I suppose it was a tactical error for Michael Ignatieff to describe the way the parliamentary system works in his interview today with CBC’s Peter Mansbridge.
You might imagine it wouldn’t be all that risky to display a rudimentary understanding of the conventions of the House of Commons, as inherited by Canada from Britain. But there you’d be wrong. This will be treated as big campaign news, and the Conservatives are naturally all over it.
What exactly were the dangerous words that Ignatieff dared utter? Well, if Stephen Harper wins with a minority, but can’t gain the required confidence of the House, and the governor general calls next on the Liberal leader to try to form a government, then Ignatieff said he would “talk to Mr. Layton, or Mr. Duceppe, or even Mr. Harper, and say, ‘We have an issue, and here’s the plan that I want to put before Parliament, this is the budget I would bring in,’ and then we take it from there.”
That’s it. In a better world, this bland description of the possibilities in an unstable minority situation might be useful in a rigorous high school civics class. In this one, it will be useful to the Conservatives.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with Harper arguing that Liberal government of any description would be a terrible thing, in particular one propped up by the NDP or the Bloc or both. But it’s a disservice to democracy to suggest there’s something nefarious in what is merely one of the outcomes allowed by convention if an election doesn’t reward any party with a majority.
It’s true that what Ignatieff described to Mansbridge isn’t the usual thing. Canada has little experience with any party governing other than the one with the most seats. The key example would be the 1985-87 Ontario Liberal government of David Peterson, which was supported by the Bob Rae’s NDP under the terms of an accord.
I don’t recall anyone seriously claiming that was a constitutional travesty. For a more recent case study, you can’t beat the creation just last year of Britain’s coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Harper has been widely quoted on his observation that this showed that “winners are the ones who form governments.”
But that’s only how it happened to work out, with the first-place Tories cutting a deal with the third-place Lib-Dems. It might well have gone the other way, with second-place Labor leading the coalition. In fact, that’s what David Cameron believed would transpire on the very evening before he became prime minister.
“It’s not going to happen,” Cameron told his wife that dark night. “I’m going to be leader of the opposition. I’m depressed that it hasn’t worked out as we wanted.” (This quote is from an engrossing BBC behind-the-scenes story on the formation of the coalition.)
It’s worth noting in the current Canadian context, though hardly for the first time, that the prospect of a second-place party running the show was not viewed in Britain as illegitimate. In fact, the BBC account has Cameron being praised for tactical “brilliance” for not asserting his right, as the leader of the party with the most seats, to form a government on the morning after the inconclusive election. Instead, he put a comprehensive plan on the table, courting the necessary Liberal Democrat backing, rather than trying to bluster his way into 10 Downing Street.
Lest we imagine that those Brits are just so damn sophisticated that they automatically handle these situations with a minimum of nonsense, I should mention that their 2010 election also stirred up anxiety surrounding minorities and coalitions. Nick Clegg, the Lib-Dem leader, felt the need to assert well before election day that the party with the most seats would have won a mandate to try to form a government. Clegg was trying to insulate himself from incessant campaign questions about how he might act if no party won a majority.
Sound familiar? Ignatieff tried to stop this issue from dominating the race he’s now running by asserting early on that the party with the most seats gets first crack at seeking to win the confidence of the House. And that seemed to have worked for him, at least up until today’s interview.