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Friday, May 6, 2011

This is How a Parliamentary Democracy Works

This post originally appeared here:


The CBC have an article called "Ignatieff, Harper in war of words over minority scenarios". They've got that right.

So, here's the 411, to use Layton-esque slang. Yesterday, Michael Ignatieff said that if the Conservatives win a minority, but are unable to secure the confidence of the House, and the governor general asks the Liberals if they can form the government, he will try to do so.

He acknowledged that he could try to form a government — without going back to Canadian voters — if a Conservative minority is elected but subsequently defeated in the House of Commons. Moreover, Ignatieff made no apologies for that possibility — saying that this is exactly what would normally happen in a parliamentary democracy.

Ignatieff's comments set up a clear contrast with views held by Conservative leader Stephen Harper over the legitimacy of a government led by a second-place party and promise to be pivotal issues in the remaining days of the campaign.

He's absolutely right. This is exactly what would normally happen in a parliamentary democracy. It's called the Westminster system. In the Westminster system, electors choose the MPs that make up the House of Commons, and whichever party has the support of the House gets to form government whether it has the most seats or not. Usually the party that has the most seats gets to try first, but if things change, that party loses confidence but another party gains it, then that second party can form the government. Here's the hypothetical situation in question, according to Ignatieff:

"If Mr. Harper wins most seats, forms a government but does not secure the confidence of the House — and I'm assuming Parliament comes back — then it goes to the Governor General. That's what happens. That's how the rules work.

"And then, if the Governor General wants to call on other parties — myself for example — to try to form a government, then we try to form a government. That's exactly how the rules work. And what I'm trying to say to Canadians is, I understand the rules, I respect the rules, I'll follow them to the letter and I'm not going to form a coalition."

Seriously. Trust Ignatieff on this. He's right. That's what happens, that's how the rules work. I mean before he was a politician he used to study and teach this stuff for a living at some of the greatest universities in the world!

Stephen Harper sees things another way. He's already mentioned he thinks it's "undemocratic" that the second-place party rule. He also believes that Ignatieff is secretly talking about a coalition:

The Conservative leader said Wednesday he would be “honoured with any mandate” his party receives from voters on May 2.

But refused to discuss what changes to the party’s platform he would be willing to accept to keep the Conservatives in power if they win another minority.

Instead, Harper ratcheted up his rhetoric about the prospect of a coalition, calling it a ‘black hole” that would stall the recovery, provoke more constitutional squabbling, and trigger a “national-unity crisis.” He was likely referring to comments by Jack Layton in the English-language debate, in which the NDP leader said he was open to re-opening the debate on how to get Quebec to sign the constitution.

Harper also declared that an opposition coalition would lead to another referendum on whether Quebec should separate from Canada, even though it would be up to the provincial government to put forward such a vote.

“We don’t know what that government will stand for,” Harper said of a possible coalition.

“But we do know the general outlines. There’s no focus on the economy. There are tax hikes, and of course these parties have very dangerous and conflicting views on national unity and constitutional matters. So as I say, I think the option for Canadians to avoid all of this, is to vote for a strong, stable, national majority conservative government on May the second.”

Okay. First of all, it is FAR FROM a clear choice between a Strong Harper Majority and an Evil Reckless Coalition. Firstly, majorities tend to be more reckless than coalitions, who must remain moderate in order to appease all parties involved. Secondly, Ignatieff has said time and time again that he WILL NOT form a coalition, and in the hypothetical situation he has outlined he's not forming a coalition either. Thirdly, if there is a Conservative minority, what makes a minority stable is having the support of the House. If Harper refuses to co-operate with other parties, any minority he had would be lost very quickly. And I'm not even going to get into the allegations that a Liberal government will mean another sovereignty referendum in Quebec.

But back to the CBC article, where the leaders are bickering and trying to clarify their statements.

"I have never said I will vote against his budget," Ignatieff told reporters in Saint John.

Harper would have to negotiate support with the other parties and govern accordingly, he added.

"What I've said is, I want to form a government. I want to get … the most seats. I then want to offer a budget to the Parliament of Canada and seek its support. If he gets more seats than me or my party, then he will present a budget, and hey, you know what I do with a budget: I read it."

Harper says he wants to form a majority government. Ignatieff says he would be happy to form any government at all. Clearly this makes Ignatieff a volatile vigilante bandito. Even worse, the leader of a gang of volatile, vigilante, separatist, socialist banditos! But Ignatieff responds to Harper's comments about the coalition:

"No. I repeat, no," Ignatieff said to applause from Liberal supporters.

"I don't have a problem about coalition, and I don't have a problem about respecting the constitution of my country. With the greatest respect, I would tell you that Mr. Harper has a problem with both."

Later, Ignatieff said of Harper: "What does he think he is? The king here? It's 'my way or the highway' the whole time .… He has an obligation to present a budget that has the confidence of the House of Commons .… The ruthless, relentless disrespect for Parliament is why we're having an election here."

And Gilles Duceppe weighs in on the issue with clear insight, reminding me that during the leaders' debates some people commented that he has the best understanding of how our government works:

Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe was critical Wednesday of what he called Harper's "no compromise" approach to dealing with the possibility of another minority government, calling it irresponsible.

Speaking with reporters in the Eastern Townships, Duceppe said Harper "needs to respect those whom Canadians choose to send to Ottawa to represent them."

Because, see, THIS is how the Westminster system works, THIS is how a parliamentary democracy works, THIS IS HOW OUR GOVERNMENT WORKS. We, Canadians, choose our MPs, based on the interests they're trying to protect. Then the MPs go to Parliament and duke it out there over who gets to form the government, based on who has interests in common. Your MP will presumably vote to protect the same interests WHETHER OR NOT their party is government. In the case of a minority government, it doesn't have that much more power than the other parties in terms of creating legislation, except it makes the budget. Whether a minority government is formed by the largest or the second-largest party doesn't really make a difference, because either way they have to work and compromise with other parties in order to pass their budgets and their bills. So, as Duceppe pointed out, Harper's refusal to work with the MPs the majority of Canada chose, in the case that he has a minority government, is incredibly irresponsible and WILL result in him losing confidence of the House.

This seriously feels like the King-Byng affair all over again. In that case, Mackenzie King's Liberals, who finished second to Arthur Meighen's Conservatives, formed the government with the support of the Progressives. The next year, when King's government was under threat due to a scandal caused by one of his ministers, King asked Lord Byng, the governor general, to dissolve parliament and call an election, but Byng refused. Since Meighen actually had more seats than King, Lord Byng wanted to give him a chance to form government before calling an election. Meighen was prime minister for only a couple of months before his government lost the confidence of the House. Then there was an election and King won a majority.

Moral of the story? Sometimes the second-place party makes a better government.

Also, I kind of want to be governor general. But that's another story.

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