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Why a Government Shutdown Would Never Happen in Canada

10/04/2013 12:20 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

The latest U.S. government shutdown dominated headlines this week, prompting questions as to whether a similar situation could happen here. I sat down with my colleague at Samara, Jane Hilderman, to talk about the government shutdown and why -- for better or for worse -- it can't happen in Canada.

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Alison Loat--This is not the first time the U.S. federal government has had to shut down, leaving hundreds of thousands of federal employees unpaid. What's at the heart of a government shutdown like the sort we're seeing in the U.S.?

Jane Hilderman--Indeed, it's the 18th time this sort of shut-down has happened. When the government is functioning, money to be spent on the federal bureaucracy is approved by Congress (and signed off on by the President). At present, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and the Democrat-controlled Senate fundamentally disagree about spending on the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare), so a budget has yet to gain majority support in both House and Senate. If they can't pass the bill, the President has nothing to sign, and public money is not passed on to the bureaucracy. West Wing fans may be reminded of that episode from season five when President Bartlett refuses to pass the Congress-approved budget.

Alison--Our parliament is currently prorogued until October 16, and I've noted some people on Twitter cheekily asking "So is the U.S. prorogued?" Is there a confusion of terms?

Jane--In some ways, shut-down and prorogation are opposites -- though in truth they aren't comparable. Prorogation in parliamentary systems is used regularly to end a session of Parliament until the Prime Minster calls Members of Parliament back to a new session with a Speech from the Throne. During prorogation, MPs are not at work in the House of Commons -- though they are in their constituencies -- but the rest of the federal government is still working and being paid.

The opposite is true in the US. Despite a shutdown of federal government services, Congress is still in session -- and elected representatives are still at work, though the non-essential bureaucracy itself is unpaid and not working.

Alison--Canada's parliamentary democracy is quite different from America's system, but could a similar shutdown ever happen in Canada? What would be the circumstances?

Jane--The answer is both yes and no. Like the U.S. (and most other democracies), Canada's national elected representative body, the House of Commons, authorizes the use of public money. Proposals to spend public money (or raise it through taxes) are initiated in the House and are then approved by the Senate. Constitutional sticklers will note that financial decisions require approval of the Crown as well (represented by the Governor General), but in almost all circumstances, the Governor General signs off on the work of the elected House.

Like in America, Parliament can fail to pass a budget or estimates bill. This could jeopardize the flow of dollars from the Consolidated Revenue Fund (the pool of money collected through taxes and government revenue) to government departments and public servants. However, for Canadians in this case, we either go back to the ballot box to elect a new Parliament -- unlike in the U.S., we can go to an election at any time -- or the Governor General may ask the existing parties in Parliament to form a coalition.

Alison--But elections or coalition negotiations take time -- often months. What happens if government needs money during such a period and there is no Parliament? Why isn't the threat of service shutdown as severe in Canada?

Jane--I wasn't sure about this at first either, so I asked scholar Mark Jarvis, who told me that Canada fortunately has a back-up decision-maker in the Governor General, who can approve a Special Warrant that allows money to flow to the government without Parliament's approval.

Under law, this can only happen when three conditions are met: First, Parliament is dissolved (not prorogued). Second, a Minister indicates that the expenditure is urgent for the public good. And third, the President of the Treasury Board reports there is no money remaining for government to use. In this situation, the GG gives access to money from the Consolidated Revenue Fund. When a new Parliament is formed, it retroactively reviews any Special Warrant and approves them.

Most recently, Special Warrants were used in 2011, when Parliament was dissolved for the general election.

Alison --Well, why aren't we all breathing a sigh of relief to be here in Canada instead of dealing with the brinkmanship in the U.S.?

Jane--Brinkmanship and partisan squabbling still occurs in Canada, but there's less of a risk of gridlock here than in the U.S. A couple reasons for this. First of all, unlike in the U.S., where the President is elected by all Americans and remains as a separate entity outside of Congress, Canada's Prime Minister is elected as a Member of Parliament (currently by voters in Calgary Southwest) and must retain the confidence of the elected House of Commons to govern. This is easy enough to do in a majority situation for the PM's party, like the one we have right now. Though the Opposition may try to stop a budget from going through, the stakes are high for MPs to withhold support for a budget, even in a minority situation: MPs risk an election, a costly endeavour that doesn't always result in re-election (the turnover for MPs in the past election was over a third).

Second, Canada's parties exercise stricter party discipline compared to the U.S. While not universally loved by all, it does contribute to a certain predictability and stability when it comes to important votes. In fact, in over 600 votes between 2011 and 2013, even the one MP who dissented from his party the most, still voted 98.5 per cent of the time along party lines. The upside of party loyalty is that Canadians know what they're getting and government ticks along efficiently. The downside of party discipline is that healthy discussion between MPs can be seen as disloyalty to their party, and MPs often side with the party, leading Canadians to ask "Who's my MP's boss? Me or their party?"

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Do you have any questions about the mysteries of how Canadian government works? Write them in the comments below and we'll do our best to answer them in a future post.

2013 Government Shutdown