|There are many lessons learned in the earlier days of
Canada's history that are totally lost on Canadians today.
For example, the other day (during the 2004 election campaign) I
mentioned to someone that the Liberals could be asked to form a
government even if the new Conservative Party won more seats (assuming a
minority of seats for each). It was impossible for this person to
comprehend how this could happen, so I have decided to write it down.
The Liberal government of William Lyon Mackenzie King was elected in
1921 with a minority of seats in the Commons (Liberal
(116); Progressive (50); Conservative (63); Labour (3); and Other
(3). Under the rules of Parliament the Liberals were asked
to form the government because they were able to pull together support
from the Progressives. In 1925, he asked the Governor
General, Lord Byng, to dissolve parliament so that an election might
return a majority government to the House.
The election of 1925 did not give King the result he was after.
In fact the reverse was true. The Conservative, under Arthur
Meighan, won the day (Conservative (114); Liberal (102);
Progressive (24); Labour (2); and Other (3) but not the
government. But Byng asked King and not Meighan to form the government
How was it possible?
Following the election both Meighan and King tried to woo the support
of members of the Progressive party. King succeeded to get enough
support that his "seat total" then surpassed Meighan's.
King got the go-ahead.
Following this 2004 election the same situation could happen.
The Conservatives could win more seats than the Liberals but if the
Liberals can win more support from the Bloc or NDP (enough to form a
"majority" government) they can be asked to form the
government over the Conservatives.
The King-Byng affair in 1925 demonstrated how the political system in
Canada works when minority governments are elected. However the
King-Byng affair also set another precedent.
In 1926, King's minority government became embroiled in a Customs
scandal (See.. so called "Adscam's" are not
something new!). King asked the Gov Gen to dissolve
parliament. The tradition up to that point was that the Gov Gen
did whatever the PM told him to do, when it came to Parliament.
However this time Byng answered with a resounding - No. In a
heated exchange of telegrams both parties set their ground.
|Letter from William Lyon
Mackenzie King to Governor General Byng, 28 June 1926
Your Excellency having declined to accept my
advice to place your signature to the
Order-in-Council with reference to a dissolution of parliament,
which I have placed before you to-day, I hereby tender to Your
Excellency my resignation as Prime Minister of Canada.
Your Excellency will recall that in our recent
conversations relative to dissolution I have on each occasion
suggested to Your Excellency, as I have again urged this
morning, that having regard to the possible very serious
consequences of a refusal of the advice of your First Minister
to dissolve parliament you should, before definitely deciding on
this step, cable the Secretary of State for the Dominions asking
the British Government, from whom you have come to Canada under
instructions, what, in the opinion of the Secretary of State for
the Dominions, your course should be in the event of the Prime
Minister presenting you with an Order-in-Council having
reference to dissolution.
As a refusal by a Governor-General to accept
the advice of a Prime Minister is a serious step at any time,
and most serious under existing conditions in all parts of the
British Empire to-day, there will be raised, I fear, by the
refusal on Your Excellency's part to accept the advice tendered
a grave constitutional question without precedent in the history
of Great Britain for a century, and in the history of Canada
If there is anything which, having regard to
my responsibilities as Prime Minister, I can even yet do to
avert such a deplorable and, possibly, far-reaching crisis, I
shall be glad to do so, and shall be pleased to have my
resignation withheld at Your Excellency's request pending the
time it may be necessary for Your Excellency to communicate with
the Secretary of State for the Dominions.
Source: Public Archives of Canada, King
Papers, Letter from William Lyon Mackenzie King to Governor
General Byng, 28 June 1926.
|Letter from Governor-General
Byng to William Lyon Mackenzie King, 10 29 June 1926
I must acknowledge on paper, with many thanks,
the receipt of your letter handed to me at our meeting
In trying to condense all that has passed
between us during the past week, it seems to my mind that there
is really only one point at issue.
You advise me "that as, in your opinion,
Mr. Meighen is unable to govern the
country, there should be another election with the present
machinery to enable the people to decide". My contention is
that Mr. Meighen has not been given a chance of trying to
govern, or saying that he cannot do so, and that all reasonable
expedients should be tried before resorting to another Election.
Permit me to say once more that, before
deciding on my constitutional course on this matter, I
gave the subject the most fair-minded and painstaking
consideration which it was in my power to apply.
I can only add how sincerely I regret the
severance of our official companionship, and how gratefully I
acknowledge the help of your counsel and co-operation.
Source: Public Archives of Canada, King
Papers, Governor General Byng to William Lyon Mackenzie, 29 June
|The final letter was sent by Byng to his Boss in
Letter from Governor General Byng to Mr. L.
S. Amery, The Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, 30 June
As already telegraphed, Mr. Mackenzie King
asked me to grant him dissolution. I
refused. Thereupon he resigned and I asked Mr. Meighen to form a
Government, which has been done.
Now this constitutional or unconstitutional
act of mine seems to resolve itself into these salient features.
A Governor General has the absolute right of granting
dissolution or refusing it. The refusal is a very dangerous
decision, it embodies the rejection of the advice of the
accredited Minister, which is the bed-rock of Constitutional
Government. Therefore nine times out of ten a Governor General
should take the Prime Minister's advice on this as on other
matters. But if the advice offered is considered by the Governor
General to be wrong and unfair, and not for the welfare of the
people, it behooves him to act in what he considers the best
interests of the country.
This is naturally the point of view I have
taken and expressed it in my reply to Mr. King (text of which is
being telegraphed later).
You will notice that the letter in question is
an acknowledgement of a letter from Mr. King (text of
which is also being telegraphed later) appealing that I should
consult the Government in London. While recognizing to the full
help that this might afford me, I flatly refused, telling Mr.
King that to ask advice from London, where the conditions of
Canada were not as well known as they were to me, was to put the
British Government in the unfortunate position of having to
offer solution which might give people out here the feeling of a
participation in their politics, which is to be strongly
There seemed to me to be one person, and one
alone, who was responsible for the decision and that was
myself. I should feel that the relationship of the Dominion to
the Old Country would be liable to be seriously jeopardized by
involving the Home Government; whereas the incompetent and
unwise action of a Governor General can only involve
I am glad to say that to the end I was able to
maintain a friendly feeling with my late Prime Minister. Had it
been otherwise, I should have offered my resignation at once.
This point of view has been uppermost in my mind ever since he
determined on retaining the reins of office (against my private
advice) last November. It has not been always easy but it was
imperative that a Governor General and a Prime Minister could
not allow a divergent view-point to wreck their relationship
without the greatest detriment to the country.
Mr. King, whose bitterness was very marked
Monday, will probably take a very vitriolic line against myself
-- that seems only natural. But I have to wait the verdict of
history to prove my having adopted a wrong course and this I do
with an easy conscience that, right or wrong, I have acted in
the interests of Canada, and have implicated no one else in my
I would only add that at our last three
interviews I appealed to Mr. King not to put the Governor
General in the position of having to make a controversial
decision. He refused and it appeared that I could do no
Source: Public Archives of Canada, Byng
Papers, Letter from Governor General Byng to The Secretary of
State for Dominion Affairs, 30 June 1926.
Did Byng do the right thing by refusing King's request for a new
election? Other historians may disagree but I believe that that he did
right. If a single independent MP, duly elected in Canada, can
garner enough support within a minority situation then that person
should be called on to form a government
It is unlikely to happen... but
then...? That's why it is a Mystery of Canada!