Dropping the writ
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Dropping the writ is the informal term for a procedure in some parliamentary government systems, where the head of government (that is the prime minister, premier or chief minister, as the case may be) goes to the head of state and formally advises him or her to dissolve parliament. By convention, the head of state grants the request and issues a writ of election for a new parliament.
The head of state usually has the right to refuse the request, in which case the prime minister is required by convention or statute to resign. For example, in the case of a minority government, the head of state can deny the request for dissolution and ask the leader of another parliamentary party to form a government. In some cases, such as with the President of Ireland, there are specific limitations on when a head of state can refuse this request. Even under these circumstances, this right is rarely exercised, as it is likely to precipitate a constitutional crisis (see, for example, the King-Byng Affair of 1926). An argument could be made[weasel words] that the right of a head of state to refuse a dissolution has become a lapsed power. However, there is a more recent counter-example in the 1985 election in Ontario. The incumbent Conservative party was reduced to minority status, and lost a non-confidence motion. Lieutenant Governor John Black Aird asked the opposition Liberal leader to form a government, with third-party NDP support, rather than issuing new writs of election.
Usually, according to parliamentary law, the head of government must regularly call an election but, it is otherwise within their discretion when to drop the writ, up to the time when the parliament has served its full term. At that point, an election must be called by issuing the writs. An exception to this principle is in Canada, where a recent law provides for fixed election dates (though recent events have called its effect into question).
In some states and territories of Australia, such as New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, and the Australian Capital Territory, it is normally required by law that the parliament must run its full term before issuing the writs. Early dissolutions are allowed by the Governor (NSW, Vic, SA) or federal Minister for Territories (ACT) only if certain objective criteria are met - in particular, if the parliament is unable to agree on the annual budget. Similarly, in New Zealand, it is the norm for parliament to run full term unless the prime minister cannot govern or feels they must bring an important issue before the nation.
Opposition parties can bring down the government by passing a motion of no confidence, in which the prime minister is required by convention or specific law to either drop the writ or resign; parliaments do not have the right to force the prime minister to drop the writ.
The phrase "drop the writ" is a debased form of the phrase "draw up the writ", and is still considered stylistically inappropriate in some contexts. For example, in 2005, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation circulated a memorandum on style, directing its journalists not to use the phrase. However, it is commonly used, and has passed into the vernacular.
- Statutes of the Province of Manitoba, Manitoba: Queen's Printer, 1887, p. 148
- Robert Allen (1841), The Practice of the Common Law Courts, and Practical Lawyer's Pocket Book, London, England: John Richards and Co., Law Booksellers, &c., p. 82