It's time to change the way we think about parliaments where no party has a majority

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Canadian Parliament. Photo: Sam Szapucki/Flickr

Smart politicians avoid speculating about what they might do in the case of different possible election outcomes, and for good reason.

When former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff allowed himself to be lured into a bit of speculation during the 2011 campaign, he got into big trouble. During a television interview, the ill-fated former Harvard professor mused that his party might consider entering into a governing coalition arrangement, if the Stephen Harper-led Conservatives failed to win a majority but still had the largest number of seats.

Ignatieff's predecessor, Stéphane Dion, had stubbed his political toe badly, in 2008, when he joined forces with Jack Layton's NDP to propose replacing Stephen Harper's Conservatives with a coalition government, a coalition which would have required the tacit support of Gilles Duceppe's separatist Bloc Québecois.

Although they were short of the magic number of 50 per cent plus one, the governing Conservatives had just increased their seat count in the fall 2008 election. They considered themselves to be the legitimate victors. With some assistance from his friends in the mainstream media, Harper managed to convince a good many Canadians that the coalition idea was a case of the losers illicitly trying to snatch victory from the winners.

Three years and another campaign later, when new Liberal leader Ignatieff mentioned the "c" word he brought back a lot of bad memories. He ended up presiding over the worst defeat in his party's history.

The lesson learned for all political leaders is that they would be wise to leave the forecasting and hypothesizing to the pundits. Their one and only job is to focus on convincing as many voters as possible that their party is the best choice.

Not too long ago, however, Green party leader Elizabeth May decided to throw caution to the winds and defy the taboo against speculation.

In a media interview, May openly mused about what could happen should Andrew Scheer's Conservatives win the most seats in the October 2019 election, but fall short of a majority. In such a case, the Green leader's advice to the current prime minister would be that he should hang on to power and govern from second place position.

May said she and her party would be prepared to support a Liberal minority government in such a situation. The Greens cannot envisage ever supporting Andrew Scheer, given his and his party's stance on global warming, which varies from blithe indifference to something approaching denial.

Are Canadians too risk averse?

May's hypothetical suggestion is perfectly reasonable and well within parliamentary tradition. In crass political terms, however, it might be awkward.  

For one thing, May is admitting that, for her, the two largest, old line parties are not Tweedledee and Tweedledum. She is saying that while the Liberal record on the environment is wanting, Trudeau's party would still be a far better option than Scheer's.

The message a good many voters could take from May -- given our first-past-the-post electoral system -- is that they should not vote for a smaller party such as the Greens, but should support the Liberals to block those perfectly odious Conservatives.

May's words might also have others harkening back to the bitter controversies over coalitions of the not-too-distant past. In that light, they might consider May's hypothetical Liberal second-place minority government to be an invitation to political chaos.

Canadians are not ideologically conservative, on the whole. A majority of Canadians support a robust welfare state, justice for Indigenous peoples and at least the goal of doing something about global warming.

However, when it comes to innovations in and novel ideas for the political process, Canadians are highly risk averse. Witness the multiple failures of recent attempts to change the voting system. Australians and New Zealanders tinker with their electoral systems with alacrity, almost as often as some of us change suits. They do not fear change in the way they elect their parliaments. That is not so for us cautious, stand-pat Canadians.

Given our cautious nature, the very notion of governing from second place, either as part of a coalition or as a minority, will seem bizarre and aberrant to a great many Canadians.

You have to go back to the First World War to find the only federal coalition government we ever had in Canada. That was Robert Borden's Unionist administration, in which the Conservatives joined forces with a breakaway group of pro-war Liberal MPs.

And the only time a federal party leader ever tried to govern from second place was in 1925. Liberal prime minister MacKenzie King had emerged from an election with fewer seats than the Conservatives, but hung on to power, with the not-so-certain support of the Progressives.

King's minority ushered in a period of instability and a constitutional crisis known as the King-Byng affair (Lord Byng was the governor general). The whole mess was only resolved by another election.

We should get used to the idea of a hung parliament

Despite the not-so-salutary example from the 1920s, constitutionally, and based on precedent and tradition, there is nothing aberrant in our parliamentary system about a second-place party running the government. Such is the current situation in British Columbia, where Premier John Horgan's New Democrats have fewer seats than the Liberals, and it was the case in Ontario from 1985 to 1987. During that period, David Peterson's Liberals successfully governed as a minority, even though the Conservatives held the largest block of seats in the legislature.

But if folks such as Elizabeth May think a second-place government could turn out to be the best option for Canada after this October's federal election, they will have to start working on public opinion now.

Canadians, including those in the news media, do not always understand that when we hold an election we are electing not a government but a Parliament. A party only gets the right to govern when it can demonstrate it has the confidence of Parliament.

If, after the next vote, second-place finisher Trudeau believed he had a good chance of gaining the confidence of a majority of MPs, then he should try his luck in Parliament. There would be nothing illegitimate or illicit about that.

Indeed, there is a longstanding convention that, following an election, a sitting prime minister has first crack at testing the confidence of the House of Commons. If he or she is voted down then the Governor General can call on another leader to give it a try, or trigger another election.

When no party wins a majority in an election, we in Canada tend to say, erroneously, that the party which came in first "won a minority." That is not true. A minority government only takes shape once all the elected members of Parliament have spoken, collectively.

The British use a better phrase for an outcome that does not give any party more than half the seats: a hung parliament. It might be a good idea if we in Canada adopted the same language.

On election night in October, if Scheer's party were to take the largest block of seats, but not more than half, commentators and journalists would be well advised to describe the result as uncertain and undecided, rather than prematurely anointing the Conservative leader as head of a new minority government.

It will be up to the elected members of Parliament, and not media commentators, to decide who gets to be prime minister.

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble's politics reporter.

Photo: Sam Szapucki/Flickr

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