Parliament and Treaty Ratification: Why Accuracy Matters

by  Philippe Lagassé

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 merely 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 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, reports that inaccurately suggested 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 of Commons to control treaty ratifications, not reporting that it currently has no formal role in the process undermines that goal. 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.

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