Opinion-Policy Nexus

In their award winning book, Peter Aucoin and his colleagues write (p. 183):

“When a government loses confidence, there is no logical reason to dissolve the entire House since, in this circumstance, we do not need a new House of Commons; rather, we need a new government.  Parliamentary systems allow elected representatives to choose a new government on their own when they no longer have confidence in the incumbent.  The principle is that neither the prime minister nor the governor general should decide: the House must decide.”

These comments were mainly directed at minority government situations in Canada, although theoretically it would also apply to majority government situations if for some reason the opposition parties and a large portion of MPs in the governing party voted against the government in a non-confidence motion.

On the one hand, I find this logic compelling, given that Parliament is supposed to be sovereign in Westminster parliamentary systems.  As well, as Janet Ajzenstat convincingly argues, it truly is the only institution in Canada that can legitimately speak on behalf of all Canadians.  On the other hand, the logical extension of this argument is, why bother with elections at all, at least until every party in the House has had a chance to form the government and be defeated on a confidence motion?

I think the solution is some sort of middle ground approach, in which only the official opposition party, either alone or as the leader of a coalition, has the opportunity to form a new government after a non-confidence vote passes.   Once this new government is defeated, only then could a general election be called.


One thing that strikes me about this debate is that the answer to this question should be straightforward and well-known to Canadians. Yet, it isn't. It seems that every time a constitutional convention comes to the fore of Canadian politics--whether it involves the technical meaning of a vote of non-confidence, the prorogation of Parliament, or the prospect of a change of government--that the media consults with Canadian constitutional experts, and the debate becomes a matter of the supposedly obscure technicalities that underpin these conventions. Talk about the legalization of Canadian politics! The core constitutional conventions that underpin responsible government should not be reduced to technical edicts posted so high above the average Canadian citizen that only a small handful of experts are able to interpret them when the need arises. It also seems to me that conflicting interpretations of these conventions often seem to align with the partisan inclinations of the interpreter--but that's just my impression. Consider, on the one hand, the Liberals, under Paul Martin, when they used procedural shenanigans to avoid a vote of confidence in the House of Commons that they certainly would have lost--indeed, the opposition parties did everything they could to express their non-confidence in a committee report, which then received majority support in the House of Commons. The Liberals had lost the support of the House, but did not resign due to the supposed technicalities of the confidence convention. And then consider, on the other hand, the Conservatives under Stephen Harper, when they prorogued Parliament to also avoid facing a confidence vote in the House of Commons that they also would have lost. In both cases, the government had lost the support of the House, but did not resign because they used procedural roadblocks to prevent the House, supposedly, from expressing that non-confidence. Compare the reactions from the left and the right to these two scenarios.

There may be other papers, but I know that Andrew Heard has a very good paper on this topic in the CJPS.

What's my take? Coalition governments are perfectly acceptable in parliamentary systems. The party with the greatest number of seats (and not the government party) should have the first crack at forming a coalition. This seems to be the clear convention, now, in Canada. If they cannot succeed, the next largest party should be asked to form a coalition. The GG should ask for an election if, and only if, the would-be prime minister had explicitly ruled-out, during the campaign, a coalition with one of the would-be partners. This, it seems to me, is a reasonable standard.

Had Harper lost a confidence vote in 2008--as he should have--and if the BQ, Lib, and NDP wanted to govern together as a coalition--which is perfectly within their rights to do--then the GG should have called an election, and let the voters sort out the mess.

Aucoin and his colleagues take on some of these arguments in Chapter 5 of their book. They also, inadvertently perhaps, provide evidence for some of your arguments. For instance, they point out a change in Harper's opinions about confidence motions and prorogation when he was in opposition versus when he was in government, supporting the notion that positions on conventions turn on partisanship.

I agree that sometimes simpler is better and in this instance, letting the voters decide. Indeed, had the coalition had legs and had the House and public opinion felt that Harper had acted inappropriately with regard to prorogation, then the opposition parties could have defeated the government in 2009.

Here's a link to Andrew Heard's excellent CJPS article:



Wednesday, August 1, 2012 - 12:27