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Dr. Dion, or How I learned to stop worrying 
and love Minority Government

by Henry Milner

When the Liberals announced that they would not vote down the 2008 budget, Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson wrote, “The recent, silly, occasionally frenzied speculation about an election will end, for which Canadians can only be grateful.” Indeed we were grateful, but exactly who was doing the silly, frenzied speculating? The answer is of course obvious.

Exhibit A: The February 6, 2008, Globe and Mail announced, “It has been two years to the day since Stephen Harper and his Conservative cabinet formally took office,” and invited readers to “join Globe Columnist Jeffrey Simpson online.” The subject? Not what the government had or hadn’t accomplished but “How has Harper managed to survive? … How is [the government] doing in its neverending quest to position itself for a majority government after the next election?” Below was a story about the aid program to help economically depressed regions. The headline: “Aid package could forestall election.”

Exhibit B: The next day in La Presse, our other “paper of record,” Ottawa correspondent Joel-Denis Bellavance’s story began, “After almost two years as head of a minority government, Stephen Harper is burning with desire to go into an election campaign.” Opposite was Vincent Marissal’s column entitled “Five good reasons for a spring election” (author’s translation and emphasis).

Articles like these, full of silly, frenzied speculation about an imminent election, are ubiquitous. Politicians cooperating to pass bills or organize debates are not newsworthy, but any statement that can fuel speculation about the government falling is page-one material – the political variant of “if it bleeds, it leads.” And yet, in this case, reporters’ and columnists’ prophecies were not self-fulfilling: the inevitable election turned out not to be.

The institutional context in which Canadian politics takes place has changed, in a way that makes it perfectly reasonable for the opposition not to vote nonconfidence on a budget it does not agree with. But our pundits and reporters have failed to notice the change. When it came to the budget, the main reaction was one of scorn for Stéphane Dion’s cowardice or hypocrisy. Fortunately for Dion, the Cadman and Obama/NAFTA affairs got him off the hot seat. But the reality is that, given our minority government situation, he should never have been there in the first place.

Minority Government

To put it simply, we no longer have minority governments; we have Minority Government. Minority governments are no longer an aberration. They have become standard fare, the result of an important change in Canada’s political makeup that has not received the attention it deserves.

We hadminority governments in Ottawa in 1957–58, 1972–74 and 1979–80, and everyone reasonably expected that the next election would return a majority government. Both our political practice and our political culture were majoritarian. A normal government consisted of one party holding more than half the seats and calling all the shots. The noise may have been on the Commons floor, but decisions were taken behind the closed doors of majority party cabinets and caucuses. Confidence motions and budget denunciations were part of the opposition’s game and were not intended to defeat the government. Rather, the opposition was trying to strengthen its position for the next election, which would take place three to five years after the last, on a day of the prime minister’s choosing.

There was one exceptional period: in 1962, 1963 and 1965, the Créditistes won enough seats in rural and small-town Quebec to deny the Liberals their expected majorities. The Créditiste episode showed that even before the rise of the sovereigntist movement, Quebecers in large numbers were prepared to vote for a home-based third party with no chance of forming a government. But the Créditistes, with their protests against modernization, were doomed, and the restoration of the majority system was inevitable. Such is not the case with the Bloc Québécois, with which Quebec voters sympathetic to sovereignty have found a separate and durable home in federal politics since 1993.

The rise of the Bloc Québécois fundamentally transformed Canadian federal politics by making minority government the norm. However, that transformation was masked by another dramatic event: the disintegration of the Progressive Conservatives. With the resulting split of the centre-right vote between Reform and what remained of the Conservatives, the Liberals under Jean Chrétien were able to win three successive majorities. But when the centre-right reunited, the mask was stripped away and the new reality became – or should have become – apparent. With two major parties, and with the Bloc entrenched in roughly half of Quebec’s seats, Minority Government replaced Majority Government as the normal state of affairs.

It’s now 15 years since the rise of the Bloc. That should have been enough time for our journalists and pundits to have noticed that we have an underlying partisan cleavage that makes minority government more likely than not. Confirmation can be found, if anyone still needs it, in the fact that its support has held up even though memory of the sponsorship scandal, which the Bloc effectively played on in the last election, has faded.

But to judge from the way they cover the current Parliament, our correspondents and pundits see a minority government rather than Minority Government, expecting the parties to act as they did when minority governments were short-lived exceptions. They take for granted that this minority government will be short-lived, and they interpret party behaviour in that context. But the logic has changed. Leaders and, especially, ordinary MPs know that provoking an election will most likely not result in the sought-after majority government. Instead, there will be yet another minority Parliament: overall party strength will have changed little, but a bunch of incumbents will have lost their seats.

The MPs’ reticence is reinforced every time they go out among their constituents. Ordinary citizens do not want an election. This is not simply a matter of acknowledging the inevitable – Canadians actually seem to like the idea of minority government. For example, on January 28, the Toronto Star reported a poll the Canadian Press commissioned from Harris/Decima that asked 1,000 respondents to choose the kind of split they would like to see in a hypothetical Parliament of 100 seats. Projecting those percentages to the 308 House of Commons seats, the Liberals would end up with 111 seats, the Tories 95, the NDP 46, the Bloc 31 and the Greens 25. In a later, similar CP poll, “54 per cent said a Conservative minority would be acceptable, 49 per cent said a Tory majority would be acceptable. The results were almost identical for Liberals: 59 per cent said a Liberal minority would be acceptable while 50 per cent said a Liberal majority would be fine.” Canadians like the idea of not giving all the power to one party, especially the Conservatives, and they like the idea of parties cooperating to arrive at compromises.

Quebec’s Premier Jean Charest and Vermont’s Governor Douglas during news conference at National Assembly in Quebec City

A similar phenomenon has occurred provincially in Quebec, which in March 2007 elected its first minority government in well over a century. In a March 2008 CROP–La Presse poll, 66 per cent of respondents agreed with the proposition that election of a minority government had served the interests of the population. Almost as high a proportion – 61 per cent – expressed their approval of Premier Jean Charest’s government, the highest approval rating for any Quebec government in the last 20 years.

This is a message quite different from what the politicians have been hearing from journalists and pundits in Ottawa. But we should keep in mind that most Canadians are not paying attention to them. According to my own research, fewer than half report watching the TV news or reading a newspaper on a given day; that number falls to 40 per cent for 15- to 25-year-olds.

There is additional indirect evidence of Canadian appreciation for minority government in the changed strategy of opponents of proportional representation. In the days of Majority Government, simply invoking fears of the minority governments that more proportional electoral systems would engender was an effective tactic. But in the campaign to block the Citizens’ Assembly’s proposal to change the voting system in Ontario’s fall 2007 referendum, such efforts fell flat. The anti-reform editorials and op-eds increasingly (and, alas, effectively) relied on arguments evoking fears of unelected hacks from party lists sneaking into the legislature.

Fixed voting dates

Another element has recently been added to the equation. Soon after taking power, the Harper government introduced a bill to fix voting dates, as promised during the election. After being delayed by Liberals in the Senate, the fixed election date bill received Royal Assent and came into force on May 3, 2007. Each federal election will now take place on the third Monday in October, four years after the previous general election. Our next election is scheduled for October 19, 2009.

To its credit, the government thus lived up to its election platform commitment despite finding itself in a minority position. Fixed election dates confirm in law the basic principle that elections belong to the voters: election day is the day they can express themselves on how they are to be governed. Allowing the governing party to call elections when it sees fit is unjustifiable, and confirms to a population already cynical about politics that elections are there for politicians to manipulate in their own interests.

As Table 1 shows, fixed election dates have been adopted or are being considered in almost every province. In Quebec, the Director General of Elections made such a call in his report in December 2007. Even in Alberta it has been proposed by the opposition, though so far given short shrift by the governing Tories. Clearly there is a widespread understanding among political leaders that something must be done to reduce the democratic deficit.

This is a major reform, one would say. Yet how many people reading this article know about it? It comes as news even to well-informed citizens because the bill received very little media attention, likely because the very idea that a minority government could last out its term was unthinkable. Of course, technically, an election call can come any day, since a clause in the act states, “Nothing in this section affects the powers of the Governor General, including the power to dissolve Parliament at the Governor General’s discretion.” But it is clear that this clause is meant to be invoked when the government is defeated on a confidence motion.

Harper knew all this when he presented the bill. He didn’t have to do so: public opinion was not mobilized behind it, nor were the other parties demanding it. While he and his ministers have been happy to take partisan advantage of the fact that the onus falls on the opposition to bring down the government, the record, overall, is of a governing party trying to govern as a minority.

The only group with a neverending, burning desire to force an election, it would appear, are our pundits and reporters. Indeed, passage of the law appears to have had no effect on election speculation. No one seems to have asked why a government “burning with desire to go into an election” as part of a“neverending quest to position itself for a majority government” would spend political capital on a law that removes its power to select the election date.

The role of opposition parties

What about the other parties? Were existence of the fixed election date act common knowledge, it would place the onus for forcing a new election more firmly on their shoulders. For the Bloc and the NDP, it is not seen as their decision to make, and they will thus not bear the blame – especially within their own relatively narrow constituencies.

The Liberals have had the hardest time amid the frenzied speculation, with their leader’s masculinity in effect being impugned by the other parties and by cartoonists. One can sympathize with the feelings expressed by one Liberal MP as quoted in Le Devoir (February 8): “We’re sick of being presented as unprincipled cowards.” As a political scientist, Dr. Dion could have tried to make the obvious point that while in a majority government situation a nonconfidence vote is pure ritual and thus always invoked by the opposition however trivial its criticism of a budget, it is perfectly reasonable to separate the two when passage of such a motion brings on an unwanted election. But admittedly, this would not have been easy given both Dion’s egghead image and the tone of attacks from other parties, as gleefully reported in bold headlines in the media.

Dion’s Liberals could have avoided placing themselves in this position if they had publicly welcomed the fixed election date act as an important democratic step when it was discussed early in the current term.1 They would thus have clearly signalled their expectation that only under extreme circumstances would they be responsible for forcing an election. This would have changed the context significantly, and they would have had less trouble taking credit for an honourable compromise on Afghanistan and explaining that their criticisms of the budget did not justify laying aside the important principle that when an election takes place is not something politicians should manipulate for partisan purposes.

Taking this “what if?” scenario a bit further, the Liberals could have indicated an openness to an understanding with the NDP and the Greens for the 2009 election, not merely to avoid splitting the vote, but to have a government representative of the largest voting bloc: those on the centre-left of the political spectrum. As Table 2 shows, when it comes to key values, there are two political cultures in Parliament: the Tories and everyone else. The Liberals might have learned from the reaction to Dion’s decision not to oppose Green Party leader Elizabeth May in her effort to win the Nova Scotia seat currently held by Tory deputy leader Peter MacKay. While their local members grumbled, public opinion generally welcomed the agreement. There could even have been a Liberal-NDP-Green agreement to reform our electoral system to make it more compatible with interparty cooperation.

Minority governments are stable in Europe because of fixed election dates and proportional electoral systems that encourage cooperation through formal and informal coalitions. In our scenario of a less frenzied climate induced by fixed election dates, Canadian party leaders might have said: if we are going to have minority governments anyway, we might as well have stable ones based on cooperative alliances produced under PR.

Unfortunately, the opportunity presented by fixed election dates for developing a political culture compatible with Minority Government (and we should always keep in mind that a government with more than half the seats put into office by the ballots of only 40 per cent of voters is still, in essence, a minority government) was missed. And so Ottawa remains trapped in a majoritarian political culture with little resonance among the people. This is best illustrated by the recurrent show of New Democrats smugly contrasting their own “courage” with the cowardice of the Liberals. The display is music to the ears of the Tories in the House, but judging by the poor NDP showing in the March 17 byelections, it falls on the deaf ears of the voters.

A rational political climate can exist only if those who interpret politics in the media let it. I end with a plea to our pundits and correspondents. We have a stable minority government, by and large; Canadians welcome it and the politicians have come to terms with it. When you explain the choices that parties and political actors make, leave room for the possibility that they may have something to do with living up to the voters’ expectation of a well-functioning government. Don’t simply assume they are nothing more than tactics in a neverending quest for majority government. Things are different in an institutional context of Minority Government and fixed election dates. It’s time you noticed.

 

Note

1    I set out the reasons for adopting this reform – set in comparative context – in a paper published at the outset of the debate in December 2005 by the Institute for Research in Public Policy (Fixing Canada’s Unfixed Election Dates: A Political Season to Reduce the Democratic Deficit, IRPP Policy Matters, Vol. 6, No. 6, retrieved April 24, 2008, from http://www.irpp.org/fasttrak/index.htm).

 

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About the Author

Henry Milner
Henry Milner is co-publisher of Inroads and a political scientist at the Université de Montréal.




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