When Constitutional Conventions Fail

(2015) 38 Dublin University Law Journal 447

U of Melbourne Legal Studies Research Paper

19 Pages Posted: 13 Nov 2015 Last revised: 12 Jul 2016

See all articles by Scott Stephenson

Scott Stephenson

University of Melbourne - Law School

Date Written: November 13, 2015


Quiet concern is an underlying theme in much of the scholarship on constitutional conventions. While conventions may be a necessary feature of constitutional government, commentaries are often quick to point to the difficulties that arise due to the uncertainties that surround their content and enforceability. In this paper, I argue that constitutional conventions can also be a source of cautious optimism precisely on account of the uncertainties that surround their content and enforceability. Further, I contend that this dimension emerges when we might least expect, namely when constitutional conventions fail as a result of constitutional actors departing or threatening to depart from them. A failure can create a discursive moment, presenting constitutional actors, including the public, with a rare opportunity to discuss a neglected constitutional issue or to reframe a constitutional issue where debate has reached an impasse and become stagnant. During these moments, the doubts surrounding their content and enforceability can be a positive influence because they encourage participants to engage directly with the convention and the justifications for its existence. I discuss the opportunities created when constitutional conventions fail by reference to the Australian example of the Governor-General's decision to dismiss Gough Whitlam as Prime Minister in 1975 and the Canadian example of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's threat to pursue unilateral patriation of the Canadian Constitution in 1980-82.

Keywords: Comparative constitutional law, Constitutional theory, Constitutional Conventions, Australia, Canada

JEL Classification: K10

Suggested Citation

Stephenson, Scott, When Constitutional Conventions Fail (November 13, 2015). (2015) 38 Dublin University Law Journal 447, U of Melbourne Legal Studies Research Paper, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2690041

Scott Stephenson (Contact Author)

University of Melbourne - Law School ( email )

University Square
185 Pelham Street, Carlton
Victoria, Victoria 3010

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