The Great Plague of 2020, like other disasters before it, has brought forth moves by governments to implement emergency powers that would not have been allowed to the ruler in normal times.
Across the United States, governors have triggered clauses that grant them sweeping powers to deal with the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, such as the right to close schools and businesses, ban public gatherings, seize private property, and even move populations. In Europe, the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has asked to be given a set of extraordinary powers including the right to suspend existing laws, enact new ones, imprison those defying quarantine, and ban elections.
Those concerned about civil liberties have pointed to the danger of such measures which, once granted, are sometimes never relinquished.
The best example of such a danger is the experience of Germany in the 1930s. Adolf Hitler’s National Socialists were elected in 1933 under the democratic constitution of what was known as the Weimar Republic. Hitler immediately sought a constitutional amendment titled “Law to Remedy the Distress of People and Reich,” an act which enabled him as chancellor to rule by decree. This was approved by a legislature stripped of many opposition members and thus, by an emergency vote, the Nazi dictatorship was legalized. It continued until the death of the Third Reich with the 1945 suicide of Hitler in his bunker under the rubble of Berlin.
It is not unusual for governments to seek enhanced powers in a time of crisis. In Canada, the War Measures Act was employed vigorously in the two world wars and the Quebec terrorist outburst of 1970; the American Congress, in response to the 9/11 bombings, assented to the Patriot Act. In such cases, however, there was always the possibility of legislative oversight or a sunset clause that would bring such measures to an end. In the midst of the Second World War, the Supreme Court of Canada noted that “Parliament retains its power intact and can, whenever it pleases, take the matter directly into its own hands.”
In the light of these examples, it is interesting to consider the proposals recently made by the federal Liberals to ask for the right to deal with the current health crisis in a way that removed parliamentary control of the nation’s finances until the start of 2022. The right to give Cabinet powers to tax and spend without democratic oversight has never been granted to a Canadian government—even during wartime—and this move rightfully set off alarm bells among MPs and civil libertarians.
Parliamentary government in the English-speaking world is a remarkably successful invention, one that took painful centuries to develop. It is a form of rule that allows the prime minister and the executive considerable freedom to act (unlike the American presidential system which is designed to be inefficient and contentious) but is also resistant to tyranny and coups d’état. The key to its success is legislative control of the public purse.
This is why it took a revolution to bring democracy to France: its Estates-General never had that financial power which the English Parliament had won. When an English king attempted to dispense with Parliament and its taxation and spending powers, bad things happened.
In 1629, King Charles I had had enough of Parliament and its nagging criticisms and claims. For two decades and more, he and his father, James I, had wrangled with MPs over the money the two Stuart kings said they needed to run the country. Parliament kept insisting that it alone had the right to consent to new taxes and demanded a novel set of rights before they would accede to royal wishes. Charles and his lawyers believed they had hit upon a way around Parliament—the king would not call on Parliament and would instead use underhanded methods to finance his government.
And so began the period known as the Personal Rule or the Eleven Years’ Tyranny. Until 1640, Charles’s administration managed to fund government expenses with revenues from crown lands, implementing long-forgotten ancient laws, selling monopolies, imposing fines on the wealthy for violating regulations that had not been enforced for centuries, and application of old taxes on new areas of the economy. The unpopularity of these measures and the refusal to consult Parliament led directly to a constitutional crisis and civil war. In 1649, Charles I paid for his obduracy when he was beheaded. His descendants in the Stuart dynasty would eventually make way for the form of democracy we enjoy today.
Had Canada’s Opposition allowed the Liberal minority to rule without the consent of Parliament on new taxes and spending, it would have been yielding the ability of the nation’s elected representatives to bring the government to account or to force new elections—rights that our political ancestors won at the cost of bloodshed. Its resistance to those demands was proper and no Canadian government should make such a request again.
Republished from Epoch Times.
Gerry Bowler is a Canadian historian and a Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.