A change in the balance of power

Compromise is no bad thing, and Canadians better get used to minority governments

Harper - obsession et raideur

Gordon Gibson
Lawrence Martin had a persuasive column in these pages recently, which concluded that so-called "minority government" might be the rule, not the exception, in the future. The Bloc Québécois with a lock on at least half the seats in Quebec, the decline in the popularity of both large parties and the rise of the Greens all argue that no one group is likely to control Parliament after the next election.
Should we be distressed at this, or hopeful? Both positions have merit, but I am of the latter view on balance.
The standard Canadian opinion of minority governments is that they are weak and subject to blackmail pressures by the small parties, usually leading to bad compromise and are invariably expensive. They are said to be necessarily short-term in their thinking, when even the standard four-year length of a Parliament is far too short for proper planning.
Most of the developed world has a different experience. We pay too much attention to Britain (the U.S. has a totally different system), but in most European countries it is quite normal that no one party controls the legislature. Instead, governments are made up of coalitions of two or more factions. This is so because most voting systems elect several parties that among them reflect the shadings of popular sentiment better than our "first-past-the-post" British model.
Since people value reasonable stability and order above all, such countries have found ways to make coalitions work in a stable fashion. It looks as if we will have to get used to the same thing in Canada. What are the implications?
First the media are going to have to get over the idea that a government listening to another party in designing policy is a sign of weakness. It could be - should be - equally seen as a recognition that other ideas have value. Our traditional "winner-take-all," big-boss system has not led either to much loved or particularly good government. Jean Chrétien had 100 per cent of the power for 10 years, but never had more than 40 per cent of the votes. That is not a good thing.
Our parliamentary rules will have to change to adapt to the new world. In particular, the idea of "confidence" - that weird notion that a government party has to get everything totally its way all of the time or there will be an election - that idea has to go. It is wrong, and nothing more than the dream of a control freak. The rule should be that if a government loses a vote on some law or other, then back to the drawing board. It is not as if we have such a shortage of laws that we need a new one this week.
What about the budget, that holiest of the holy "confidence" votes? Tougher, because it is too easy to reach agreement just by spending more (of our) money. The government must remain responsible in a "confidence" sense for taxation and total (not detailed) spending. Beyond that, negotiate it out. Other countries do. All that is required is a "status quo" rule to keep ordinary payments and taxes flowing until the new deal is done.
If the delay gets too outrageous, have an election. Politicians hate elections so much that we won't have too many. The current government has done a good thing in announcing its plan to put the electoral cycle on a routine four-year basis, except if a government falls. Now define this as only by loss under the above budget rule or a specific vote of "no confidence."
Parties themselves will have to get used to the idea of accommodating others. It is not unusual in the rest of the world for parties to even signal in advance how they might get together after an election, and on what terms.
The net result tends to be less "policy lurch" (i.e. major overnight shifts) than we suffer in Canada. Instead, there are gradual adjustments in response to the realities of the economy, social conditions and public sentiment, as party standings shift at the margins in each election.
As and when we do go down this road, we might as well get rid of our current primitive electoral system, whose only pretended virtue is that it produces majority governments. If the work of the citizens' assemblies - first in British Columbia and now in Ontario - leads to new systems that better reflect the diverse views of Canadians, let's examine this at the federal level as well.
The new reality is clearly going to be tested this spring, not because any of the parties like it, but from practical necessity. Both Stephen Harper and Jack Layton, each for his own reasons, would rather not have an election for a while. Jointly they can keep this Parliament in operation for years, if they wish.
They will wish. Each has now looked into the abyss of an election held on the environment.
Mr. Harper would be seriously challenged by the Liberals on this topic, and Mr. Layton would lose major votes to the Greens. It is in their mutual interest to work out a win-win on this one, or they each risk much.
Cynical? Yes. But if a good result (i.e. the beginning of a new pattern of parliamentary co-operation) comes from questionable motives, it is still good manners to say, "hooray."

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