A new paper suggests that a minority government might be more desirable than the form of majority government Canadians experienced under Stephen Harper.
Titled Trust and Confidence: Post-Election Cooperation In Parliament, the paper is the work of Maxwell Cameron, a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia, and the director of the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions.
Cameron proposes that a minority or a coalition can form a stable, productive government and can be more advantageous than a “false majority” resulting from the first-past-the-post system.
The latter occurs when a majority government is formed by a party which wins the majority of seats in the House of Commons, but has obtained less than 50 per cent of the popular vote – as Stephen Harper’s Conservatives did in 2011.
“The assumption is that a majority government represents the interests of the majority of Canadians,” Cameron writes.
However, he notes: “In majority governments, leaders and parties have strong incentives to act in the interest of their support base, ignoring Canadians who did not vote for them.
“In a false majority, the MPs from opposing parties can be completely ignored despite the fact that, taken together, they represent a majority of the electorate.”
Cameron couldn’t be reached for comment; however, National Observer spoke with Donald Savoie, one of a number of academics who have endorsed Cameron’s paper. Savoie is the Canada Research Chair in Public Administration and Governance at the University of Moncton.
Benefits of minority government
Savoie said Canadians shouldn’t fear the possibility of a hung parliament resulting from the federal election, October 19th. “I think there’s a view among Canadians that majority government is best, that we could have a hung parliament. If we have a hung parliament, it could have a negative impact on economic and social policy.
“I think the point being made in this paper is this is not necessarily so. I don’t think we ought to assume that minority government is necessarily bad.”
Currently, the polls point to the formation of a minority Liberal government.
Cameron’s paper notes that while minority governments tend to hold power for a brief period of time – under two years on average - they are often productive. In the 1960s, Lester B. Pearson’s back-to-back minority Liberal governments introduced Medicare, the Canada Pension Plan and bilingualism.
Monique Deveaux, Canada Research Chair in Ethics and Global Social Change at the University of Guelph, also endorsed the paper. She said she was struck by the misunderstandings Cameron highlights that Canadians have about their parliamentary system.
“The idea – he quotes Harper – that losers can’t form [coalition] government is just absolutely wrong and I think I was struck with how prolific that view is, that many of us who even teach in these areas still think that somehow that those who do not win a plurality of the votes or a hard majority are somehow just outside of the game.
“And that’s just not the case.”
A coalition government differs from a minority government. The former occurs when two or more parties agree to form government and share cabinet and other appointments. The latter takes place when a party that does not have the majority of seats in parliament forms government.
Deveaux said that with the paper Cameron wanted to chart a path forward post-election, one that was not ad hoc, but had some planned multi-party cooperation.
To be sure, Cameron argues Canada is built on cooperation.
“Politicians can make minority government work well if they approach governing in a spirit of cooperation,” Cameron writes. “Often the success of minority governments depends on the behaviour of politicians.”
Similarly, he points out the effectiveness of such a government rests on the leadership of the parties involved their spirit of cooperation and negotiation.
It’s unlikely post-election Canada will see a coalition government, which have been few and far between in Canadian history. Under coalition governments, leaders fear their party will become viewed as a junior member and fade into irrelevance.
In contrast, since 1921, through 29 elections, 11 have produced minority governments.
Majority governments can become veritable elective dictatorships
Cameron writes that the country’s parliamentary system requires the branches or government work together cooperatively and that the Canadian system upholds the rule of law by embedding the government within the legislature.
“But this arrangement works best when parliament is genuinely capable of holding the prime minister and the government accountable,” Cameron asserts. “Majority governments can work against this kind of accountability and become veritable elective dictaorships.”
While the paper is critical of the first-past-the-post system, Savoie said any attempt to replace the current system with proportional representation needs to be carefully crafted and considered.
He noted proportional representation has not received a strong endorsement from Canadians. Prince Edward Island voted against it; British Columbia rejected it through a referendum; and although recommended for New Brunswick, that province didn’t move ahead with it.
“I’m certainly not against it,” Savoie said. “My point is that it should be properly debated and Canadians should understand the finer points of what it means.”