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If current polls are accurate, an election held today would give the Conservatives at best the second highest number of seats, and maybe even a third place finish.
That would mean we wouldn’t have to worry about Stephen Harper’s false and self-serving characterization of Canada’s Westminster system of government.
On Monday, Harper told CBC’s Peter Mansbridge that the purpose of elections in Canada is not to choose a parliament but to “elect a government.”
Harper told the CBC news anchor that if his Conservative candidates come first in more seats than those of any other party he believes he “wins the election,” end of story.
It is a ridiculous suggestion, of course.
After an election it is the leader who can command the confidence of the House who wins. Having more seats than the other parties, but less than a majority, does not mean you could win a confidence vote. And without winning such a vote you do not get to become or, more important, to remain prime minister.
Someone forgot to explain to Harper that in our system Parliament is supreme, not what he calls “the government” (not to be confused with the public service).
The good thing about Harper’s ridiculous answer is that, at last, he is being, as he likes to say, “quite clear” with Canadians.
Finally, the Conservative leader has come clean and admitted he subscribes to what, in 2013, this writer described as the weird and highly eccentric “electoral college” theory of parliament.
This is how the theory goes:
When Canadians vote in a federal election they may think they are electing members of Parliament. In fact, however, they are choosing electors — as in the U.S. Electoral College — whose main job is to anoint a virtually all-powerful and unchecked executive, led by the leader of the “winning” party, who becomes (or remains) prime minister.
There is a winning party and there are losing parties, and the sole purpose of an election is to choose the winner. The idea that the citizens throughout the country have elected their representatives to the Parliament in Ottawa is quaint, sentimental and old-fashioned. Or, at least, that is the Harper view of the Westminster system.
Winner must have confidence of the House
In truth, if Harper somehow managed to win the most seats, but not a majority, after the election he would have first crack at forming a government, and that would, normally, mean doing a speech from the throne.
There must be a vote on that speech, the purpose of which is to lay out the government’s overall intentions for the parliamentary session, and that vote is always a confidence vote. If the government loses the vote, it falls. There then must be either a new government, or another election.
That’s how it works, regardless of what Harper fantasized in his little chat with Mansbridge.
The Conservative leader could have one trick up his sleeve though.
Parliament does not, constitutionally, have to meet more than once a year — to pass an annual budget — and Harper could delay that for many months, well into 2016. Then, if his party were to lose a confidence vote he could ask the Governor General for dissolution and a new election.
Since the last election will have happened more than half a year earlier, the argument that it is too soon to go to the polls again might be less compelling than if Harper’s government were to fall only a month or two after the election.
Still, the NDP and Liberals could quite reasonably argue that we don’t need another election and propose a new government to the Governor General.
That new government could be based on a legislative agreement or it could be a formal coalition.
The former is what happened in Ontario in 1985.
In the election of that year, David Peterson’s Liberals had won fewer seats than Frank Miller’s Progressive Conservatives. Nonetheless, the Liberals took power as a minority government, with the support of the third place NDP, led by Bob Rae. Rae and Peterson had signed a two-year deal, based on an agreed-to legislative program.
The two Ontario parties did not form a coalition in 1985. A formal coalition would have meant institutionally sharing power, including, most importantly, dividing cabinet positions between the two parties.
The federal Liberals and NDP did propose just such a formal, power-sharing arrangement in 2008. However, together the two coalition partners did not have a majority of seats. They would have needed the support of the Bloc Québecois to pass any legislation.
The prospect of the hated separatists participating in government, however passive that participation might have been, made the 2008 coalition plan toxic to many Canadians. The Conservatives knew that, and did their best to de-legitimize the entire coalition idea.
In the end, Harper avoided defeat by proroguing Parliament after the House had only met for a few days. The Liberals, under a new leader, Michael Ignatieff, then abandoned the coalition agreement. When Parliament resumed in 2009 they voted confidence in the Conservatives.
Harper could exploit his power to delay convening Parliament
Now, in 2015, if Harper were to wait six months or more before facing the House, and only then suffer defeat on a confidence vote, he might very well try to precipitate another election.
And when he asked the Governor General to dissolve Parliament and set the date for a vote, the Conservative leader would not have to remind current Governor General David Johnston that the last time a Queen’s representative refused such a request it did not go well.
That last time was in 1926. It is now called the King-Byng affair, for Liberal Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King and Governor General Lord Byng.
King lost a confidence vote in the House and asked the Governor General to dissolve Parliament and call an election. Byng, however, resisted. He believed Conservative leader Arthur Meighen ought to have a crack at governing first, and called on Meighen to form a new government.
The Liberal leader then characterized Byng’s refusal to heed his request as an affront to democracy. In relatively short order King convinced the Progressive Party, which held the balance of power, to help him vote down Meighen’s Conservatives.
In the subsequent election, King campaigned against Byng as much as he did against Meighen — and won. King’s Liberals were a few seats short of a majority, but they held on to power until the next election, in 1930, when they lost to the Conservatives led by R.B. Bennett.
Bennett got to preside over the darkest days of the Great Depression. But that is another story.
The King-Byng affair has made subsequent Governors General extremely wary of denying any request from a prime minister. It is one reason then-Governor General Michaëlle Jean might have felt compelled to accede to Harper’s highly unprecedented request for prorogation, just days after the House had met for the first time following the 2008 election.
Now, if he manages to win the largest number of seats on October 19, Harper might be tempted to avail himself of every advantage an incumbent prime minister has to hang on to office.
The message to Canadians is ‘perfectly clear’
The Conservative leader told Mansbridge he thinks he would be “the winner” even if his party got only one seat more than the second place finisher, and way less than the 170 needed for a majority. And there is no power that could force Harper to convene Parliament in short order following the election. There are, in fact, precedents in which prime ministers have waited for months after elections before meeting the House.
Harper could reason that, given time, he might be able to sow dissension between the opposition parties, all the while taking decisive executive actions that made him look like a strong leader.
Constitutionally, Harper would have the right to hang on to power until Parliament voted otherwise, even if he did not have the largest block of seats. But he has already ruled that out, and promised to resign in such a circumstance.
And so, in all of this the message for Canadians is (to use a favourite Harper phrase again) “perfectly clear.” The only way to make absolutely sure Harper is out of office after the October 19 election is see to it that the Conservatives do not win the largest number of seats.