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Thursday, April 9, 2009

Canada's next government

This article By Duncan Cameron originally posted at Rabble.ca raises some interesting questions. Not only that in a minority government situation there is an implied “coalition” but that the PM’s “executive power” stems from the oppositions implied agreement to allow it.

In order to pass laws, any minority government needs a parliamentary majority. Thus, whenever a parliament convenes without one party holding a clear majority, no prime minister can continue to hold power without creating a formal, or (less often) informal coalition. The exercise of executive power by the prime minister requires support by a majority of legislators.
In 80 per cent of cases around the world the link between executive and legislative power is created through coalitions of parties (mainly following elections using some type of proportional representation). Coalition governments have not been part of usual Canadian parliamentary practice. Canada is used to minority governments, which traditionally function on an issue by issue basis, seeking support from one stable partner. This was the case in the two Pearson minority governments (1963, and 1965) and the one Trudeau minority (1972), which depended on the NDP, the third party.

Currently the Harper minority governs with the support of Liberals, the official opposition. The PM has looked to the third party, the Bloc, for support in the past, and presumably could turn to it again. The Liberal-Conservative informal coalition bears some resemblance to the "grand coalition" German government made up of the two largest parliamentary parties, the conservative Christian Democratic Union, and its left-wing partner, the Social Democratic Party.
Last week the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation of Germany convened a one-day symposium (covered by rabbletv and CPAC) to examine the politics of informal and formal coalition government with European and Canadian political scientists and parliamentarians as featured speakers.

Professor Barbara Cameron (no relation) of York University, reflecting on the formal coalition agreement reached in December by the Liberals and the NDP, with the support of the Bloc, pointed out that unlike Germany, the Canadian parliament lacked a formal mechanism (such as a vote by parliament) entrusting a prime minister with power. She pointed out: "we rely on constitutional conventions that obscure the responsibility of the executive branch to the elected legislature and, in certain situations, give to the Governor General a larger role than an unelected official should have or probably wants."
The irony in this, said Cameron, is that constitutional conventions work well when they are not needed -- so long as majority governments are the rule we know who becomes prime minister. These conventions do not work well when the situation is unclear -- as can arise in minority parliaments when governments are defeated.

The constitutional practice is that Canadians elect a parliament, and parliament chooses the government. In minority situations, the leader of the largest party governs only so long as she or he maintains the confidence of the House of Commons.
The basic constitutional workings of Canada are obscured by what is referred to as the reserve powers of the Governor General. Once the prime minister has been defeated on a motion of confidence in the House, she or he is no longer prime minister, and the reserve power allows the Governor General to ignore a request by the former prime minister to call an election, and to invite another party leader to become prime minister, that is to say, meet the House, and seek its confidence.

Once a prime minister is defeated in the House, she or he is no longer the advisor to the Governor General. Only then may the Governor General ask another leader if they are able to form a government.
What Cameron suggests is that prior to the delivery of the speech from the throne, and after an election, parliament be asked to confirm by secret ballot the nomination of the prime minister by the party with the largest number of seats. This would make it clear that only parliament can confer, or withdraw, the powers of office of the prime minister. Cameron says: "the effect would be to force negotiations among the parties before the House meets, and could result in more formal and positive agreements that the majority of elected members are committed to supporting." This could be a minority government or a coalition government, or an agreement on something in between.

Grant Amyot of Queen's University presented research showing that coalition governments in general spent between 20 and 25 per cent of GDP on social welfare, while non-coalition governments spent less than 20 per cent. In other words, based on what he called this "rough" measure, coalition governments produce more progressive policies than non-coalition governments. He showed how in the case of the Sweden its long run of social democracy began when the Social Democratic Party entered into a formal coalition with a rural-based party.
In Canada, since 1945, the three minority Liberal governments of Pearson and Trudeau were the only progressive governments we have had, which helps explain why there was so much opposition last December from right-wing Liberals, as well as Conservatives, to the idea of a formal Liberal-NDP coalition government.

So long as Canada continues to elect four parties to parliament, Canada is likely to have more minority governments. The lesson from Europe is that the best way to get stable, progressive government is to form a formal coalition.

Duncan Cameron writes from Vancouver. Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

6 comments:

ch said...

I would have thought a minority government which can move from one to another informal coalition could be more stable than a formal coalition.

One problem I think a many Canadians saw with the formal NDP-Liberal coalition (with Bloc support) was that it froze out the party which had received the most votes. It struck many as unfair that a party could gather the most support by a considerable margin (11%) and yet have no say in government because the other parties decide to form a formal coalition. If this is only done after an election, then voters have no input into the wheeling and dealing that parties will do to form a coalition. With the informal coalition there is the chance that any elected MP's party might influence government in a minority situation. In that way, people's votes seem to matter more than they would in formal coalitions.

Monique said...

What this means to me is that we don't just have the Harper gov't to blame for the gross negligence to the people and environment of our country; we can blame the Liberals too. They are all the same. Now, if we had a representative, accountable gov't (through changed rules about those things) that truly reflected the wishes of the people, then I think we could have something that could work really well; all elected MP's working together to really hear each other and problem solve in a constructive, transparent and mature manner; dare I say, a democratic manner. This competitiveness that we see typically in gov't is really disgraceful and self-defeating. It does not set a good precedent for the rest of Canadians on how to behave. Oh, I could go on and on.......

Rural said...

It comes down to this: are we electing MPs to represent us, or are we electing MPs to represent their party. If a majority of those elected MPs do not have confidence in the government or the PM do they have the right to try and form a government that the majority of our elected representatives DO have confidence in, rather that going to the people with possibly the same result.

ch said...

are we electing MPs to represent us, or are we electing MPs to represent their party

That varies from voter to voter. I usually do some of both - consider both the individual and the party affiliation. I have the impression more Canadians put weight on the party and that of the 37% who voted Conservative, a good chunk of that was because the candidate was Conservative. Certainly the vocal, angry (at the coalition) Albertas came across as tied to the Conservative party.

Rural said...

“I have the impression more Canadians put weight on the party”
And therein lays the problem IMHO, that the party and the PMO holds more power and influence than they should which leads to the “vote for the party” mindset, even to the point where the candidates and MPs are scripted in their remarks to the public!

Monique said...

Yes, it appears that many people vote for the party. I know a guy in my town who is a "conservative" and won't stray from that banner, regardless who is running. He's convinced himself Harper is a good guy (he met him once you know and he seemed like a "really nice fella"). My Green candidate for the upcoming BC election is someone I know nothing about....I emailed him and got no response, which is unsettling. However, I will vote for the party this time. Hm - I've long wondered about this "party" thing.....we certainly need a move to more independent thinkers in politics as well as the general population, but how can we think indepedently when information is constantly distorted, mis-managed and down-right false(via state-run education and all forms of media)? Not sure if you guys know about Adbusters, but they just won their first victory in 15 years through the BC Supreme court - they have been granted an appeal on their fight with CanWest and the CBC for democratic airwaves. They're at www.adbusters.org.