coalition, prorogation and parliamentary democracy.

December 5, 2008

let me make this clear: for many reasons which should be rather self-evident, i am a new democrat (and vote accordingly), dislike stephen harper’s conservatives immensely and, having libby davies as an MP, would almost certainly benefit from having a liberal-NDP coalition government. i do not intend this post to be an analysis of why the coalition’s economic plan is superior to the conservatives’, nor why stephen harper deserves to have his government fall. those have been discussed on many other blogs.

make no mistake. i am disappointed and respectfully disagree with the decision of the governor general, but i do not think – even for one moment – that her decision was not thoroughly deliberated, nor that the existence of the governor general somehow makes canada less democratic. also, i can see the logic in her decision: perhaps her excellency believes that the conservatives perhaps deserve a chance to be defeated on their budget instead of on a simple motion of non-confidence before they have been given a true chance to govern. the point that i wish to make to my fellow progressives is that the institution of the governor general must not come under attack, least of all from us. we are a stronger country for it, as well as for our political system which has slowly evolved over centuries.

what i really wish to comment on (briefly) is how canadians are largely clueless about how our parliamentary democracy works, that it is fundamentally broken and how the conservatives have taken advantage of this to no end.

we live in a country that is governed largely by tradition. while republican-minded people such as our brothers and sisters to the south might find it somewhat unnerving that custom sometimes dictates the decisions of our governments, it protects us against the excesses of fundamentalism. furthermore, this tradition allows our constitution to change naturally over time, without the need for constitutional amendments.

theoretical power flows from the crown, not the people. even though parliament reigns supreme, it does not mean that it is without its counterweights. the crown, represented through the senate and the governor general, are vestiges of a political system where democracy was viewed with skepticism.

indeed, democracy can be frightening to any minority, not only to those with power, but also to those with no power. for example, as i wrote in the north shore news once, “same-sex marriage should prevail, not because a certain number of canadians feel a certain way about it, but because it’s the…right thing to do.”

however, stephen harper, who is huge fan of blind canadian patriotism à l’américaine, has taken it upon himself to re-align the country along more populist lines. the frightening thing is that he does not just do this through legislation (i.e. “screw the scientists; safe-injection sites have to go!”), but he does it by changing the icons of our national heritage (i.e. “it’s not a coalition; it’s a coup d’état!”). basically, harper is applying the traditional centralised power of the prime minister’s office in a manner that is reminiscent of the american political system. in other words, he’s playing baseball with a hockey stick.

herein lies the rub (and the danger): what stephen harper is doing in this scenario is pretending that he not only has a parliamentary majority (which he doesn’t), but also that he can govern by divine right since his government was directly elected. this is incorrect, and he knows it.

so, what are the long-term solutions to this? i propose three things:

  1. electoral reform. the westminster system traditionally uses the first-past-the-post voting system. this system tends to produce disproportionally large majorities. as a result, this results in an extremely hostile parliament, as many members (such as reform-alliance-DRC-conservative MP deborah gray) may be stuck on the opposition benches for their entire parliamentary careers. they thus have little to lose by shunning decorum in parliament.

    by changing the electoral system to one that more accurately reflects the will of the people (such as the single transferable vote, the condorcet method or even the unwieldy party-list proportional representation ballot), this would reduce the poisonous atmosphere in the house of commons by forcing the parties to work together.

    as the canadian constitution only defines the number of seats per province, the electoral system may be changed by a simple act of parliament; constitutional reform is not needed. traditionally, the liberal and conservative parties have been unwilling to change this, as their hopes of majority governments would be massively compromised under any other system. when the people keep electing minorities, however, it’s a sign that change is needed.

  2. improve awareness of the canadian parliamentary system. casual readers of this blog might be surprised to hear me say that canadians do not elect the government. according to parliamentary practice, and thus from the governor general’s perspective, the government is the same thing as the cabinet, the collection of ministers charged with implementing the crown’s goals. the government is instead appointed by the governor general, headed by the member of parliament who can command the support of 50% plus one vote of the house of commons; this is known as confidence. a government that does not enjoy the confidence of the house of commons is bound by custom, though not by law, to request that the governor general either dissolve parliament and call for elections or invite another member of parliament to become prime minister and form a new government.

    thus, it would be a very different political landscape if canadians truly elected their governments. they instead elect parliaments, who, by their actions, confer (or refuse) confidence in the government. it would be fundamentally detrimental, as well as anti-democratic to the people to have a prime minister that keeps forcing elections until s/he gets the parliament that s/he likes; the governor general knows this. furthermore, it would be wrong of the governor general to disregard a parliamentary majority.

    for us politico-types, this is obvious. but we often forget that we are a case apart: for a variety of reasons, including a muddling between the american and canadian political systems, the vast majority of canadians do not understand this. while the role of the governor general (as well as the canadian senate) come from fundamentally undemocratic roots, they serve the purpose of protecting us when democracy risks becoming mob rule. ironically, this smidgen of authoritarianism protects our democracy: it ensures that a liberal democracy does not become an illiberal one.

  3. adoption of the polder model. a polder is a piece of land that has been reclaimed from the sea, usually protected from flooding by dikes. these are common in belgium and the netherlands. dikes are in need of constant repair and upkeep; water is a sleepless opponent. thus, there is little room to play political chicken when it comes to the dikes: leave them in disrepair, and the consequences will speak for themselves.

    in that respect, the dutch political system includes a principle where the government maintains a good relationship with employers, labour unions and social groups in a form of consensual decision making. similarly, seeing as that minority governments are quickly becoming a way of life in canada, it would be wise for any government, majority, minority or coalition, to adopt such principles; maybe then might be able to progress beyond name-calling in parliament.

the political régime as we have it today – while supremely entertaining – cannot last if we are to evolve as a society. our whispers for change have already turned to grumbles. is it just a matter of time before we begin to roar?

on a very slightly unrelated note, is it just me, or has anyone noticed that 5 out of the 6 countries that have approved same-sex marriage are constitutional monarchies, and that the 6<sup>th</sup> (as well as the two US states that allow it) used to be british colonies? furthermore, owing to the case in california regarding proposition 8 – which took the right of marriage away from same-sex couples – the “will of the people” is entirely responsible for this.

poetically, perhaps it goes to show that majority rule needs to be given a spanking when it forgets to play nice.


6 Responses to “coalition, prorogation and parliamentary democracy.”

  1. hokeydino Says:

    nice post, mike 🙂 Though, I’m partial to mixed member plurality–we should def talk about it over coffee sometime. I also like how your blog posts use no capitals-so e. e. cummings of you!

  2. […] friend Mike has written an interesting post about Canada’s ongoing political situation, and the possibility the Conservative minority will be replaced by a Bloc-supported NDP-Liberal […]

  3. howard mctaggart Says:

    I respect the fact that you are a NDPer and being left winger you have no love for Conservative philosophy, which means you and I will never agree on too much other than the fact that I hope and pray that you believe in Democracy as every Canadian should and as far as I’m concerned democracy DEMOS=PEOPLE KRATOS=POWER means power to the people or simply government by the people simply put no one should be in charge unless the people put them there and according to the last election although a minority the conservatives still won more seats than any of the other parties, if the liberals and the NDP want to combine to run the country in a democratic country such as ours they should join forces during an election and let the people decide if they want them to run the show the way they are attempting to do it as far as I’m concerned has no place in a Democracy such as ours. Because as I said before the ones who run the country should be put there by the will of the people and not by the will of some politicians who think they know better.

  4. mkushnir Says:


    we might agree on more than you might think. unfortunately, however, i don’t think you’ve grasped the crux of my argument, as you have interpreted this post as an attack against the conservative party. this is clearly not the case.

    of course, i believe in democracy. anyone taking part in these debates believes in democracy. after all, there are few canadians that would suggest that personal liberties, the freedom of the press and economic choice are not important to democracy. if the three opposition parties did not believe in democracy, they would have led a coup d’état. of course, they haven’t. they have respected the rule of law.

    however, that is not what is being discussed.

    it is not the job of the governor general to sit and wait for the prime minister’s every beck and call. after all, i would like to remind you that the word “minister” means “servant,” not “master.”

    her job is to act as the final referee of parliament – in this case, one where canadians have clearly elected more members to sit on the opposition benches.

    my major point was that canadians do not understand how their political system works.

    many, such as yourself, believe that we have directly elected a government. we have done no such thing: unless you lived in calgary-southwest, i’m certain that you did not vote for stephen harper himself; even if you do and did, you did not specifically vote for him to become prime minister. you simply voted for him to represent you in parliament. that’s all.

    now, to engage in a bit of factionalism…

    if we were in a group with three others, and you and a friend wanted hot dogs for dinner, but the other three of us were vegetarian but wanted different vegetarian things, it wouldn’t be very democratic of you to force the majority to eat something they didn’t want, would it?

    the people have spoken; it is the prime minister who is not listening.

    it is time to let parliament work.

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