Posted by Cameron @ 1:19 pm on November 30th 2008

The Perils of Parliamentary Democracy

This place has been pretty quiet during this extended holiday weekend.  We would do well to remember that the rest of the world doesn’t shutdown in order to travel, eat, and shop like Americans do on the Thanksgiving weekend.  The world keeps turning.  Well, Canada is part of the rest of the world.   While they do celebrate Thanksgiving, they celebrate it on a different day way back in October.  I’ve always been mildly fascinated by Canada and keep more of an eye on our neighbor to the north than most Americans.  In that spirit, I thought I’d share some of the political craziness occurring up there.

Though it was overshadowed by the American Presidential election, Canada recently had a federal election themselves.  It was Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s intention to turn his then minority Conservative government into a majority one.  Instead he only was able to turn his minority government into a stronger minority government, gaining 46% of the seats in Parliament and falling short of the needed majority.  Minority governments are a quirk of Parliamentary Democratic systems. Along with coalition governments, they are inherently weak and usually shortly lived. Because they lack a majority of votes, it is notoriously difficult to pass legislation and effective policy. They’re caretaker governments.

Well, life was pretty simple in the subsequent weeks after the election. Stephen Harper retained power with his somewhat emboldened but still minority Conservative Government. The Liberal Party was badly beaten in the last election, earning it’s poorest result ever. It was embroiled in a leadership crisis. It’s leader of the last few years, Stéphane Dion was widely criticized as a poor communicator in English and unable to properly represent the Liberals. One of the two other main political parties, the New Democrats, thrived during the least election, primarily at the expense of the Liberals. The NDP picked up eight seats on top of their previous 29. This was all pretty normal. A minority government was formed, and the losing political parties were picking up the pieces.

Then all hell broke loose last week. The Conservatives presented an economic plan that prompted the opposition parties into action. There was stated dismay among many that proposed plan did not include any form of economic stimulus. The plan also included some controversial measures to ban public sector employees from striking until 2011. It also proposed the elimination of a subsidy granted to political parties based on how many votes they receive. The government literally pays political parties C$1.95 for each and every vote. Harper proposed eliminating that. These elements prompted a firestorm of political maneuvering. Literally within hours, there were words being uttered like “coalition government”, “motion of no confidence” and “new Prime Minister”. Recall that the current government is a minority government. They have 46% of the seats in Parliament. This means that the other three parties, have 54% when combined. Should the other parties collude, they are able to form a coalition government. The thing is, the other parties don’t like each other. The Liberals and NDP are not easy bedfellows, with the NDP typically drawing support from the Atlantic coast and the liberals more of an Ontario and western party. The Bloc Québécois generally hate everybody, much like the French.

As these developments happened at a breakneck pace, the Prime Minister successfully sought to delay the proposed motion of no confidence. It was scheduled to occur tomorrow and has instead been pushed back to December 8th. This gives everybody some time to breathe. Instead of going from minority government to coalition government in 96 hours, now there’s a week to figure things out. Under pressure, the Conservative Party scrapped the plan to eliminate the political party subsidy in an effort to appease the opposition parties. Here are some highlights from some must read CBC articles:

The Quebec separatist party offers tentative support, “bribe us and we’re yours”:

The Bloc Québécois would not be part of any coalition government, but has expressed support for the idea as long as the coalition provides economic help for Quebec’s forest and manufacturing sectors.

Canada is still technically under the thumb of the Queen of England. The Queen’s envoy is called the Governor General who has authority to call together portions of Parliament to form government and whatnot. The last time one was asked to exercise real authority in forming a government was back in the 1920s, making the current power struggle pretty rare. She’s probably heading back to Canada to be ready for whatever happens:

If the no-confidence motion passes, the Liberals and New Democrats would visit Gov.-Gen. Michaëlle Jean to request her permission to try to form a coalition government.

There are reports the Governor General’s office has made contingency plans to cut short her trip abroad. She is on a four-country tour of eastern Europe and isn’t expected back until Dec. 6. The Canadian Press quoted aides as saying she is being briefed on the situation.

The political maneuvering:

Former NDP leader Ed Broadbent had confirmed earlier in the day that he had been in talks with former Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien about the possibility of a coalition stemming from disagreement with measures proposed in the government’s fiscal update, delivered Thursday.

“I’ve talked to Mr. Chrétien. He and I both discussed what would be a good situation here for the people of Canada, for Parliament, and we’ll see what happens,” Broadbent told CBC News. He called the Conservatives’ update a “joke.”

All three opposition parties — the New Democrats, Liberals and Bloc Québécois — have criticized the Conservatives for not including in their fiscal update a stimulus package to help boost Canada’s slumping economy.


  1. Thanks for posting on this. I’ve been meaning to make a pass at it myself (you did much better than I would have).

    One thing to ad: one of the reasons behind the current toxic political environment is the electoral atmosphere ginned up by the parties in their quest to reach a majority, or to stop it. Particularly the ads, both Harper’s people (and negative ads on Dion), and the series of “ambiguous doomsaying” ads the liberals ran against the current government created a lot of bad blood. For instance, the conservatives ran some stuff making fun of Dion’s accent, the liberals ran stuff saying Harper intended to quarter the military in Canada’s cities. Our election looked pretty polite compared to theirs, and that’s saying something.

    As a result, when it came time to either govern as a strong minority, or oppose as an enfeebled coalition, none of the parties have had a very easy time moving past the election mode into the governance mode. Again, elections and campaigns matter.

    Comment by Brad — 11/30/2008 @ 5:49 pm

  2. tC;dr

    Comment by Rojas — 11/30/2008 @ 9:43 pm

  3. Too…Canadian?

    Comment by Cameron — 11/30/2008 @ 10:11 pm

  4. Too Canadian is a very dangerous thing. I read Solomon Gursky Was Here and it took weeks to recover.

    Comment by Mortexai — 11/30/2008 @ 11:03 pm

  5. Dion may indeed be the next prime minister, if the liberals can hold together. N.B. not Celine, I don’t think.

    Parliamentary systems are kewl.

    Comment by Brad — 12/1/2008 @ 5:59 pm

  6. And it looks like the liberal coalition will indeed try to stage something of a coup. Despite the fact that the conservatives got a plurality from the electorate less than a month ago, they’re going to try to push and win the no confidence vote and form Canada’s first coalition government.

    Comment by Brad — 12/2/2008 @ 3:36 pm

  7. The wheels are definitely turning. Here’s a graph showing the current makeup of Parliament:

    And here are some highlights from this great BBC article:

    The prime minister could try to ride his luck and let the confidence vote go ahead on 8 December, or he could try to stave off defeat by asking the Governor General to suspend parliament until 27 January when the government is set to table its budget.

    The opposition Liberals and New Democrats signed a formal agreement to form a coalition that would govern until 30 June 2010 and have the tacit support of the separatist Bloc Quebecois.

    The new prime minister would be the Liberal leader, Stephane Dion, who led his party to a serious defeat in the 14 October polls and had already announced plans to step down next May.

    Comment by Cameron — 12/2/2008 @ 7:23 pm

  8. Tim, I know you’re reading this. Chime in!

    Comment by Brad — 12/2/2008 @ 7:49 pm

  9. Could someone comment on why the Liberal Party would go with Dion as PM rather than select someone with less distinct recent history of failed leadership? Is the Liberal Party machinery and structure so defined as this was not a feasable move?

    Comment by Jack — 12/2/2008 @ 7:49 pm

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