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Macdonald’s double shuffle

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In 1858, Canadian Premier John A. Macdonald (later, first prime minister of the Dominion of Canada) pulled off one of the most brilliant (and underhanded) political manoeuvres in Canadian history. This feat of parliamentary trickery is known as the “double shuffle”.

It began with a debate over the proposed location of Ottawa for the new capital of the province of Canada. Previously, the capital of the province rotated every four years among Toronto, Montreal, and Quebec City. This state of affairs was clearly impractical, so it was decided that there should be a permanent capital. The town of Ottawa was proposed, ostensibly at the suggestion of Queen Victoria. However, there were many Canadian parliamentarians who opposed this location. In 1858, Brown, the leader of the opposition, passed a motion in the Canadian parliament expressing reservations regarding the choice of Ottawa as the capital. The premier, Macdonald, declared that the motion was an insult to the Queen (since Ottawa was supposedly her choice), and resigned his position along with his entire cabinet in protest. The Macdonald government thus fell.

In response, the Governor-General approached the opposition leader Brown and requested him to form a government. Unfortunately, Brown ran afoul of a constitutional technicality: at that time, any incoming cabinet minister was required to temporarily resign his seat in parliament and seek re-election in a by-election. With his cabinet temporarily absent from parliament, Brown would not have enough members to retain a majority in the house. His government was thus doomed to fall in short order.

Indeed, Brown’s goverment was promptly defeated. It was now once more up to the Governor-General to decide what would happen next. Brown requested that he dissolve parliament and call a general election, but instead the Governor-General decided that he would ask Macdonald to try to form a government once more. However, if Macdonald attempted to form a cabinet, he would find himself in the same situation as Brown: his cabinet would be forced to give up their seats and seek re-election to the house, and their temporary absence would cost Macdonald his control over parliament. His government would surely fall by the same sequence of events that led to the demise of the Brown government.

However, Macdonald found a constitutional loophole that would allow him to break this cycle: even though incoming cabinet ministers were required to resign their seats and run for re-election, there was a special exception that stated that if a minister resigned a cabinet position and took up a new cabinet position within one month’s time, he was not required to seek re-election. Clearly the intent of the provision was to allow a premier to make adjustments to his cabinet without incurring the cost of a by-election every time. Macdonald however exploited this exception in a very clever and devious manner: he swore in his old cabinet ministers, but each one was appointed to a ministry different from the one he had previously held (Macdonald appointed himself postmaster general). Since his cabinet ministers had resigned their offices just a few days earlier (certainly less than one month) and since they were now each taking up entirely different cabinet portfolios, Macdonald claimed that they were exempt from having to resign their seats and run for re-election. The very next day, Macdonald then moved all of his cabinet ministers back into their original portfolios (the ones they held during the previous Macdonald government). Macdonald thus avoided the need to have any of his cabinet ministers resign his seat.

Clearly Macdonald’s “double shuffle” was in no way in keeping with the spirit of the law, but he had technically complied with the letter of the law, and had thereby manage to completely outmanoeuvre Brown.


Written by uncudh

February 27, 2009 at 4:42 pm

Posted in history

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