government
  • When you think of the Canadian Constitution, you think of the Charter
  • You think multiculturalism strengthens Canada and is a core value
  • You watch CBC and read the Star and/or the Globe

Regular People / Hard Working Families

  • You work in the private sector or wear a uniform.
  • You don’t mind commuting if it allows you to live in a more comfortable house and neighbourhood.
  • If you went to university, you have a degree in business, law, engineering, science, or related fields.
  • You own an SUV or a pick-up truck.
  • You enjoy bumping into fellow North Americans when you travel overseas.
  • You understand the following concepts and could easily incorporate them into a conversation or a piece of writing: common sense; taxpayer; serious country; personal responsibility.
  • You live in a suburb or a rural area.
  • You are unilingual or learned French for professional reasons alone.
  • Your computer is a PC and your phone is a Samsung.
  • In sum, you don’t really identify with the things listed on Stuff White People Like.

And with respect to Canadian politics in particular:

  • What’s the Banff Forum?
  • You think the Harper government was fine overall
  • When you think of the Canadian Constitution, you think of the division of powers
  • You think multiculturalism has to be balanced against protecting core Canadian values
  • You watch CTV and read Postmedia and/or the Sun chain

The Senate as a Progressive Vanguard

Today’s Globe and Mail notes that Prime Minister Trudeau’s recent appointments to the Senate may not be Liberals, but they are ‘liberals’.

This dovetails with recent musings I’ve had about the future of the Senate.

In theory, the Senate is supposed to be a chamber of sober second thought. Let’s leave aside debates about whether it ever successfully lived up to this ideal; the point is simply that the upper chamber was meant to act as a mild check on the excesses of the House.

Under the previous government, the Conservative majority in the Senate became an extension of the governing party, complicating the upper chamber’s ability to act as an effective check. A number of Conservative senators continue to subscribe to this vision of how the Senate should operate. Since they are not elected, the thinking goes, democratic norms demand that senators follow the course set by their elected counterparts in the Commons.

The Liberals have followed a different path. In expelling senators from the Liberal caucus and establishing an appointment process that will name only independents, Prime Minister Trudeau may be seen to be reinforcing the Senate’s ability to act as a corrective on the lower house and the government. Under this approach, independent senators and ‘Senate Liberals’ will have sufficient distance from Cabinet and the Liberal Party in the Commons to revive the upper chamber’s ability to exercise a mild, cautionary check. Here again, that’s the theory.

The more I think about it, though, the more I think we’re seeing something else happening.

Rather than allowing the upper chamber to exercise sober second thought, the new appointments may be transforming the Senate into a progressive vanguard.

Instead of acting as a cautionary check on the House, a Senate with a majority of progressively-minded independents could provide Liberal governments with political and institutional cover to pass legislation and enact policies that are further to the left than the Liberal Party is prepared publicly champion at the time.

It isn’t difficult to see how this would work. The government introduces legislation that is timidly progressive. The Senate then amends the legislation to make it more robustly progressive, or the upper chamber demands that the government make it more resolutely progressive. After a bit of political theatre, the government agrees, laying any public discomfort at the feet of the upper chamber, while quietly achieving an objective that it had all along.

In this construct, the independent Senate serves not as a check on the excesses of the House, but as a body that allows the Commons and Cabinet to go farther than political prudence would permit. In effect, the Senate becomes an enabling chamber.

We should also note that this type of strategy isn’t alien to Canadian politics. Liberal governments arguably used the Supreme Court to this end in the past. These governments would wait for the SCC to rule in favour of progressive but controversial policies, allowing Cabinet to say that it was simply following the findings of the court when tabling new legislation.

I wouldn’t go so far as to argue that this result is likely or inevitable. But it does strike me as a possibility, one that becomes stronger if comparatively few conservatively-minded individuals are appointed as independent senators.

Parliament should scrutinize, not have a say, on military deployments

What role should Parliament play in military deployments? The question has come up again owing to the Trudeau government’s pledge to deploy the Canadian Armed Forces on a UN peace operation.

Although they only held votes in the House of Commons for combat missions, the Conservatives are demanding a vote for this new operation. The NDP, meanwhile, tends to call for votes whenever there’s a whiff of controversy or danger surrounding a deployment. The Liberals have never been strong advocates of holding such votes, though they did hold one earlier this year for their revamped mission to Iraq.

Bureaucrats may have warned the Trudeau government that extending this practice to peace operations could unduly constrain the executive in the future, and the Liberals are doubtlessly aware that they have a limited number of sitting days to devote to their legislative agenda. Given the success they had in using a wholly symbolic vote to box in the Conservatives on the Paris Accord, however, we shouldn’t be surprised if the Prime Minister’s Office decides that a vote on the UN operation could be equally advantageous.

Pundits, for their part, are in favour of having the Commons vote on the new mission. There’s no risk that the government will lose the vote owing to the Liberal majority, the official opposition has been calling for it, and asking to House to support military deployments gives us a warm and fuzzy democratic feeling, despite the fact that it’s not binding or necessary. (Bonus: the vote makes good political theatre on a slow news day.)

The votes come with downsides, however. When the opposition votes in favour of a military deployment, their ability to hold the government to account is dulled afterwards. Dulled doesn’t mean it disappears, but it makes the opposition’s job harder; the government can use the vote to deflect questions and criticisms, and it’s more difficult to critique something you previously supported. As a result, votes tend to end parliamentary debate about a military deployment until it’s time to hold another one.

The government can also use the votes to sow confusion about who should be held to account if the mission runs into difficulties. Rather than accepting responsibility for the decision, the government can declare that it was simply following the ‘will of the House’. A crafty government, moreover, can use the votes to give the impression that Parliament is responsible for the decision, laundering the constitutional accountability of ministers through the legislature (see chapter 3 here.)

These concerns are lessened when the opposition votes against a deployment. When the government-opposition dynamic is respected, the opposition is better placed to question the mission and the government has a harder time trying to launder its responsibility and accountability.

Yet this is still not ideal. The vote forces the opposition parties to express a binary choice for or against a mission. In many cases, the issues at stake are more complex. For example, the opposition may support the mission’s objectives, but not how it’s being undertaken or the risks that the government is accepting.

As well, the government can use the votes to make the opposition look bad. If a vote is held on the new mission, chances are the government will be hoping the Conservatives will vote against it, allowing the Liberals to decry their lack of support for UN peace operations. With polls showing widespread support for the return to ‘peacekeeping’, this would be an attractive wedge issue for the Liberals –unless the operation goes sour, of course.

In spite of these negatives, the allure of holding military deployment votes is evident. Votes allow parliamentarians to express themselves on a matter of national importance and they raise awareness of what the Canadian military will be doing abroad.

Arguably, though, our focus on votes is taking attention away from other reforms that would give a Parliament larger role when the Canadian Armed Forces are sent overseas. The key to improving parliamentary involvement in matters of war and peace doesn’t lie in pretending that the House is a decision-making body. Rather we should leverage Parliament’s primary role when it comes to matters of executive competence: scrutinizing.

Here are four steps we could take to enhance parliamentary scrutiny of military operations:

First, when the government has decided to deploy the military on an operation, the Prime Minister or Minister of National Defence should be required to provide the House with the mission objectives, anticipated threats and risks, the operation’s expected duration, details of which units that will be deployed and their rules of engagement, the sustainability of the deployment and its effect on training and readiness, rough order of magnitude mission costs, and the legal justification of the operation. A substantive take note debate should then be held based on this information.

Next, the Standing Committee on National Defence (NDDN) should be tasked with overseeing the mission. Although it is good that senior commanders brief the media on the mission’s progress, appearing before NDDN alongside their minister should be their priority. The committee could also call upon outside experts and other witnesses to hear various perspectives and concerns about the mission. NDDN should then periodically report on the operation to the Commons, and the House should hold additional take note debates to discuss the committee’s findings and further question the government.

Third, once a mission has ended, the Senate Standing Committee on National Security and Defence should be tasked with reviewing the operation and producing a report on lessons learned. Benefiting from a less partisan and hurried working environment (in principle), the Senate committee report could provide Parliament’s assessment of the mission’s successes and failure, and what could be done to improve future operations.

Finally, the government could be required to respond to the Senate committee’s report, and include a summary of its own, internal lessons learned exercise.

Of course, none of these recommendations are incompatible with holding a vote. But the unintended consequences of holding a vote could arguably affect how well these other measures would fare. An opposition that votes in favour of the mission may be less rigorous in scrutinizing the operation at the committee level, while a divided House would likely make NDDN’s oversight a baldly partisan effort.

Either way, our focus on votes isn’t helping us find ways to veritably deepen Parliament’s involvement in holding the government to account for military operations. Instead of demanding that the House have a symbolic say on a predetermined government decision, let’s help Parliament scrutinize the executive.

Parliament and treaty ratifications: why accuracy matters

The House of Commons voted to support the government’s ratification of the Paris Accord yesterday. Contrary to what was reported in several media outlets, the Commons vote was not the legal instrument that ratified the agreement, nor was the House’s support necessary for ratification. The power to ratify treaties is exercised by Cabinet. Canada’s House of Commons has no formal role in the process. In fact, Cabinet may have ratified the Accord before the vote was even recorded. Yesterday’s vote was political theatre, not an expression parliamentary authority.

Is acknowledging these realities simply pedantry? No. There are good reasons why the media should report these facts accurately.

Above all, it is important to recognize that governments don’t merely ask the House to endorse executive decisions out of an homage to parliamentary democracy. Governments hold these votes because it serves their partisan interests.

In bringing the Paris Accord for a vote of support in the House, the Liberal government forced the Conservative opposition to take a visible stance for or against the agreement. Had the official opposition voted in support of the Accord, this could have be used by the government to deflect Conservative critics of how the agreement would be implemented. The next time the Conservatives criticized carbon pricing, Liberal ministers could answer that Conservative MPs voted in favour of the targets found in the Accord, and by extension, measures necessary to achieve them. Supporting the Accord while opposing carbon price would, therefore, have allowed the Liberal government to accuse of the Conservatives of inconsistency and confusion.

As it happens, the Conservative MPs voted against supporting the ratification of the treaty. This is likely the result the Liberal government was seeking. Following the vote, the environment minister noted that Conservative MPs had been in Paris with her and had expressed their backing of Canada’s position. Minister McKenna tweeted that, at the time, Conservative MP Ed Fast said the Paris negotiations were in Canada’s national interest. By withholding their support of the ratification, Conservative MPs exposed themselves to such attacks. In the absence of a vote, it would have been easier for the Conservatives to state that they support the Accord in principle, but not the means chose to achieve its targets.

The Conservatives’ ‘nays’ also allowed the Liberals to stress that the official opposition failed to support action on climate change. Having the Conservatives openly withhold support for the Paris Accord in the Commons allowed the Liberals to cast them as “not being on the right side of history,” as Minister McKenna further tweeted. Here again, holding the vote helped the Liberals put the Conservatives right where they wanted them.

In failing to stress that the vote was not needed to ratify the Accord, most media outlets ignored the political purposes that the motion advanced. Rather than describing the partisan positioning that was at play in holding a vote, suggestions that the motion was needed to ratify the Accord enabled, or at least facilitated, the government’s out-manoeuvring of the opposition.

A second reason accuracy matters is parliamentary reform: if we actually want the House to control treaty ratifications, we shouldn’t encourage reports that distort the Commons’ lack of authority in these matters. Specifically, implying that the House already has the power to ratify treaties quiets questions about why this remains an executive prerogative instead of a legislative authority. If Canadians or parliamentarians want their legislature to have a veto power over treaty ratifications, it would be best if we acknowledge that, at the moment, the House of Commons is only involved when it suits the government.

Lastly, from a pedagogical perspective, it’s disappointing that the press can’t make an effort to describe how Canada’s institutions actually function. The motion asking the House to “support the government’s decision” to ratify the Paris Accord was easily accessible and explicit about what MPs were actually voting to do. It would have taken minimal effort to cite the actual text of the motion and put the vote in a proper constitutional context, as the CBC did. Readers would have been left better informed, not more ignorant, had more reporters done so.