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HE recent struggle in the Parliament election law. The Government professed lar, since one of its incidents was the techni- the re-elections; and whether well founded cal concurrence of the Government in an or not, this profession must be assumed address embodying a vote of no-confidence. to have been sincere, since otherwise the But this was only one of the curiosities of conduct of the Ministers in attempting
the situation. The course of events raised to retain office after a virtual vote of noseveral questions of real interest, on which confidence would have been not only unwe will endeavour briefly to touch in an im- constitutional but insane.
partial spirit. When the new Parliament met, eight seats out of the eighty-two were vacant, six of them owing to the avoidance of elections under the stern rule of the new
In the mean
time the numbers of the two parties were as nearly equal as possible; and when the hostile armies first approached each other in the election of a Speaker, the great object of their manoeuvres seemed to be not to
secure an illustrious office, but to avoid sacrificing a sure vote. At the opening of Parliament the Ministers must have believed that they had the control of the House, independently of the coming elections; had they doubted this, their obvious course would have been to summon Parliament in the first instance only for the election of a Speaker who might receive the report of the judges and issue the new writs; and then to move an adjournment till the number of the House should be complete ; or, if it was desirable to proceed with ordinary business, they might have appealed to their opponents for a postponement of party questions till the balance of parties should have been decided. No leader of an Opposition could have refused to respond to such an appeal. The Speech from the Throne, if not postponed, might have been drawn up in conformity with this course.
The Government, however, felt itself strong enough to open the session for general business and to put into the mouth of the Lieutenant-Governor a speech of the ordinary kind, claiming credit for the success of the Administration, and thereby submitting the conduct of Ministers to the judgment of the House and challenging a vote of no-confidence. The leaders of the Opposition at once swooped upon their prey. They had strong grounds for believing that the Government had not, on any party question, the control of the House; and they were certainly assured that there was one question on which it would be deserted by some of its general supporters and laid open to defeat. That question was the policy embodied in an Act passed by the last Parliament, in which the Ministers had been very strong, to enable the Government to dispose of a fund of a million and a half in subsidizing railroads, under specified conditions, but without the further intervention of the Legislature. The leader of the Opposition accordingly moved the following amendment to the Address :
"But we feel bound to take the earliest opportunity of informing your Excellency that we regret the course taken by the Legislative Assembly last session under the guidance of your present Ministers in reference to the large powers given to the Executive as to the disposition of the Railway Aid Fund, and to state that in our opinion the proposal of the Government to grant aid to any railway should be submitted for the approval or rejection of the Legislative Assembly, so as not to leave so large a sum as $1,500,000 at the disposal of the Executive without a vote of this House appropriating the same to particular works."
Against this motion the case of the Government, it would seem, in argument at least, was strong. The policy assailed in the amendment might be good or bad, consistent or inconsistent with the due control of Parliament over the public funds; but it could hardly be said to be any longer the policy of the Government in such a sense as to make it the proper ground of a vote of censure. It was the policy of the last Parliament, undeniably constitutional since it was embodied in an Act passed by a constitutional legislature in a constitutional form, and though subject to repeal or amendment by the successors of the Assembly which had passed the Act, not subject to their censure. That the Ministers had done anything except in pursuance of the Act, the amendment did not allege; nor did it allege that in the exercise of their legal powers they had generally, or in any specific instance, been influenced by corrupt motives, though imputations of that kind were thrown out in debate. The Ministry might have said "If we have done anything either illegal or corrupt, state what it is, and found your censure on the statement, that your charge may be brought to the proof. If you dislike the Act, move its repeal; and if you are successful, we shall have to consider whether the Act was essential to our policy and whether its repeal will compel us
to retire. But it is not competent for you to censure the late Parliament, and it appears that you have no facts to go upon in censuring us. The wording of your motion, bespeaking your embarrassment, is in fact our acquittal!" In this line of argument the Government would probably have carried with them independent members, if any such there were, anxious only for the interest of Parliamentary government and for the public service. Parliaments must respect in their predecessors the authority of which they are themselves the heirs, or all authority will be lost.
Perhaps the case may even be put more strongly. The word "regret "applied in the amendment to the course taken by the late Parliament was clearly equivalent to "censure"; and the censure was coupled with a suggestion that the Parliament had allowed itself to be misguided by the Ministers, which, though introduced for an obvious reason, aggravated the irregularity. It may be doubted whether the Speaker, if appealed to against the introduction of the motion on the ground that it was not competent for a Parliament to censure its predecessor, could have refused to listen to the appeal. The appeal would at all events have placed the objection in a strong light.
Instead, however, of taking this broad ground, which could hardly have failed to give them a victory in debate, the Government, after some boggling about forms, rather discouraging to a party in presence of the enemy, moved, through an unofficial member a resolution "That inasmuch as one-tenth of the constituencies of the Province remain at this time unrepresented in this House * * * * * * it is inexpedient further to consider the question involved in the amendment till the said constituencies are duly represented on the floor of this House." The ground thus taken may have been recommended by some strategical advantage invisible to a bystander; but in itself it seems equivocal and
weak. Did the Minister mean that the House was incompetent to transact business unless all the constituencies were represented? Such a doctrine, untenable in itself as it would consign most legislatures to a chronic state of suspended animation, was doubly untenable in the mouth of the Minister who, notwithstanding the eight vacancies, had just opened Parliament with all the usual forms for the transaction of general business. Or did the Minister mean that it was inexpedient that a party division should take place and that the Government should change hands till, by the arrival of the eight members, the balance of parties should be finally decided? This was a perfectly tenable position, for nothing can be worse for the State than indecisive faction fights and frequent changes of Government. But it was a position which the Government had abandoned, and which could be recovered only by a frank confession of the original error and an appeal, which, if obviously made in good faith could hardly have been rejected, to the paramount interests of the public service. The shortness of the respite required would have been a good answer to any imputation of clinging to office on mercenary grounds.
The calculations of the Opposition proved correct. The resolution of the Government was rejected by a majority of eight (40-32) and the amendment moved by the leader of the Opposition was finally carried by seven (40-33). One of the Ministers now, regarding the vote as a virtual vote of no-confidence, performed a duty which is perhaps the most distasteful that a man of honour in public life can be called upon to perform by announcing to the House his individual resignation and leaving his colleagues under fire. The reputation of Lord Russell has never recovered his abandonment of his colleagues in face of the vote of censure moved by Mr. Roebuck in consequence of the miscarriages in the Crimean war. But Lord Russell was gener
ally believed to have acted from selfish motives; and the community, while it justly visits with the severest penalties any want of chivalrous fidelity on the part of a public man, towards his associates in the Government, is bound, as it tenders its own highest interests, to protect a conscientious act against sinister imputations till something occurs to show that the imputations are well founded.
The rest of the Ministers kept their places, as the Premier, in debate, had in effect announced that they would. In so doing they appear to have been justified by the general rules of public life. The Opposition had endeavoured in debate to give the amendment to the address the character of a general vote of no-confidence. But its effect, whatever that might be, was in reality confined to a particular measure; and this limitation seemed to be essential to its success in the judgment of those by whom it was brought forward. Whether a particular measure is vital to the policy of the Government, and the defeat of it fatal, is a question, the decision of which must, it is apprehended, rest entirely with the Ministry themselves. They will exercise their discretion subject to the penalty, in case of improper retention of office, of immediate loss of reputation with the moral certainty of a speedy and more ruinous overthrow. But it is a false sense of honour which leads a Government to throw up the reins when defeated on any question not really of a vital kind. In so doing the Ministers not only betray the particular principles which they represent and the party whose cause is confided to their hands and by whose exertions they have been placed in power, but they injure the whole community, which has an interest, superior to all party objects, in the stability of government. The Parlia mentary history of England furnishes a case in point in the hasty and somewhat petulant resignation of the Russell Ministry on a secondary question in 1852, which led to the ephemeral government of a minority with
fruitless faction fights and much degradation of the character of public men. To challenge a direct vote of no-confidence seems to be the general duty of a Minister who believes that he is still at the head of the majority or even that the adverse division which has taken place is far from a fair measure of the strength of his party.
The Opposition now proceeded to move as a further amendment of the address that "The House has no confidence in the Ministry which is attempting to carry out in reference to the control of the said fund of half a million, an usurpation fraught with danger to public liberty and constitutional government." This was obviously nothing but a repetition in effect of the first amendment, framed with the same object of catching stray votes upon the railway question. and open to the same criticism, since it did not allege that the Government had done anything contrary to law or with corrupt intent.
"Usurped" a power could not be which, however undesirable, had been duly conferred by the Legislature, and the other epithets, even if applicable to the conduct of the Parliament which passed the Act, could not be applicable to the conduct of the Ministers so long as they were merely obeying the law. This second amendment was, however, tendered and accepted as a general motion of no-confidence. The Government met it by a resolution pledging them, in deference to the expressed opinion of the House, to take no action under the Railway Act without the concurrence of Parliament, but deprecating a decision of the question of confidence till the eight members should have arrived. It has been already said that this was ground in itself perfectly tenable, but which had been abandoned by the Government, and which could be recovered only by resorting to the avowal and appeal before indicated, and at the same time expressing the utmost respect for the authority of the House and the principles of constitutional government.