We may have almost forgotten the principles of our parliamentary democracy, but they’re ruling us anyway

Sep 12th, 2009 | By | Category: Key Current Issues
Megan Fox at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, now in progress, probably knows even less about the fundamental principles of Canada’s parliamentary democracy than Norman Spector. But who would you rather look at?

Megan Fox at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, now in progress, probably knows even less about the principles of parliamentary democracy than Norman Spector. But who would you rather look at?

In the midst of all the current Canadian electoral hyperbole, I was disappointed to hear that “Ignatieff rules out coalition with NDP, Bloc.” If  Canadians are now facing a federal “election that seems increasingly inevitable,” the opinion polls at the moment suggest we are likely enough to elect yet another minority government. And a recent Harris-Decima poll reports that: “If the next election results in a minority, 55 per cent” of respondents across the country “said the leading partner should seek out a coalition partner to extend the life of the Parliament.”

This seems quite wise. If we the Canadian people are going to have to suffer through yet another federal election this fall, we certainly don’t want to have another one again next fall. Short of giving either Mr. Harper or Mr. Ignatieff a majority government (which does not seem all that likely right now, even in Mr. Harper’s case), some form of durable co-operative arrangement between two or more parties may well be the only serious hope we have of a stable government in Ottawa, that lasts for several years.

Norman Spector, former chief of staff to Brian Mulroney, in Ottawa 2008. Wouldn’t you rather be looking at Megan Fox?

Norman Spector, former chief of staff to Brian Mulroney, in Ottawa 2008. Wouldn’t you rather be looking at Megan Fox?

No doubt, the brief experiment with the Dion-Layton-Duceppe coalition-in-waiting last December showed that the party which leads any successful enterprise of this sort probably needs to have the largest number of seats in Parliament, to gain full public confidence. But I was surprised to see Brian Mulroney’s former chief of staff,  Norman Spector, writing in a recent newspaper blog: “Until and unless Mr. Ignatieff says that the party that obtains the most seats in the next election will have the right to govern, and that the only way he would move to change that is through another election, Stephen Harper will be fully justified in pointing to his hidden agenda” (of supporting a coalition similar to the one Mr. Dion tried to lead last year).

This strikes me as a dangerously disingenuous piece of disinformation about the fundamental constitutional principles and institutional logic of our kind of parliamentary democracy. According to the Constitution Act 1867, we still have in Canada “a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom.” And the only way anyone gets a “right to govern” under this kind of “Westminster” system of government nowadays is by commanding a majority of votes (or seats if you like) in the democratically elected House of Commons.

Walter Bagehot, 1826–1877, editor of The Economist magazine, 1860–1877, author of The English Constitution, 1867 — still a classic guide to “Westminster” government.

Walter Bagehot, 1826–1877, editor of The Economist magazine, 1860–1877, author of The English Constitution, 1867 — still a classic guide to “Westminster” government.

Consider what one of the classic texts on the subject — Walter Bagheot’s English Constitution — has to say: “The House of Commons is an electoral chamber; it is the assembly which chooses our president. Washington and his fellow-politicians contrived an electoral college … But that college is a sham … our House of Commons is a real choosing body; it elects the people it likes. And it dismisses whom it likes too. No matter that a few months since it was chosen to support Lord Aberdeen or Lord Palmerston; upon a sudden occasion it ousts the statesman to whom it at first adhered, and selects an opposite statesman whom it at first rejected.”

There is nothing in any of our constitutional documents — nor in the unwritten customs and conventions of the Westminster system — that says the party which wins merely the most or largest number of seats in an election has any “right to govern.” The principle human beings have actually died for (and in Canada as in other parts of the world, believe it or not) is that the right to govern can only belong to whoever or whatever can command a majority of votes in the elected Parliament. Nowadays, when everyone votes for the members of Parliament, this principle is what finally makes our Canadian parliamentary democracy democratic.

Execution of Samuel Lount and Peter Matthews for their roles in the Canadian Rebellions of 1837, Toronto, April 12, 1838. Rebellion leader William Lyon Mackenzie had managed to escape to exile in the United States. He returned to Canada in 1849, after the principle that Canadian governments were responsible to the majority in the elected Legislative Assembly had finally been secured.

Execution of Samuel Lount and Peter Matthews for their roles in the Canadian Rebellions of 1837, Toronto, April 12, 1838. Rebellion leader William Lyon Mackenzie had managed to escape to exile in the United States. He returned to Canada in 1849, after the principle that Canadian governments were responsible to the majority in the elected Legislative Assembly had finally been secured.

If we do wind up having yet another federal election this fall, it will be because the party which  has the most but still only a minority of seats in the 40th Parliament of Canada has proved unable to command a reliable majority in the democratically elected Canadian House of Commons. And without this kind of majority it cannot really govern for any length of time. If we don’t want to have yet another federal election next year, we either have to give some party a majority of seats in Parliament in its own right — or at least give the largest minority number of seats to a party (and leader) who is able and willing to form some kind of enduring co-operative arrangement with enough other parties and leaders “to extend the life of the Parliament.”

So … the key practical question of the moment of course is: Are we really going to have yet another Canadian federal election this fall? According to Ms. Jennifer Ditchburn at 7:21 PM ET last night: “A critical vote that could bring down the minority Conservative government has been tentatively scheduled for next Friday …Conservative sources say the motion is likely to be introduced on Sept. 18, and as per parliamentary rules must be voted on immediately. Prime Minister Stephen Harper will have just returned from a trip to the United States, and would be ready to visit the Governor General and kick off an election.” If we do finally go ahead with all this, here’s hoping we at least somehow manage to elect something that works better than what we have now!

For further discussion see the Counterweights Editors on “Canadian federal election update : September 11.”

For an update on Canadian federal politics as of Friday, September 18, 2009, see L. Frank Bunting’s In Brief report: “All fired up and ready to go in Canada?

POSTSCRIPT: Norman Spector has also wisely enough subsequently pointed out that: “In coalition government, cabinet portfolios are allocated to more than one party. Which is why it was accurate last fall to refer to a Liberal-NDP coalition. And why it was false for the Conservatives to allege that the Bloc, though it had signed the political accord and would have supported the proposed coalition, was part of it too.” So, strictly speaking, I shouldn’t have said “Dion-Layton-Duceppe coalition-in-waiting,” as above, but only “Dion-Layton coalition, which Duceppe had agreed to support.”  RW.

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