Royal Prerogatives, Executive Powers and War

As most people must be aware of by now, the Canadian government has announced that there are already military experts on the ground in Iraq, and plans to contribute in a larger way to the US-lead campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). In Parliament, this has lead to quite understandable requests by the Opposition for the Government to explain the role it will play in what has become a new coalition of military intervention in Iraq.

It is useful at this juncture to understand the precise nature of military command in Canada, and of Parliament’s role when Canadian military personnel are deployed in combat or support roles. This is important in no small part because many Canadians, having been raised on a steady diet of American TV and film, have some incorrect ideas about what powers reside where when it comes to deployments.

In Canada, like the United Kingdom, a Government’s executive authority flows from the Sovereign, and more directly from the Royal Prerogatives that a Government enjoys the monopoly of access to. The relationship between these two aspects of the Crown; the Sovereign and the Government, are completely integrated and represent the executive level of the governments of Canada and the United Kingdom.

Among the key Royal Prerogatives, descended from ancient times, is the notion that the Sovereign is the Commander-in-Chief of the military and reserves the right to declare war and command the troops. Obviously, in modern monarchies like the UK and Canada, these powers, like the other Prerogatives, are only used on the advice of the Sovereign’s Ministers; or, in the modern parlance, the Government. The command of the armed forces is, in effect, in the hands of the Government.

So what, then, is Parliament’s role?

This, in fact, has been an area of great debate since Charles I rebuffed the notion that his foreign ventures should be held up to Parliamentary scrutiny. Like all the Prerogatives, but perhaps nowhere quite so profoundly, does this longstanding conflict show itself more than when a Government sends its service men and women to war (declared or otherwise).

By long tradition, dating back some three centuries, Parliament retains the right to hold a Government’s prosecution of a war to account. Parliament fields no army itself, does not command the troops, and does not in any direct fashion dictate strategy, alliances (foreign relations being another Prerogative held by the Sovereign on the advice of the Government). However, via its extensive, and by at least some definitions, almost unlimited powers to hold Ministers responsible for their conduct and the conduct of the military chain of command itself, Parliament possesses a significant voice in the prosecution of military campaigns.

By the same token, Governments have long recognized that they have a duty to keep Parliament informed of deployments and of the general conduct of war. Where sensitive information may be revealed, such disclosures may be in camera (behind closed doors). The peoples’ representatives, if not always the people themselves, have long insisted that the Government keep them apprised of military affairs.

As a final power, very seldom used in modern times, Parliament still retains what one might term the “nuclear option”; the revocation of confidence in a Government. A government has never been brought down by its conduct of a war in Canada, but it has occurred in Britain on a handful of occasions; the best known being the defeat of Lord North’s ministry in 1782 over its conduct during the United States War of Independence.

The nature of military command in the Westminster system should be contrasted here with the American system, which, sadly, may be more familiar to many Canadians. While the US President, like the British Sovereign that the office replaced, retains the position of Commander-in-Chief, the actual authority to make a declaration of war resides with Congress. The intent of the US Founding Fathers was to create a check to the Executive’s substantial powers to oversee the conduct of military campaigns by revoking the Executive’s rights to actually unilaterally enter such campaigns.

While this division of powers was most certainly a high-minded ideal, by the time of the US Civil War, it had become clear that a President’s other executive powers all but rendered Congress’s supervisory check impotent. It should also be noted that there is no notion of confidence in the United States government. The only way to remove a President is to either demonstrate permanent mental unfitness or to successfully prosecute an impeachment. Neither is a practical measure for Congress to stop a military action.

All of this leads us to the current debate in Parliament over the sending military personnel to combat Iraq. Partisans on both sides, clearly seeking political advantage from the debate, may try to cast the conduct of the Government and the Opposition in a certain light. An analysis of the nature of the executive powers surrounding the military, and of Parliament’s longstanding right to hold the Government to account, demonstrate that what we are witnessing is both normal and perfectly constitutional. The Sovereign (or their vice-regal representative; namely the Governor General in Canada) retain the Royal Prerogatives, but invoke them only on the advice of the Government. The Government, in turn, is accountable to Parliament. At the end of the day, both the Government and the Opposition must face the voter and explain themselves.


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