Thursday, December 01, 2005

Is a Stable Parliament Possible?

Many Canadians seem to hold a sentimental attachment to the notion of minority government as a good thing. Perhaps they believe that minority governments, by their very nature, are compelled to be more sensitive to the wishes of voters or at least less arrogant in their exercise of power. When surveyed in recent times, however, Canadians have expressed a desire not only for a minority government but for a particular kind of minority—a Liberal government with the New Democrats holding the balance of the power. There seems to be a marked preference for Liberal management tempered by a social democratic conscience, which is a little surprising given the recent evidence of Liberal mismanagement. Could it be that Canadians would really prefer an NDP government but they’re a little afraid of so dramatic a change? Or maybe they just believe that electing an NDP government would be almost impossible to accomplish, so they’ll settle for a Liberal government as long as the NDP holds enough seats to keep it honest and progressive.

The problem with minority governments, beyond their inherent instability, is that the parliaments that produce them happen as if by accident. The voters cannot know ahead of time just which party will find itself on the government benches, nor can they know just which party will end up holding the balance of power. For all the talk about “strategic voting,” it is simply impossible for the voters to intentionally elect a parliament where no party holds a majority, yet which produces the government and balance of power that the majority of voters would prefer. There are simply too many variables involved.

In Canada, where parliament consists of three federalist parties with differing ideologies, along with a separatist party committed primarily to parliamentary mischief, it is increasingly difficult to elect a workable government, whether majority or minority. Indeed, when the separatists can count on holding 15-20% of the seats in parliament, a government needs what amounts to a super-majority of the remaining seats (i.e., 59-63%) in order to maintain the confidence of the House of Commons. When there is fundamental agreement about the constitution and value of our confederation, then minority parliaments favour compromise between competing approaches to public policy; but when parliament includes a sizeable number of members who reject federal institutions (like Québec separatists), or who would weaken them (like Western regionalists), then minority parliaments favour the interests of regionalism and division while threatening the well-being of the country.

So, what conditions might lead voters to return a more stable parliament in 2006? Well, Canadians might recognize that Paul Martin is fiscally the most conservative prime minister since Louis St. Laurent. If this were to happen, then fiscal conservatives might be motivated to shift their votes to the Liberals, leaving the official opposition with only their socially conservative base while returning the Liberals as a majority government. Alternately, those who share the government’s fiscal conservatism and pro-business agenda might decide to vote for the real thing instead, or might rebel against hints of Liberal corruption, shifting their support to the Conservatives in numbers large enough to put the Tories within striking distance of a majority.

Yet another possibility might see progressive Liberals recognize, at last, that they’ve lost their hold on the Liberal Party and shift their votes to the NDP, either returning enough New Democrats to firmly hold the balance of power or, if the fates are with them, perhaps even elect a government. Some of us think that Canada is overdue for such a fundamental political realignment.

Or how about a real longshot? Is it too much to hope that Québec voters might weary of elected representatives who are content to sit on the opposition benches? If Québeckers sent a parliamentary contingent of Liberals and Conservatives and New Democrats to Ottawa, based on their proposed programs for governing, rather than Bloquistes with their tiresome agenda of mere opposition and opting out, everyone would be better off. All three of the federalist parties would be enriched by strong parliamentary contingents bringing the values and vision of the people of Québec. And without the need for a super-majority of seats, or the real concern that Québec might find itself excluded from the government benches, then a stable, productive government might still be within reach.

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