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The King-Byng Affair was a Canadian constitutional crisis that occurred in 1925 when the Governor General of Canada, Lord Byng of Vimy, refused a request by the Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, to dissolve parliament and call a general election.

The crisis was watched closely by both the Canadian and British governments, and came to redefine the role of Governor General not only in Canada but throughout the Dominions. It was also a major impetus in negotiations at Imperial Conferences held in the late 1920s that led to the Statute of Westminster, 1931.

According to British Empire constitutional convention, the Governor General once represented both the Sovereign and the British government, but the convention had evolved with Lord Byng's predecessors, and the Canadian government, as well as the Canadian people, into a tradition of non-interference in Canadian political affairs. The Governor General still has an important role in Canadian politics as a constitutional watchdog,[1] but it is one that has shed its previous Imperial duties. [2]

Contents

Request for dissolution

William Lyon Mackenzie King
Lord Byng of Vimy

In September 1925, King requested dissolution of Parliament to call an election, which Lord Byng granted. In the election Arthur Meighen's Conservative Party won 115 seats to 100 for King's Liberals. Counting on the support of the Progressive Party (which had 22 seats) to overcome the Conservative plurality, King (who had lost his seat in the election) did not resign and remained in office with the support of Progressive Party, as a minority government. Strictly speaking, this was not a coalition government, as the Progressives were not given any cabinet seats and were thus not a part of the government.

On 30 October King went to see Byng after consulting with his cabinet and informed him that his government would continue until Parliament decided otherwise.[3] Byng, who had suggested to King that he ought to resign with such a tenuous mandate, later claimed to have told the Prime Minister, "Well, in any event you must not at any time ask for a dissolution unless Mr Meighen is first given a chance to show whether or not he is able to govern." which King acquiesced to.[4]

A few months later, one of King's appointees in the Department of Customs and Excise was revealed to have taken bribes. The Conservatives alleged that the corruption extended to the highest levels of government, including the Prime Minister. King had already replaced the Minister of Customs and Excise, Jacques Bureau, with Georges Henri Boivin but recommended that Byng appoint him to the Senate, creating even more dismay among the members of the Progressive Party, who had already been withdrawing their support from the Liberal government over its failure to turn over control of Alberta's natural resources to the province from the federal government. In June the Progressives had saved the government from defeat in a no confidence motion on the natural resources matter.[5]

The Progressive Party's support had been temporarily guaranteed by the formation of a Special Committee to investigate the corruption in the Customs Department. The report was presented to the House of Commons and acknowledged that there was widespread corruption in the department but did not specifically criticise the government. A Conservative MP, H. H. Stevens proposed an amendment to the report which would effectively censure the government and compel it to resign. Labour MP J.S. Woodsworth proposed amending Stevens' amendment to remove the censure of the government and set up a Royal Commission to investigate the Customs Department further. This motion was defeated, despite the full support of the government. A Progressive MP, W. R. Fansher then proposed that a Royal Commission be combined with the original motion of censure. The Speaker of the House ruled the motion out of order, but on division the members over-ruled the speaker and the government was defeated again. King persuaded a Progressive member to move that the House adjourn, but this third government-supported motion was defeated. Having announced that he would accept Fansher's amendment, King was able to secure an adjournment.[6]

To avoid the inevitable vote on the Fansher amendment which would force his government's resignation or bring his administration into disrepute, King went to Byng on 26 June 1926 seeking a dissolution of Parliament. Byng used his reserve power to refuse the request. He reminded King of their agreement the previous October and argued that the Conservatives, as the biggest single party in Parliament, should have a chance to form a government before he could call an election. For the next two days the Prime Minister and the Governor General discussed the matter, with Byng asking King not to request a dissolution which he could not give. King twice requested that Byng consult the British government before he acted, prior to any decision being made. Byng refused, saying the matter should be settled in Canada without resort to London.[7] On 28 June, King formally presented Byng with an Order-in-Council seeking the dissolution of Parliament, which Byng refused to sign. Believing that he no longer had enough support to stay in office, King resigned (convention requires a prime minister to either drop the writ or resign when he loses the support of the House of Commons).

Byng then invited Conservative leader Arthur Meighen, who had been Prime Minister from 1920 to 1921, to form a government. Meighen did so, but made his ministers only "acting" ones; they were not sworn into office because the government still had to win a confidence vote in the House of Commons and under the laws of the time new ministers would have to seek re-election. The Liberals were furious, and were able to get the Progressives to join them in a drive to bring down the government. This was successful, and Meighen was denied confidence by only one vote.

Meighen requested a dissolution of Parliament, which was granted by Byng, and an election was called. The campaign saw King's Liberals win a majority, while Meighen lost his seat. In 1997, then Governor-General of New Zealand Sir Michael Hardie Boys expressed the opinion that Byng had been in error in not re-appointing King as prime minister on the defeat of Meighen in the vote of confidence.[8]

Legacy

In a letter to King George V, Byng expressed surprise that the Liberal leader, a staunch nationalist, had requested that Byng consult the Colonial Office in London over the matter, which Byng refused to do, seeing the responsibility to resolve the crisis as belonging to the Governor General.[9] Byng said "I have to await 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 implicated no one else in my decision."[10] The Colonial Secretary, Leo Amery privately informed Byng that had he appealed to the British government for an answer, "I could only have replied … that in my view it would not be proper for the Secretary of State to issue instructions to the Governor with regard to the exercise of his constitutional duties.[11]

Much was made of the 'Byng-King Thing' during the election campaign, which King conducted rhetorically as a campaign for Canadian independence from Britain even though it was King who demanded that Byng consult London, something Byng refused to do. However, the Liberals were returned to power with King as Prime Minister. Once in power, King's government sought at a Commonwealth conference to redefine the role of Governor General as a representative of the Sovereign and not of the British government. The change was agreed to at the Imperial Conference of 1926. As a result of the Balfour Declaration of 1926, Commonwealth Governors General ceased to be the agents of the Imperial or British government in each Dominion — this role was to be assumed by a British High Commissioner, whose duties were soon recognized to be virtually identical to those of an ambassador.

Leaving Canada on 30 September 1926, Byng returned to the United Kingdom. Despite the political crisis, he left a much-respected man. Some authorities have held that Byng was constitutionally obligated to refuse King's request. For example, Eugene Forsey argues that King had sought a dissolution merely in order to avoid a motion of censure. Forsey writes, "To allow an accused Government to appeal to the electorate before the House can pronounce judgment would be … fatal to parliamentary government …" The relatively brief time that King had served in office prior to seeking a dissolution has also been cited as a reason for denying his request. Other authorities agree with King, since by custom Lord Byng was obligated to heed the Prime Minister's request to call the election.

The King-Byng Affair was the most controversial use of a Governor General's reserve powers until the Australian constitutional crisis of 1975 in which the Governor-General of Australia, John Kerr, dismissed Prime Minister Gough Whitlam.

See also

Footnotes

  1. ^ Edward McWhinney, The Governor General and the Prime Ministers: the Making and Unmaking of Governments (Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2005).
  2. ^ Barbara J. Messamore, Canada’s Governors General, 1847:1878: Biography and Constitutional Evolution (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006).
  3. ^ Byng to the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, 17 July 1926. Quoted in Williams. Byng of Vimy. p. 305.  
  4. ^ Quoted in Williams. Byng of Vimy. p. 305.  
  5. ^ Williams. Byng of Vimy. p. 314.  
  6. ^ Williams. Byng of Vimy. pp. 314–315.  
  7. ^ Williams. Byng of Vimy. pp. 315–317.  
  8. ^ Lecture by Sir Michael Hardie Boys, Governor General of New Zealand, 1997
  9. ^ Hubbard. Rideau Hall. p. 158.  
  10. ^ Nicolson. King George the Fifth, His Life and Reign. pp. 475–477.  
  11. ^ Quoted in Williams. Byng of Vimy. p. 319.  

Bibliography

External links

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The King-Byng Affair was a Canadian constitutional crisis that occurred in 1925 when the Governor General of Canada, Lord Byng of Vimy, refused a request by the Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, to dissolve parliament and call a general election.

The crisis was watched closely by both the Canadian and British governments, and came to redefine the role of Governor General not only in Canada but throughout the Dominions. It was also a major impetus in negotiations at Imperial Conferences held in the late 1920s that led to the Statute of Westminster, 1931.

According to British Empire constitutional convention, the Governor General once represented both the Sovereign and the British government, but the convention had evolved with Lord Byng's predecessors, and the Canadian government, as well as the Canadian people, into a tradition of non-interference in Canadian political affairs. The Governor General still has an important role in Canadian politics as a constitutional watchdog,[1] but it is one that has shed its previous Imperial duties. [2]

Contents

Request for dissolution


In September 1925, King requested a dissolution of Parliament to call an election, which Lord Byng granted. In the election Arthur Meighen's Conservative Party won 115 seats to 100 for King's Liberals. Counting on the support of the Progressive Party (which had 22 seats) to overcome the Conservative plurality, King (who had lost his seat in the election) did not resign and remained in office with the support of Progressive Party, as a minority government. Strictly speaking, this was not a coalition government, as the Progressives were not given any cabinet seats and were thus not a part of the government.

On 30 October King went to see Byng after consulting with his cabinet and informed him that his government would continue until Parliament decided otherwise.[3] Byng, who had suggested to King that he ought to resign with such a tenuous mandate, later claimed to have told the Prime Minister, "Well, in any event you must not at any time ask for a dissolution unless Mr Meighen is first given a chance to show whether or not he is able to govern." which King acquiesced to.[4]

A few months later, one of King's appointees in the Department of Customs and Excise was revealed to have taken bribes. The Conservatives alleged that the corruption extended to the highest levels of government, including the Prime Minister. King had already replaced the Minister of Customs and Excise, Jacques Bureau, with Georges Henri Boivin but recommended that Byng appoint him to the Senate,Template:Fact creating even more dismay among the members of the Progressive Party, who had already been withdrawing their support from the Liberal government over its failure to turn over control of Alberta's natural resources to the province from the federal government. In June the Progressives had saved the government from defeat in a no confidence motion on the natural resources matter.[5]

The Progressive Party's support had been temporarily guaranteed by the formation of a Special Committee to investigate the corruption in the Customs Department. The report was presented to the House of Commons and acknowledged that there was widespread corruption in the department but did not specifically criticise the government. A Conservative MP, H. H. Stevens proposed an amendment to the report which would effectively censure the government and compel it to resign. Labour MP J.S. Woodsworth proposed amending Stevens' amendment to remove the censure of the government and set up a Royal Commission to investigate the Customs Department further. This motion was defeated, despite the full support of the government. A Progressive MP, W. R. Fansher then proposed that a Royal Commission be combined with the original motion of censure. The Speaker of the House ruled the motion out of order, but on division the members over-ruled the speaker and the government was defeated again. King persuaded a Progressive member to move that the House adjourn, but this third government-supported motion was defeated. Having announced that he would accept Fansher's amendment, King was able to secure an adjournment.[6]

To avoid the inevitable vote on the Fansher amendment which would force his government's resignation or bring his administration into disrepute, King went to Byng on 26 June 1926 seeking a dissolution of Parliament. Byng used his reserve power to refuse the request. He reminded King of their agreement the previous October and argued that the Conservatives, as the biggest single party in Parliament, should have a chance to form a government before he could call an election. For the next two days the Prime Minister and the Governor General discussed the matter, with Byng asking King not to request a dissolution which he could not give. King twice requested that Byng consult the British government before he acted, prior to any decision being made. Byng refused, saying the matter should be settled in Canada without resort to London.[7] On 28 June, King formally presented Byng with an Order-in-Council seeking the dissolution of Parliament, which Byng refused to sign. Believing that he no longer had enough support to stay in office, King resigned (convention requires a prime minister to either drop the writ or resign when he loses the support of the House of Commons).

Byng then invited Conservative leader Arthur Meighen, who had been Prime Minister from 1920 to 1921, to form a government. Meighen did so, but made his ministers only "acting" ones; they were not sworn into office because the government still had to win a confidence vote in the House of Commons and under the laws of the time new ministers would have to seek re-election. The Liberals were furious, and were able to get the Progressives to join them in a drive to bring down the government. This was successful, and Meighen was denied confidence by only one vote.

Meighen requested a dissolution of Parliament, which was granted by Byng, and an election was called. The campaign saw King's Liberals win a majority, while Meighen lost his seat. Former Governor-General of New Zealand Sir Michael Hardie Boys expressed the opinion that Byng had been in error in not re-appointing King as prime minister on the defeat of Meighen in the vote of confidence.[8]

Legacy

In a letter to King George V, Byng expressed surprise that the Liberal leader, a staunch nationalist, had requested that Byng consult the Colonial Office in London over the matter, which Byng refused to do, seeing the responsibility to resolve the crisis as belonging to the Governor General.[9] Byng said "I have to await 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 implicated no one else in my decision."[10] The Colonial Secretary, Leo Amery privately informed Byng that had he appealed to the British government for an answer, "I could only have replied … that in my view it would not be proper for the Secretary of State to issue instructions to the Governor with regard to the exercise of his constitutional duties.[11]

Much was made of the 'Byng-King Thing' during the election campaign, which King conducted rhetorically as a campaign for Canadian independence from Britain even though it was King who demanded that Byng consult London, something Byng refused to do. However, the Liberals were returned to power with King as Prime Minister. Once in power, King's government sought at a Commonwealth conference to redefine the role of Governor General as a representative of the Sovereign and not of the British government. The change was agreed to at the Imperial Conference of 1926. As a result of the Balfour Declaration of 1926, Commonwealth Governors General ceased to be the agents of the Imperial or British government in each Dominion — this role was to be assumed by a British High Commissioner, whose duties were soon recognized to be virtually identical to those of an ambassador.

Leaving Canada on 30 September, 1926, Byng returned to the United Kingdom. Despite the political crisis, he left a much-respected man. Some authorities have held that Byng was constitutionally obligated to refuse King's request. For example, Eugene Forsey argues that King had sought a dissolution merely in order to avoid a motion of censure. Forsey writes, "To allow an accused Government to appeal to the electorate before the House can pronounce judgment would be … fatal to parliamentary government …"Template:Fact The relatively brief time that King had served in office prior to seeking a dissolution has also been cited as a reason for denying his request. Other authorities agree with King, since by custom Lord Byng was obligated to heed the Prime Minister's request to call the election.

The King-Byng Affair was the most controversial use of a Governor General's reserve powers until the Australian constitutional crisis of 1975 in which the Governor-General of Australia, John Kerr, dismissed Prime Minister Gough Whitlam.

See also

Wikisource has original text related to this article:

Footnotes

  1. Edward McWhinney, The Governor General and the Prime Ministers: the Making and Unmaking of Governments (Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2005).
  2. Barbara J. Messamore, Canada’s Governors General, 1847:1878: Biography and Constitutional Evolution (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006).
  3. Byng to the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, 17 July 1926. Quoted in Williams. Byng of Vimy. p. 305. 
  4. Quoted in Williams. Byng of Vimy. p. 305. 
  5. Williams. Byng of Vimy. p. 314. 
  6. Williams. Byng of Vimy. pp. 314-315. 
  7. Williams. Byng of Vimy. pp. 315-317. 
  8. Speech by Sir Michael Hardie Boys, Governor General of New Zealand, 1997
  9. Hubbard. Rideau Hall. p. 158. 
  10. Nicolson. King George the Fifth, His Life and Reign. pp. 475–477. 
  11. Quoted in Williams. Byng of Vimy. p. 319. 

Bibliography

External links


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