Welland Tribute by Anna Esselment 17 September 2019
The polls suggest Canada could be headed for a minority government on Oct. 21. Andrew MacDougall, a former director of communications for Stephen Harper, argues that would be an ideal result while Anna Esselment, a political science professor at the University of Waterloo, writes that a majority would best serve voters.
Parliament sits on a perpetual knife’s edge. The committees tasked with examining legislation devolve into partisan gong-shows. Every single piece of media commentary gets beamed through the prism of the next election. The policy horizon of any government — already short — gets whittled down to surviving the day.
Sounds awful, doesn’t it? And it’s exactly what Canada needs right now.
Despite its perceived instability, minority government has recent form. It was a minority Parliament, after all, that saw Canada through the worst of the last global recession and some cross-party consensus is what we’ll need now to face down the sea of troubles lapping at our shores.
Despite Canada’s boffo job numbers and low unemployment, the rest of the world is clearly worried about a recession and what to do about it when monetary policy has so little in reserve after a decade plus of printing money. Add to that a United States caught in the populist eye of Hurricane Trump, a United Kingdom tearing itself apart, and an increasingly aggressive China and Russia and you have a recipe for instability in the Western world.
Of course, the “sea of troubles” bit was Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s shtick in 2011 and it was deployed to make the case for turning his minority administration into a majority one to better deal with the world’s problems. So why should voters think a minority government would produce a better return now than a majority?
Canadians should want a return to minority government for two reasons:
•The current information climate is pushing people toward rabidity.
•The problems we’re facing will only worsen the more extreme the politics gets around them. We need to lower the temperature and force some compromise while we still can. Minority government can do that.
Of course, Justin Trudeau was supposed to have lowered the temperature by now (irrespective of the carbon tax). But for all of Trudeau’s lofty talk of “positive politics” and Conservatives being “neighbours,” not “enemies,” his four-year term in office has heightened divisions, not bridged them. As this week’s #ScheerWasSoPoorThat hashtag and this month’s abortion and private education scuffles demonstrate, the Liberals can roll around in the partisan muck with the best of them.
Nor have the Trudeau Liberals managed to use their majority mandate to accumulate the social licence necessary to make progress on key files like pipeline capacity or border security. If anything, being Parliamentary kings has only encouraged them to play more politics against their powerless opposition.
Needing a political friend to pass your legislation forces water into wine. It also gives cover for criticism from your own side, something former British Prime Minister David Cameron certainly appreciated when needing Liberal Democrat votes to deliver and in/out referendum on Europe during his coalition years.
Looking at Canada’s issue set, it’s hard to find one that wouldn’t benefit from more dialogue between our political parties. The rise of populism, while having an economic component, is being driven more by cultural issues.
Countries like Canada need to create the space to talk about issues like immigration and integration without those who express concern at the rate of change being branded as racists by their supposed moral superiors. The inverse is also true; look at Quebec’s Bill 21 and the silence from all federal parties to see what kind of outcomes holding our tongues produces. A minority government could force the conversation.
Of course, one could (convincingly) argue that Stephen Harper didn’t use his minority governments to build consensus. It’s more like he used the weakness of the opposition parties to bend them to his will. But he did pass budgets with the help of the Bloc Québécois in the early days of his government and the 2009 budget would have looked radically different had the Coalition Crisis of late 2008 not happened following the 2008 election. It can work.
Neither Elizabeth May nor Jagmeet Singh, then, should rule out working with the Liberals or Conservatives. Canada’s first-past-the-post system grants so few opportunities to effect change as a minor party; a minority government would be the ideal time for the Greens or NDP to effect change.
Andrew MacDougall is a director at Trafalgar Strategy, a London (UK) based communications consultancy and formerly director of communications to Stephen Harper.
There is no shortage of hand-wringing over the “friendly dictatorship” that ensues after a party wins a majority of seats in the Canadian Parliament.
The Prime Minister becomes all powerful, policy suggestions from opposition parties are largely ignored and the government aggressively pursues its “mandate from the people,” even if that mandate is based on less than 40 per cent popular support from the voting public.
How is this possibly the best election result?
While some have reservations about majority governments, the benefits are worth our consideration. The direct line of accountability offered by majority control of the House of Commons is perhaps the most appealing part of having one party win over 50 per cent of parliamentary seats.
Our neighbours to the south struggle with the issue of accountability. A system that separates power — where one branch of government can derail the legislative hopes of another branch — facilitates a vigorous game of pass the buck, where elected representatives blame the other guy to avoid the ire of voters.
What’s a U.S. voter to do? Who do you hold responsible for either action or evasion on an issue you consider important? A governing party holding the majority of seats in the Canadian Parliament cannot dodge the line of accountability. To the benefit of citizens, there is a direct link back to the prime minister, cabinet, and caucus members.
Upset that no changes were made to our electoral system in the past four years? You know who’s responsible. Relieved that many Canadians now have the means to die with dignity? You can thank the Liberals for that.
Other parties can certainly assert they supported this bill or that bill, but new laws are because a government introduced them, supported them, and saw them through — in a majority parliament one party is in charge, and voters know it. Likewise, broken election promises are because the government did none of these things.
Majority governments also provide stability for Canadians. While election campaigns are spirited contests that many of us enjoy, there’s something nice about knowing when the next one will happen. Minority governments mean all parties are on edge; at any point the government could fall, or the prime minister could advise an election be called.
While compromises on spending and legislative priorities between the governing party and the opposition are more frequent, they do not ensure the stability and efficiency offered by a majority government. Instead, the governing party and other parties in the House stumble from one vote to another, never fully sure the support that has been cobbled together will remain intact; if not, they may find themselves forced back onto the hustings.
Given the precarious state of seat distribution, minority governments also encourage hyper partisanship as parties descend into permanent campaign mode. The press gallery focuses more on the parties’ partisan tactics than on policy introduction and outcomes.
The imposition of extreme party discipline and political brinksmanship in the House is also common; one way the government can aim to keep control is by daring the opposition to bring it down, often by making all votes in the House ones of confidence.
Opposition parties are forced to play the game, either supporting bills it may not like, or ensuring enough of their MPs skip votes entirely to avoid an election. Such antics are ridiculous, but often necessary, when no party controls a majority of the seats in the Commons.
The stretch of four years in power allows a governing party enough time to craft new legislation, forge relationships with elected representatives at the other levels of government and around the world, and generally implement their vision for the country. Good governance, and the long term planning and decision taking that comes with the gift of time, can be pursued.
We may not agree with every policy decision, but the preoccupation with electoral imperatives subsides, at least for a little while. While true that a new government’s mandate is rarely because it has won both a majority of seats and a majority of the popular vote, this is the system we have.
The accountability and stability that results — including a less panicked, frenetic atmosphere in the Commons — are well worth it.
Anna Esselment is a political science professor at the University of Waterloo.