I spent this morning at Brock University, sharing time and perspectives with political scientists at the annual meeting of the Canadian Political Science Association. I was part of a panel on how governments are formed (and unformed) in minority parliaments, and was asked to talk about my experiences in 1985 (nearly 30 years ago !) in Ontario, and in 2008-2009 federally.
This might seem to some about as interesting as watching paint dry, but it’s not, as they say, a purely academic issue. The 1985 experience was about how a minority government, right after an election, can be defeated without triggering an election. That’s what the Liberal/NDP Accord achieved, and what allowed then Lieutenant Governor John Aird to call on David Peterson to form a government after Frank Miller’s government was defeated.
As I pointed out in today’s talk, Frank Miller did not ask the LG to call an election, so we’ll never know what the LG’s answer would have been. But the Conservatives still objected strongly, saying they had earned a right to govern based on their plurality of seats.
2008 was more complex, involving as it did three parties, and a leadership race in the middle of the mix-up after Jim Flaherty’s ill-conceived “economic statement” of November 2008. Mr. Harper’s request to prorogue the House of Commons, deliberately calculated to avoid a confidence vote, was approved by the Governor General with no explanation given, and Mr. Dion’s successor Michael Ignatieff decided to give new life to the Harper government by supporting its new budget proposals in early 2009. Mr. Harper and the Conservatives denounced the Liberal/NDP pact as “constitutionally illegitimate”.
The Conservatives have in fact turned Canada’s constitution on its head, certainly pointing south: for them an election is essentially a Presidential affair, with the Prime Ministership automatically going to the leader with the most seats.
In fact, MP’s are elected on election day, and ultimately the Prime Ministership (or Premiership) depends on who can command a majority in Parliament. My friend and mentor Peter Russell pointed out that both the UK and New Zealand have very explicit Cabinet manuals that lay out the steps that need to be taken in the event a minority parliament is being chosen.
Canada has no written rules, only precedents and arguments. It’s past time we had clear rules, preferably in the form of a law.
No doubt the “coalition” boogeyman will be dragged out by Mr. Harper, and perhaps even by Mr. Hudak, as reasons why they must have their majorities. But even without proportional representation Canada’s three party system will often produce a minority result in an election, and it seems passing strange that we would not even admit the possibility that dialogue and negotiation should follow from an election, and that agreements on how to ensure parliamentary accountability, respect for the electoral result, and more efficient and less anarchic ways to govern in minority parliaments (by ensuring few votes are actually confidence measures) are better than bravado, intimidation, and revolving door elections.
Parliaments based on better understanding are not “unCanadian”. And clear rules of the game in case of disagreement are just good governance. Let’s get on with it.