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Friday, May 6, 2011

Clearing the Air on Parliament and Government

This post originally appeared here:


Two things I want to draw your attention to. First, Peace, Order, and Good Government, Eh?'s five principles of parliamentary democracy:

1. Parliament is the core institution of Canadian democracy. The House of Commons, its elected chamber, is the one body elected by all Canadians.

2. When Canadians go to the polls they elect the House of Commons not a government. The right to govern goes to the members of the house who can secure its confidence.

3. The prime minister is the servant of the House of Commons and must be accountable to it all times.

4. When no party has a majority in the House of Commons, it is for the House to decide what kind of government it will support. In these situations, the House basically has three choices: 1) a coalition government of two or more parties who share cabinet posts; 2) a minority government in an alliance with two or more parties who agree to support it on the basis of agreed upon policies but who do not share cabinet posts; 3) a minority government that works out agreements with opposition parties issue by issue.

5. The Governor General's role is to exercise the crown's discretionary reserve powers only when necessary to permit the proper functioning of parliamentary democracy.

I think these are very important to remember, especially when we look at the next item, Dan Gardner's reasoned discussion of leadership and minority governments. On the desirability of minority governments:

Lots of people agree, at least about the desirability of majority government. Majority is normal, they feel. Majority is stable. After a string of minorities, each more rancorous and dysfunctional than the last, a majority is the only thing that can pull Parliament out of the quagmire and deliver effective government.

This is not an unreasonable view. But it's wrong. Starting with its basic premise.

Minority governments are not some strange and unfortunate aberration. One survey of democratic governments in western Europe and the British Commonwealth between 1945 and 1987 found that 87 per cent did not feature a single governing party in control of a majority of seats. They were minorities, in other words.

Within Canada, the first federal minority government was formed in 1921. Since then, there have been 27 governments, 13 of which were minorities.

Most of these minority governments were nowhere near as rancorous and dysfunctional as the last Parliament. Some functioned brilliantly. The minorities of Lester Pearson had partisan clashes and scandals — they all do — but they were among the most productive in history.

The story is the same internationally. Name a peaceful, prosperous, well-governed country and chances are you have named a country in which minority governments are the norm.

Agnes Macphail said something similar, in the speech I quoted earlier today: "I do not believe that when you have a stable government—one with a very comfortable majority, you get a good government [...] I do not see how we can expect a legislative program that will be pleasing to our constituencies."

But anyway, back to Dan Gardner. He makes the point that the Conservative minority government worked well its first year or so, until Stephane Dion became the leader of the Opposition and Harper sensed a chance for a majority:

Out went decorum, respect and negotiation. In came insults, stonewalling and brinksmanship.

The Opposition contributed to fractiousness — recall the new Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff declaring the prime minister to be "on probation" — but historians will heap the lion's share of the blame on Stephen Harper. The petty and pointless provocations. The how-to manual on obstructing committees. The constant refusal to deliver documents demanded by the House of Commons. The historic speakers' rulings. The even more historic contempt verdict.

It's a dismal record. Perhaps worst of all were the attack ads: A prime minister who sincerely intends to work with an Opposition leader does not publicly and viciously insult the man he will shake hands with over the negotiating table.

That's the biggest problem with Harper saying he won't negotiate with other leaders if he gets another minority. Leaders of minority governments HAVE to negotiate with the other leaders or nothing will get passed. It's one of the most important checks and balances of a government. Refusing to negotiate will lead to the instability Harper predicts.

Why? It's not a defect inherent in minority government. Nor is it that the big three parties have irreconcilable visions and policies. In fact, the substantive disagreements between the parties are as small or smaller than they've ever been in modern times.

No, the problem is the leader. Stephen Harper gambled everything on winning a majority. Now, after swearing that anything less would cause earth to shudder and sky to weep, it would be personally calamitous if a Conservative minority government functioned smoothly.

Harper said there would be instability, damn it. And he will make sure of it.

It may not come to that, fortunately.

It's likely the Liberals will be under new management soon, which should help blow away some of the animosity hanging in the air over Parliament Hill.

But what would make all the difference is a new Conservative leader, which is possible. Having tried and failed four times to win a majority — including twice against the weakest Liberal leaders in modern history — Stephen Harper may decide it is time for a career change. Or Conservatives may decide it for him.


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