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Multi-party parliaments need updated rules

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In the 1951 British general election, the British Conservative Party and the British Labour Party scored 96 per cent of the vote between the two of them. Other parties (notably the British Liberals) received the table scraps. Fast-forward fifty years. In the 2010 British general election, after many years of steady decline, the British Conservatives and Labour received only 65 per cent of the vote between the two of them. Other parties (notably the Liberal Democrats) received the balance.

That is the underlying trend that led to the current "hung Parliament" -- bringing Britain into line with most other European countries, which are mostly governed by multi-party parliaments and by multi-party governments.

It is a trend that is mirrored in Canada.

In the 1953 Canadian general election, the Liberal and Conservative parties received 80 per cent of the vote between the two of them. In the 2008 general election, our two "legacy parties" received 64 per cent of the vote. Other parties -- notably the New Democrats and the Bloc Québécois -- received the balance. That's why the last three federal elections have generated minority parliaments. A result likely to be replicated in the election almost certain to come this spring, given the inability of the Harper government to talk to or negotiate with colleagues in the House (give or take, oddly, the separatist Bloc). The seemingly permanent collapse of the Liberal vote in francophone Quebec almost ensures this.

Somewhere along the line, Canada is going to have to come to terms with the fact that multi-party parliaments are normal; are democratic; are legitimate; are good for democracy; are probably here to stay, more or less; and must be made to work a lot better than we have seen in Ottawa in the past seven years.

When that day comes, the time will have come to publicly discuss, explain, and modernize the rules that our Parliament and our government runs on -- preferably on the basis of a wide consensus along all of our political parties.

A good place to start would be with the New Zealand cabinet manual. Developed incrementally under many governments over 30 years, with the fingerprints and agreement of all of that country's political parties, this manual is a well-written, publicly-accessible rulebook setting out many of the basic rules the game in a multi-party Westminster Parliament, written from the perspective of the executive branch.

The British government is currently consulting the public about a similar guide. If you dote on the details of parliamentary government -- and if you're on this website reading stuff in this section, you probably do -- it's a good read.

During the 2008 coalition crisis in Canada, some of the key actors made decisions in part by referring to roughly similar material that is lying around in bits and pieces in Ottawa. But in Canada, that "guidance" is all secret. Many of the basic rules of the game are therefore opaque to the public, to journalists, and to the political players themselves. Small wonder, therefore, that that debate revealed a shocking ignorance, in far too many corners, of the basic facts of our system of government.

As a big step towards making our Parliament and our democracy work better, Canada should develop a similar manual and make it widely available. A big step and a good one -- but not good enough.

The Privy Council Office (the bureaucratic arm of the Prime Minister) balances too many conflicts to be trusted to answer one of the key questions thrown up by Canada's recent history, which is this: How does Parliament perform its role as a permanent electoral college?

Parliament itself needs to answer that question.

Our House of Commons is our "permanent electoral college" because, in our system of government, it has the job of expressing confidence in the government and, if necessary, withdrawing that confidence and installing a new government.

The issues around this are complex, but for now here's the bottom line: If we are to continue with minority parliaments (and we quite possibly will, for the foreseeable future), then some sort of new bargain is required between government and the House of Commons. A bargain in which parliamentarians are clear about how and when they will be permitted to exercise their basic function as elected representatives in a system of responsible government, while the prime minister and the cabinet get some relief from daily threats to their existence -- eroding stable and effective governance.

The Quebec National Assembly recently made some progress defining exactly what a vote of confidence is (there is a readable summary here) in its standing orders.

If only Canada's federal political parties could re-learn the fact that on basic questions it sometimes makes sense to work together, Parliament could amend its own standing orders to spell out how and when confidence motions occur. That would remove "prorogation" (a routine and usually a harmless procedure) from the national debate. It would bring some relief to the Governor-General (who is currently at peril of being re-embroiled in existential political controversies). It would begin to create some room for private members' bills and other expressions of independence by MPs without endangering the government. And it would take us a very long way towards answering the question "how can we make this place work better"?

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